Anglo-Saxon Lyminge – why the village is so significant

Lyminge from south west

Lyminge from the south west

Lyminge nestles in a fold of ground on the North Downs of Kent, at the southern end of the Elham Valley.  It is a sheltered site, protected by the surrounding hills.  The natural spring that flows out of the chalk bluff beneath the ancient church is one of the two sources of the Nailbourne within the village.  The Nail Bourne flows north, joining the Little Stour near Littlebourne.  It flows into the Great Stour at Pluck’s Gutter and from there flows past Minster-in-Thanet to the sea near Sandwich.

To the south of Lyminge, a gap in the Downs provides a reasonably level route to the coast near Lympne.  The steep descent of the cliff brings you to West Hythe, the location of the Anglo-Saxon port of Sandtun which was part of the estates of Lyminge during the Anglo-Saxon period.  This was a port at the mouth of the River East Rother when much of Romney Marsh was  a lagoon.  This lagoon was protected from the open sea by a shingle bar that gave access to the open sea close to Sandtun.  Sandtun was quite literally a safe harbour, which is what made it so significant during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Sandtun is very close to the Roman fort of Portus Lemanis, or Port Lympne (pronounced “Limm”).  Limen or Leman seems to have been the original name for the River East Rother before the arrival of the Romans.  The possible connection between Lympne and Lyminge and the origin of the name Lyminge are discussed further here .

26 Aug Lympne general view

The remains of the Roman fort of Portus Lemanis at Lympne, with the medieval Lympne Castle on the skyline above

The first evidence of early Anglo-Saxon settlement in Lyminge was found in 1885 when the railway was being built.  Work on the cutting near Greenbanks revealed some pagan burials.  More burials were found in a separate cemetery off Canterbury Road in the 1950s.  However it was in the course of the University of Reading excavations at the end of Rectory Lane in 2010 that the first evidence of habitation from this period was found.  Dr Gabor Thomas who led this excavation has placed this first occupation from perhaps the 480s AD and it had certainly begun by the early 6th Century.  This was less than 100 years after the collapse of direct Roman rule.

In the context of this new “Anglo-Saxon” community at Lyminge, it is reasonable to ask what “Anglo-Saxon” actually means.  It might be thought that this is obvious, and these were people originating from parts of what is now Germany, from beyond the boundaries of what had once been the Roman Empire.  Yet it is difficult to be certain about this.  We cannot say even that all the people living or being buried in Lyminge at this early period were of Germanic descent since no one has yet performed analytical tests on the excavated skeletons in the cemeteries that might indicate where these people came from.  Some probably did originate from outside the area of the Roman Empire since the method of burial suggests they were not Christian and the Romans were officially Christian.  But this does not mean that all the people in early Lyminge came from beyond the Roman world or had recent ancestors that did.  You can read more about this difficult question here.

We can see that the first settlers in Lyminge were using pottery and metalwork in the style of the time that was heavily Germanic in influence.  We can see from their graves that they were not obviously Christian.  It used to be thought that towards the end of Roman rule in the 4th Century, and throughout the 5th Century, waves of sea-borne invaders from Germany and around the Baltic either wiped out the local population or forced people to flee westward.  However, this cataclysmic view of what happened in this period now appears unlikely.  Recent work on the DNA of local populations suggests that there was relatively little movement of new people into Britain at this time, though there were undoubtedly some new Germanic arrivals.  Significantly, there does not appear to have been a greater number of new people entering the gene pool at this time than at any time in the previous 1,500 years.  Movement of people over the whole of this period seems to have been remarkably constant.

This all points to there being some, but not a lot of change, some new arrivals but not in large numbers.  This suggests that there had been for many centuries a regular movement of people around the North Sea zone, since long before the Romans arrived.  Traders and  warrior adventurers may have regularly taken to the sea lanes to seek their fortune.  Some stayed and no doubt quite a few found wives, thus the local population was constantly augmented.  So when a war band of warriors arrived on the coast of Kent during the 400s AD, this may have simply been perpetuating a pattern that was long-established.  But what would have been different in this period was the impact a warrior band could have in the political vacuum that followed the end of direct Roman rule and the departure of much of the regular Roman army.  In this sub-Roman period, the word translated as ‘army’ could mean a war-band of as few as 30 men.  Such an ‘army’, well-armed and determined, may have found it quite easy to make an effective intervention and promote its leader to a position of power amongst the local aristocracy.

Moreover, it is quite credible that the perpetual movement of trade and people, including soldiers of fortune, around the North Sea zone for many centuries would have led to extensive kin groups over a wide area from Britain to the Baltic.  The Germanic troops employed by the Romans in Britain, and the so-called Anglo-Saxons who arrived in the years after the end of Roman rule, could well have been related to the local population in Kent.  Julius Caesar, writing about southern Britain around 55BC commented that the people of the area were Belgic, related to those living across the Channel in the area we now know as Flanders and the Netherlands.  It has been argued that the language spoken in this area was Germanic even before the Romans arrived.  It may not be insignificant that the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent maintained a name that derived from the Roman name Cantium, which itself seems to have derived from the name by which the area was known before the Romans arrived.  This all suggests continuity of people, institutions and political power, from before the Romans arrived to after they had left.

Throughout the 4th and 5th Centuries, we can see that the Roman market economy broke down and people ceased building in stone, making and selling wheel-thrown pottery, or using coins.  But the peasants in the fields probably continued much as they had always done.  And the people who owned those fields may not have changed either.  A war band of thirty warriors was never going to conquer an area like Kent.  But it is quite conceivable that a warlord commanding such a force, perhaps related to members of the local aristocracy and backed by some of them, would not have found it too difficult to stage a coup and assert control.  Such a change at the top would have had little impact below the level of the aristocracy.  This may have happened a number of times until one particular warrior managed to hang on to power for long enough to establish a dynasty.  This is admittedly not quite as dramatic a picture as a horde of ravaging pirates wiping out the local population.  But the increasing evidence for continuity, and a distinct lack of disruption does suggest that the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon was rather less dramatic than was once thought to be the case.

Against this background, the veneer of Roman material culture fell away over the course of the 5th Century and the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent took shape during the 6th Century.  By the end of that century, Æthelberht I was king.  He had married a Christian princess, daughter of Charibert I King of the Frankish Kingdom that was based on Paris.  Æthelberht was, according to the historian Bede writing a little over a hundred years later, regarded as Bretwalda or paramount king over all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  He was the greatest political power in England and intimately linked to the post-Roman culture of continental Europe.  England was no insignificant backwater at this time.  Æthelberht’s Kent was sufficiently important for Pope Gregory the Great to respond to Æthelberht’s request for him to send a mission from Rome to convert the kingdom to Christianity, the first mission of its kind.  Kent was intended to be a springboard for converting the rest of the English kingdoms.  But although Pope Gregory and the Frankish Kings were reaching out to Kent to draw it into a European cultural and political orbit, the traffic was not all one way.  The quality of metal work being produced in England at this time was as high or higher than anything being produced elsewhere in Western Europe.  6th Century Kent was producing goods of the very highest quality and when compared with Continental Europe, was by no means the poor relation.

The problem with understanding the level of material culture at any time is in identifying the features by which that culture is displayed.  In the Roman period, it is easy to identify villas with mosaic floors and bath suites and consider the society that produced them to be sophisticated.  Coinage, wheel-thrown pottery and the presence of written inscriptions are sufficient to support the idea that Roman society was civilised.  But these are all artefacts that do not decay.  If society puts its artistic efforts into textiles and timber that decay, and fine gold and silver-work that is usually too precious not to be recycled, you may be left with very little to indicate the artistic achievements of a society or to demonstrate how sophisticated it was.  That is why you have to be very careful how you view the culture of Anglo-Saxon Kent and how you evaluate its achievements.

There follow just a few examples of items created by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen in this period.  Items like these would have been used and worn by people in Lyminge.  It is not inconceivable that the Kingston Brooch, which was found in a burial only a few miles away may have actually been worn by a local aristocrat at a feast in one of the royal halls at Lyminge.

Kingston Brooch

The Kingston Brooch (© Liverpool City Museums)

Sutton Hoo belt buckle

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle (© British Museum) – the kind of bling worn by Anglo-Saxon kings like Æthelberht and Eadbald.  Objects like this would have been worn by the Kings of Kent when they were in Lyminge.

Staffordshire Hoard sword pyramids

Gold and garnet sword pyramids from the Staffordshire Hoard (© Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) – the role of these objects is not known for certain but they appear to have decorated the straps that were tied around swords in social situations to prevent them being drawn in anger

Sutton Hoo sword replica

Replica of the Sutton Hoo sword showing the highly sophisticated technique of pattern welding which created a strong, flexible and sharp blade.  The fabulously decorated gold sword fittings like the pommels below, which comprise much of the Staffordshire Hoard, had been torn off so were not intended for re-use; this suggests that the most important part of any sword was its blade and it was the blade that was re-used.  We know these sword blades had names and were highly prized.

Staffordshire Hoard sword pommels

Sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard (© Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).  Despite the exquisite workmanship, these sword fitting had clearly been torn off the swords they once adorned and replaced with new fittings.  It was the blade that really mattered to the warrior who bore it.

The sheer rarity of material surviving from the Anglo-Saxon period illustrates why Lyminge is so special.  The great halls uncovered by Gabor Thomas on Tayne Field in 2012-15 would in any event show that Lyminge was an important place during the 6th and 7th Centuries.  The historical records show that Lyminge was in fact a royal estate belonging to King Eadbald (ruled 616-40).  The archaeology amply demonstrates what this meant in material terms.  The massive amount of vessel glass recovered from the rubbish dump, possibly the largest collection of such glass from any site in the country, illustrates vividly that in Lyminge, being a royal estate meant a lot of drinking out of fine glassware.

Saxon glass vessel fragments from Lyminge

Fragments of glass vessels excavated at Lyminge (© University of Reading)


Claw beaker from the cemetery off Canterbury Road in Lyminge (© John Piddock).  The vast number of glass fragments found in the rubbish dump at Lyminge shows that vessels like these were being used and broken in large quantities

gaming piece Lyminge

Gaming piece from Lyminge (© University of Reading).  This is evidence of board games being played in the halls, alongside the eating and drinking

The gaming, feasting and drinking were taking place in great halls at Lyminge up to 90 feet long.  These were like the great hall Heorot, described in the early Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.

The first Hall 2012

The excavated remains of one of the royal feasting halls uncovered at Lyminge (© University of Reading)

tayne field c 650 conjectural reconstruction

Conjectural reconstruction of the royal estate centre at Lyminge c650 AD (© University of Reading)

If the intricate decoration and colour of their surviving art are anything to go by, the timber frame of the halls would have been richly carved and painted.  The walls may well have been hung with fine embroidered fabrics to add extra colour, but all of this has long-since rotted away.

Lindisfarne gospels carpet page

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (© British Library).  The rich ornament of this page suggests the type of decoration that might have been created in textiles or carving used to decorate royal halls like those at Lyminge 

There were several halls at Lyminge, some contemporary with each other and some comprising a sequence on more or less the same site.  The astounding feature of one of these was that it had a concrete floor.  This was building technology that was previously thought to have died with the Romans.  It is a very significant find and adds substantially to the great importance of the whole site.

Lyminge is special too for other finds made during the recent excavations.  The plough coulter found is the earliest evidence by some hundreds of years of the heavy plough that was necessary for cultivating the heavier soils of England outside the river valleys.  This transforms our understanding of how settlement may have spread across early mediaeval England.  In addition, Lyminge is very unusual in its continuity throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, and it has one of the most complete sequences of Anglo-Saxon pottery of any site in the country.

plough coulter Lyminge

The plough coulter from Lyminge (© University of Reading).  The coulter is the knife that cuts the ground , enabling the mouldboard of the plough to then lift and turn the sod

No one is suggesting that Lyminge was unique at the time.  There were undoubtedly many similar sites, demonstrating the wealth and sophistication of Anglo-Saxon Kent.  But Lyminge is unique in the unusual circumstances that have preserved so much from this very early period.  We are very fortunate that the centre of the royal estate was on land between the various historic farmsteads that eventually formed the village.  This site was never built on after the 7th Century and was grazed by sheep within living memory.

Tayne Field c1960

Tayne Field c1960, showing sheep grazing.  The royal feasting Halls were in the area to the right of the picture, close to the village pub the Coach and Horses – a pleasing juxtaposition of activities though separated by many centuries! 

We know from historical records that King Eadbald gave his estate at Lyminge to his sister Queen Æthelburh when she returned from Northumbria in around 633 or 634, following the death of her husband King Edwin in battle.  It seems probable that at the outset, Æthelburh would have lived in one of the royal halls.  But as a Christian, she would have wanted a church and it is quite probable that she chose for this the site of the present church.  Excavations from 2008-10 revealed solid evidence for a monastic community dating from at least the end of the 7th Century.  But because of the churchyard and the need to avoid intruding on graves, the archaeological work was restricted to the edge of the monastic precinct and it is by no means certain that the dateable material that was found identified the beginning of the community.

This brings us to the core archaeological component of the Pathways to the Past project.  This focused on excavating areas of the churchyard that are free of marked graves.  Excavations in the 19th Century revealed a masonry structure that was strikingly similar to the tiny number of very early churches discovered elsewhere in Southern England.  The re-excavation of this structure in 2019 as part of the project confirmed that on stylistic grounds, it is indeed a church built in the middle years of the 7th Century.  This means it could be the church that was built by Æthelburh herself, or it could have been built as a mortuary chapel for her body soon after she died.  A description of the 11th Century suggests that this structure contained Æthelburh’s tomb, and also the shrine of St Eadburh, whose remains were brought to Lyminge probably around 800 AD.

The excavation shed light on the development of this very early church and how it related to the current church which is itself around 1,000 years old.  It would seem that both structures stood side by side for a period of time, and graves dug into the 7th Century church from the early 13th Century indicate that it had been demolished and forgotten before this time.  If it was demolished soon after the relics of Queen Ethelburga and St Eadburh were removed in 1085, that would allow a period of a century or so for the church to have passed from local memory.

At Lyminge, we are very fortunate that a very unusual set of circumstances has combined to allow exceptional survival of the archaeology of the whole Anglo-Saxon period, beginning with the pagan cemeteries, extending through the royal estate centre on Tayne Field and ending with the monastery and a stone church that may have lasted until around 1100, shortly after the Norman Conquest.  This is a period when archaeological survival is very, very rare.  This makes Lyminge of exceptional importance.  We saw a decade of amazing discoveries undertaken by Gabor Thomas and his team from the University of Reading funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  The Pathways to the Past project took us beyond this to look at the masonry remains of what we believe is the first church in the village.  Like much of the archaeology in Lyminge, such sites are extremely rare.  The chance to re-examine this church was quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore such a site.  We are confident that this project has added substantially, not just to our understanding of how our village developed, but also to our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon Kent and the very earliest phase of the conversion of England to Christianity.  We are delighted to have discovered so much, and to have been able to create a rich legacy for people to explore.  Do come and see for yourself.