The North Kent region forms the southern landmass of the area defined by Williams and Brown (1999) as the Greater Thames Estuary. Its fringes are characterized by a maze of creeks and estuaries surrounded by shingle, salt-marsh and mudflats, alongside extensive tracts of drained and agriculturally improved land.
It’s location throughout much of the Holocene, on higher ground adjacent to extensive marshland, would ensure the availability of abundant natural resources, including fish, wild fowl, seasonal grazing and shell fish, especially oysters, as well as mineral resources such as salt and pottery-quality clays. These have all been exploited throughout the Prehistoric and Roman periods and intensively during the whole of the Medieval and Post-Medieval periods. Furthermore, the fertile soils on the higher ground would have been admirably suited to agriculture, and the region has been described as “one of the most easily and profitably farmed tracts of land in Britain”
The Thames Estuary has for millennia been a major route of communication and influence between Britain and the Continent. Its cultural importance, combined with its complex patterns of sedimentation and associated potential for preservation, has resulted in a rich and nationally important archaeological legacy formed from the Palaeolithic to the present-day. (Fulford, 1997; Williams and Brown 1999).
It was therefore usual for Saxon settlements to be concentrated in the more tractable soils of the coastal plains and river beds and the Thames estuary, being the ‘medieval motorway’ link to Denmark, Germany and the rest of northern Europe.
Although there has been much work carried out in various areas situated around the estuary very little has been concentrated upon Cliffe. Along the north Kent coast, the desk-top element of RCZAS added 1864 'new' monuments to the Kent HER . [G.T.R. F., 2010]
The settling of Angles, Saxon, Jutes and Frankish peoples in the formation of Kent is outlined in Saxon Kent so will not be repeated here.
Cliffe and the surrounding area had been a settlement for many years evidenced by the large number of ‘casual’ finds as well as the few archaeological studies carried out (mainly on the marshland area). There has also been some unintentional misrepresentation, based upon studies in the past that did not have the fortune of new findings, ease of archive research or more modern archaeological techniques, which are still unfortunately being presented today.
It must be remembered that Saxon influence in this country spanned about 1,000 years and that during this time the ‘lifestyle’ can be broken into three distinct periods: pagan (or pre-Christian), conversion and finally Christian. The wealth of written sources comes from the latter although the Saxon Chronicles do make an attempt at recording the previous periods. (Again see Saxon Kent)
Certainly the majority of information that is available stems from the Saxon Christian period thanks to the written recordings of the church and those in authority. It is unfortunate that, in the past, many historical artefacts have been lost or unrecorded due to the 19th Century industrialisation of the area that could have helped to build a more complete picture of early Cliffe.
All the available evidence show that the marshland still consisted of dry land and had done so for many hundreds of years: “Studies of the Thames estuary have indicated that sea-levels during the Roman period were up to 3m lower than at present (Devoy 1980), with transgression evident from the second century” [Cracknell 2005, 80]. What has been coastal saltmarsh in historic times was dry land during the Roman period – evidence for this is provided by the existence of a significant pottery industry in the Cliffe area. It has been suggested that a complete Roman landscape may survive beneath 1-2m of later accretion [Monaghan 1987, 28]. The absence of references to sea walls as boundary landmarks on Anglo-Saxon charters in the area has been taken as an indication that the marshlands were still farmland at this time, with charters of AD778 and AD779 referring to four blocks of fields near Redham Mead [Evans 1953].
Saxon Cliffe was probably made up of several settlements which may have included: Cliffe, West Cliffe, Burye Court, Hreodham, Mallingden , and others. At the end of the Saxon period there were two recorded manors indicated in the Domesday Book that the Norman overlords took procession of. Other Saxon manors and their lands still existed with some of the manorial lands finally being ‘sold off’ as recently as the late 1960’s!
From the charters we come across other named areas that as yet cannot be traced as to their exact location: on the ‘marsh’, just north of Cliffe, a charter makes reference to a marsh called "Scaga" that is adjacent to "Hreodham" the charters describe four land blocks at various places in this vicinity. [Sawer 35,36] and one dated AD801 is another land grant in this region naming "one sulung at Æthilwlfing lond , a fishery on the Thames called Fiscnæs (for Early Medieval fishing techniques please see our page on Medieval Fishing) , and swine-pastures in Cæstersæta walda. " [Sawyer 157]
Some of these ‘settlements’ may just have been mere farmsteads as explained in the introduction to The Manors of Cliffe, but with the arrival of Christianity, villagers began their migration towards the area of the church and so the modern day site of the village of Cliffe was born.
No Saxon history of Cliffe can escape the strongly held belief that Cliffe was once the area where the early Saxon Councils were held: the birthplace of the English parliament.
Shown below, from Kerslake’s excellent study of “The Vestiges of the Supremacy of Mercia in the South of England, During the Eighth Century” which looks at the evidence for the site of these Councils, together with the various place names associated with the Councils is the evidence to ponder.
In the charter, dated 738 AD, four years before the earliest recorded Cloveshoe Council, a piece of land is called "Andscohesham." This is certainly within the very Hoo district itself, which is the site of the Cloveshoe of the tradition; being described as "in region quae uocatur Hoh.” Preserved in Monasticon Anglicanum: a "De Stokes, antiquitus vocabatur Andscohesham;" and Stoke is now a parish in the Hoo, and close to Cliffe.
It is plain, however, that this broad alluvial margin, extending from the northern edge of the heights, which are the substantial constituents of the Hoo peninsula, already existed, A.D. 779, at least a very large extent of it; for the first charter, so dated, describes it as then " habentem quasi quinquaginta iugerum." In a later charter, AD789, the name of the projecting level appears as “Scaga." It must already have become land of value to be granted in these charters ; and its identity is certain from the limits — Yantlet ("Jaenlade") water to "Bromgeheg," now "Bromey," on the higher land at Cooling. The word "jugeru," used in the charter, indicate that this "marsh" was already cultivated or pasture land.
The place names of Caelchythe , Acleah, Heathfelth and Heruford associated with the early Saxon Councils also lend themselves towards believing that Cliffe was the most likely site. [Kerslake, Thomas, 1879]
“Little is known of Cliffe at this period, but it appears to have been a settlement of some importance - it is known to have been an early Jutish estate centre (Everitt 1986, 76), possibly linked or associated with Northfleet (Riddler 2004, 26), which later acquired a minster church, a large establishment similar in some ways to a monastic site and supporting a college of canons, priests who went out into the surrounding countryside to minister to the peasantry. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a number of synodal councils held by the Bishops of the Anglo-Saxon church in the period 716-825 at three places, Acleah, Caelhythe and Cloveshoh , generally identified as lying within Cliffe parish (Hasted 1797). The Hoo peninsula lay at the intersection between the kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex and East Anglia.
In the late 19th century, whilst the Hundred of Hoo railway line was being constructed, an Anglo-Saxon burial site was unearthed. By 1880 the only remains that had been preserved were a spear-head in iron; the bronze fittings of a belt; a circular piece of bronze with raised concentric circles, cut, (apparently from the bottom of a dish or patera) a middle brass coin of Nero, and a small brass of Maximian. A large quantity of bones were carted away; and with them, probably, other remains. Further investigations into tis area was carried out i the 1970's and the findings of the excavations may be found in the British Museum Occasional Paper (no. 69): Excavations at Cliffe, Kent.
Whether or not Cliffe was the location of Councils of Cleofs Hoas it was certainly accepted as being important in the early Christian Saxon period. Cliffe and the surrounding lands were held by Priory of Christ Church in Canterbury and, by royal charter, were extended in 791AD by King Offa to include Dunmalingdene and again 860AD by Queen Ediva, to include Oisterland.
In 1070, at the consecration of Archbishop Lanfranc, the lands of Cliffe were divided and redistributed with the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury retaining the Manors of Cliffe, Bury Court (Berrycourt), Cardons, Mortimers and Mallingdene (Molland and Dean Fee) whilst Oisterland (Osterland, Oysterland in Stoke), Priors-Hall, Hersing, East Marsh,Bishop's-Marsh, and others, he retained, as part of the revenues of the see of Canterbury, for the use of himself and his successors.
In the survey of church property known as Domesday Monarchorum, we are told that the revenue from the Manor of Cliffe was used by the monks for the purchase of material for clothing.
It was typical that in this time manors belonging to priories were often grouped according to geographical location for which one monk, known as a warden, was responsible. He made regular visits during which he advised on buying and selling and when crops were to be sown. The daily running of the manor, however, was not by a particular monk but lay person specially employed for the purpose known as a bailiff.
As yet there has been little recorded research into the Saxon presence at Cliffe with only a privately published work, of doubtful reliability according to today's archaeologists, in the 1970’s. However, there is still a wealth of ‘untapped’ evidence laying in wait in the archives of Lambeth Palace, Canterbury Cathedral and other depositories that may help to illustrate a clearer understanding of Cliffe in this period.