In the Spring of AD 597 Augustine and his combined party of forty monks and priests set sail from the Frankish port of Quentovic to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent. Their journey took them 22 miles due west to within perhaps a few hundred yards of the white cliffs and the site of a settlement that lay in the valley of the River Dour, sheltered from the prevailing south-westerly winds. A Roman lighthouse dominated the chalk cliffs. The boat turned northwards, keeping close to the shoreline for a dozen more miles, passing Julius Caesar’s landing-place in 54 BC. Then the line of cliffs that identified the Isle of Thanet broke into view.
At the beginning of Chapter 1 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede records that Richborough (Rutubi Portus, a fortified port) is the nearest haven for travellers from the continent. This is his only reference to the port, and it was Augustine’s most obvious destination.
St Bede writes:
“Over against the eastern districts of Kent there is a large island called Thanet … It is divided from the mainland by the River Wantsum, which is about three fulongs wide [660 yards, 168m], can be crossed in two places only, and joins the sea at either end. Here Augustine … landed with his companions, who are said to have been nearly forty in number… On hearing this the king ordered them to remain on the island where they had landed and be provided with all things necessary until he had decided what to do with them…
Their arrival on the shores of Kent was apparently unexpected. Ethelbert needed time to consult with his inner council, and also with his Christian queen. Augustine and his companions were not to proceed to Canterbury until the king and his men had come to mete with them. This is more significant than the exact location where the missionaries landed or stayed. However, from the point of view of undertaking a pilgrimage, an experience of ‘place’ can be as important as the story itself. Of all the possible alternative sites in the immediate area, none would seem to offer superior facilities for a party of 40 people than the former Roman fort.
In terms of geography, Richborough was one of the closest port to Quentovicus, a major trading emporium south of present-day Bologne, at Etaples.
In terms of resources to feed a large party, the area was (and still is) rich in sea-bass and shell-fish, grazing for livestock, and soil fertile for crops growing in a crescent stretching from the fort to the village of Ash to the south-west.
Politically, Richborough was the property of the king and one of the early Anglo-Saxon Royal Estates (Eastry). Like the fort at Reculver, and the walled city of Canterbury itself (both with royal halls), royal ownership made Richborough ideally suited to offer hospitality to the missionaries.
In terms of maritime security, the fort was vital as it guarded the southern entrance to the Wantsum channel, and Ethelbert would have maintained regular personal contact with Richborough and the ports further south. Given Richborough’s strategic position, it would be a key site for a permanent coastal lookout, guarded by local men and provided by the local gesith (ruler)for the king, who relied on food supplies that were locally sourced. The king and his warriors would be frequent visitors here, passing beneath the walls of the fort to reach Deal, Dover and Port Lymne further south.
Together these factors indicate the existence of a local community, and a small number of Anglo-Saxon burials discovered on the site supports the continuity of occupation since the Roman withdrawal of protection in AD 410. It would have been from this community that Ethelbert supplied the missionaries with hospitality while they awaited a meeting with the king and his nobles.
There is evidence at Richborough of trade-goods from this period, indicating that the site was still actively used. Added to these considerations, less than a century after Augustine’s arrival the fort was occupied by an Anglo-Saxon religious community whose chapel was dedicated to St Augustine, possibly in the C7th. The outline of the ruined chapel is clearly visible today, and it was still in use in the C17th. (A similar chapel was built at Reculver in AD 669 by abbot Basso.)
We can conclude that Augustine landed at Richborough and remained there until summoned to a meeting-place by the king. The association of Richborough as Augustine’s landing place is strong, and points to a local community that, with little if any break in continuity since the withdrawal of Roman protection from AD 410, engaged in local agriculture and fishing. It operated a port, a fort, a trading station. By the seventh century, a religious community existed here as well.
Buried beneath the grass and the fields that surround the fort is the outline of a road system and an amphitheatre that once served the Roman town around the fort. Watling Street, the first and longest Roman road in Britannia, begins here. It’s outline is still visible, stretching west towards London and beyond for hundreds of miles to Wales .
This too was Augustine’s entrance to his mission-field in Kent, but not via the Roman roads, that by now had become dangerous for travellers from bandits and wild woodland animals that roamed the forests. The Saxons largely ignored the roads, preferring the highways of sea and river as the quickest and safest means of travel. When Ethelbert’s summons came, it would be by boat.
From the northern side of the old fort, the Isle of Thanet and the now green and agricultural Wantsum channel can be clearly seen. The shingle bank that formed the spur of land from Thanet to Stonar, and present-day Pfizers, can be partially followed along Ebbsfleet Lane. Much of this area has recently been obscured by a new by-pass road between Thanet and Sandwich.
A combination of factors have made present-day access to Richborough Castle more complex – changes to the road system, the railway cutting, and the changing shape of the river as the former channel silts more and more, leaving the old fort beached some two miles inland from the present shoreline. The road to Richborough is through Sandwich, and it is evident where the island began as the narrow lane suddenly rises from the plain. The views from the top are magnificent, and the fort itself still a substantial and impressive ruin with some of the high walls still standing. Boat trips from Sandwich provide the feel of arrival by water, and a landing place and pathway bring travellers up to the fort, managed by English Heritage.
The main road from Dover to Sandwich continues north to Pegwell Bay, where suddenly the trees and scrub give way to a wide view of the sea. An attractive salt marsh runs from the road to the shoreline, and ahead to the north-east a magnificent view of West Cliff opens-up.
The cliffs brood over an ever-changing sea. When the tide is out, a wide expanse of brown mudflats and sparkling pools of water lies exposed, fringing the shore. A full-scale Viking warship with oars and shields, and donated by Denmark, dominates open parkland overlooking the sea. It stands as a reminder of a grim history of the harsher times that Kent has known.
The coming of the Saxons
In AD 449, at the time of the emperors Marcian and Valentinian, men of the Germanic tribe of Jutes led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, came to Britain in three warships. They came as mercenaries at the invitation of Vortigern, a British warlord. Sailing past the foot of these cliffs below, they beached their boats in an area of Thanet called Ebbsfleet, on possibly the first stretch of useful beaching shingle they encountered as they sailed round Thanet and entered Pegwell Bay at Cliffs End.
Why did Ethelbert need several days to decide what to do with Augustine? We can only speculate, but it would take at least a day or two to gather his senior men for counsel. The arrival of a large party of forty people had several implications – their support, their impact on the politics, religion and lifestyle of the Anglo-Saxons; the views of Queen Bertha, who had petitioned Frankish bishops for support nearly a decade before but without success. Who were these people? Where were they from? What were their intentions? Ethelbert needed time to weigh up these and many more factors with his wife and his inner council of advisors before he would be in a position to meet with Augustine.
Bede records that Ethelbert seems to have been concerned that they meet out doors because of a traditional superstition that, if they came practising magic, the missionaries might get the better of him.
Some days afterwards the king came to the island and, sitting in the open air, commanded Augustine and his comrades to thither to talk with him…. At the king’s command they sat down and preached the word of life to himself and his counts there present.
This sizeable spectacle of forty robed monks and priests, the strength of a typical war-band, could scarcely fail to impress as they ascended the beach. The party walked with stave in hand, but without weapons, armour or shields. They would have processed in pairs with the youngest bearing their standard, a silver cross; another bore an icon of Christ painted on a wooden panel. Then came Augustine himself in the full robes of a bishop with crook and mitre, all the while the missionaries chanting litanies and prayers to the Lord.
How did they manage a conversation, as Ethelbert spoke Anglo-Saxon and Augustine spoke Latin? Bede mentions (Book 1, chapter 25) that Augustine and his Roman companions had “acquired interpreters from the Frankish race according to the command of Pope St Gregory.” It seems that the Franks, sharing as they did a common Germanic ancestry, also spoke a dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Gregory had the foresight to realise (or perhaps Augustine had pointed this out to him) that no preaching would be possible unless the hearers could understand. Gregory’s response to the need for a latter-day ‘Pentecost of the Gentiles’ was to ask for Frankish priests who both spoke Latin and Old English.
There are clues to what he might have said in Bede’s account of Augustine’s initial message to Ethelbert:
Augustine sent to Ethelbert to say that he had come from Rome bearing the best of news, namely the sure and certain promise of eternal joys in heaven and an endless kingdom with the living and true God to those who received it.
Much of their conversation may have revolved around traditional pleasantries as to the journey, a mention that Augustine had made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Martin at Tours, comment on the support he had received en route, and not least how the Franks had prospered under Christianity, including the trade and other links they enjoyed with the Mediterranean world as a result.
Augustine’s missionary thrust, as his message to Ethelbert indicates, is overwhelmingly upbeat and affirmative. There is no condemnation of pagan traditions; rather, the certainty of spiritual reward for any one who received these promises from the Almighty is affirmed; an endless Kindgom is offered, with resonances of the royal mead-hall, and the eternal fellowship with God pointing to the fellowship enjoyed by the king’s subjects writ on a larger canvass.
The translation of Augustine’s words were heard by everyone present, so that the king’s response, regardless of what he might personally have thought at this stage, was careful and cautious:
‘The words and promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot consent to accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe to be true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching.”
The sense of relief at these words would have been enormous! After nine months or more of journey through difficult times and hostile circumstances, that which the monks had feared most, and that had taken Augustine back to Rome to petition the pope for more assistance, was now laid to rest: “We do not wish to do you harm – on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably…”
Bertha, Ethelbert’s Frankish queen from Tours, had herself prayed long and hard for this moment. Ethelbert could scarcely make a more appropriate response: reassuring, welcoming, generous, yet statesmanlike; and cautious, if only for the sake of his noblemen and the ancient beliefs that they shared.
Bede writes that the king made them an extremely generous grant:
He gave them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his dominions, and in accordance with his promise, he granted them provisions and did not refuse them freedom to preach.
Ethelbert had made up his mind. The missionaries would be based in Canterbury. A beachhead for the Anglo-Saxon mission had finally been achieved.
Discovery of a Roman-era Beach at Richborough
The Grave of Vortigern at Richborough?