Jutish Forest (ca 500AD-1350AD)

The Jutish Forest, by Ken Witney: synopsis of the main points relating to Leigh and Tonbridge

The book covers the period from the settlement of the Jutes in Kent towards the end of the 5th century to the middle of the 14th century. This is a synopsis of the main points relating to Leigh and Tonbridge.

The book covers the period from the settlement of the Jutes in Kent towards the end of the 5th century when the Weald was chiefly a primeval forest – mainly oak – where swine were fattened, to the middle of the 14th century when the pattern of the landscape we know today had been developed – wooded and enclosed countryside with hamlets and small independent holdings. There is much debate about the origins of the Jutes who settled Kent, the Isle of Wight and the coast of Hampshire, but their customs were markedly different from the Angles and Saxons who settled most of the rest of England. Ordinary freemen enjoyed greatly superior status; a complex and efficient system of administration divided Kent into separate lathes; inheritance laws provided for the equal division of property between all surviving sons (or daughters if there were no sons); and the practice of settling in scattered farms and hamlets rather than compact villages. Beautiful Kentish jewellery of the 6th century (which indicates strong links with the Continent, ie Frankish influence) has been found and there is also evidence of a considerable Romano-British survival in the area.

The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles” tell how the Jutes began invading in small groups, until the Britons hired Hengest to keep out other Saxon pirates. He eventually takes over the S.E. (d. 488) and the Jutish kingdom, known as Cantii, is established, with the high point of 522-612 with King Ethelbert, the first Christian king – baptized 579 – and his enormous codification of laws. At this time there were probably only three thousand free families, all of whom would have been known to the king. The kingdom was divided into districts running north – south from the Thames estuary down to the Weald forest. Each district (or Lathe) had some good Thames valley land for corn, some downland for cows, some Thames estuary marshes for sheep and, in the south (ie Leigh) some forest for wood and autumn grazing of pigs, called ‘dens’ – probably ½ mile square. The word ‘den’ in our area is clear from the names, Hollenden, Hilden, Haysden, Morden, etc. Leigh’s district capital was in Darenth and the Lathe was called Sutton-At-Hone.

The Jutes were in essence farmers rather than nobility which is why even by the Norman conquest, there were relatively few large towns and why, even today, one is seldom out of sight of a largish farm or manor, or a village/hamlet which would have been based on a large farm.

In the Jutish period, therefore, Leigh was almost certainly just a cluster of dens associated with manors such as Ramhurst and others in the Darenth valley, including Kemsing and Seal. The dens were linked to their respective manors in the same lathe by drove-roads which ran from approximately north/northeast to south/southwest. Down these drove-roads the pigs were sent to be fattened in the forest commons. Parts of Kent which have little in common now are linked by the ‘descendants’ of these old roads. The pattern of the three great Roman crossings needed dry, firm approaches and this dictated the crossing points, e.g. there may have been a Roman crossing at Chiddingstone, although there is no evidence of bridge building until the 9th century. Fords were the usual way to cross and in areas which flooded, such as at Leigh, droves developed parallel with the river linking one crossing with another, e.g. along the north bank of the Medway and Eden for about 5 miles between Leigh and Bough Beech. There were more ways in use than there have ever been since but, until metalled roads, there was a gradation not a separation between roads, footpaths and by-ways. They got wider, narrower, obstructed or cleared according to how much use they got.

By the time of the Domesday Book, Leigh was still a cluster of dens, sometimes still associated with manors in the Darenth Valley but by now mainly centred on Edenbridge.

In the 12th century there are few records, but pannage – the autumn fattening of pigs on acorns, etc – gave way to cultivation and the development of hamlets. Early churches in Kent were made of wood and this could well have been the case in Leigh, although there is no physical or written evidence of a Jutish church in Leigh. They were replaced by stone buildings between the early 13th century and the mid-14th century.

In the 13th century the records of the perambulations of the Lowy of Tonbridge, which covered an area within a five mile radius of Tonbridge, showed that the forest had been eaten away by numerous scattered settlements. These documents stem from a dispute between the Clares of Tonbridge and the Archbishop about whether places such as Moorden, Charcott, Wickhurst and Dorkinhole were part of the borgh of Hilden inside the Lowy, or part of the borgh of Cranstead in the Hundred of Somerden. The collection of tithings – fines and confiscation of goods – was a profitable business so it was important to both the Clares and the Archbishop to establish boundaries.

The Plea Rolls, Hundred Rolls and list of holders of Knights’ fees in 1264 name between them nearly all the present villages in Kent. They were trading rather than agricultural communities, which gravitated to the churches. The siting of the churches had been related to the droves, frequently being built at river crossings, as at Leigh – and also Tonbridge and Edenbridge. Churches were not only centres of religion, but also of community life for secular occasions and feasts. The royal grant of market privileges led villages to grow, e.g. Tonbridge had three markets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tonbridge’s importance was centred on the river crossing of the main route from London to Hastings and later to Rye and Winchelsea and its importance and economy rose and fell according to the fortunes of the Cinque Ports. It was at its height at the end of the 13th century when it was one of the few places in Kent to send burgesses to Parliament. From the 14th century onwards its importance declined as Winchelsea’s did and it suffered because it had no good links with Rochester and Maidstone.

After the Conquest there are few references to old forest customs. Pannage and its curious customs had given way to agriculture and the connections between the dens and their manors were progressively severed. Subordinate manors were formed within the Weald and came into the hands of feudal magnates, e.g. the Clares at Tonbridge. This changed the history of the Weald. Previously dens had been far outposts of the northern manors and remote from authority. Now there was a powerful feudal presence in the heart of the forest. In 1259 it is recorded that the Clares owed four knights and the duty to act as chief butlers at the Archbishops enthronements in Canterbury in payment for the Lowy lands owned by him. Originally Jutish freemen had a compact holding around their homestead, but gavelkind led to scattered fragments of varying size and shape and individual husbandmen might own several. Gradually the homesteads became hamlets. Each farm could use the land as they liked – for orchards, crops or animals – and inequalities grew. Some amassed land by purchase, consolidation or enclosure. Others took up a craft or sold their services and so a very varied society developed. Not so much unpaid work was required in Kent as in the rest of the country and so monetary rents as well as heriot, or rents in kind, became common. The manorial system had developed in England before the Conquest, but was less prevalent in the Weald. Densmen were manorial tenants, but the land was too poor to allow them to pay rent in kind and they were too far from the manors to perform conventional services on the Lord’s upland estates. They paid special payments and gave lef-yeld or woodland services. Population growth made woodland rights valuable as the demand for timber, firewood and charcoal grew from London and the continent. The price trebled between 1260 and 1348, but transport was difficult and expensive. The disposal of timber rights began within a few years of the Black Death and the 14th century saw the banishment of herds from the forest which brought to an end the period of history which had begun with the foundation of the Jutish kingdom of Kent.

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