Words Vicky Hales-Dutton
Beautiful Kent – Garden of England, stepping-stone to Europe and a hair’s breadth from London. But what you might not know about your favourite county is that over the centuries it has earned itself a reputation for being exceedingly uppity!
Although the recent Brexit vote showed that Kent was, for once, in line with the rest of the UK (apart from good old Tunbridge Wells which alone voted ‘Remain’), history shows that the county has often gone its own way. Historian Professor Mark Stoyle has described it as “the most rebellious county after Cornwall”.
Everyone knows about Wat Tyler and The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 or Thomas Wyatt’s ill-fated uprising against Bloody Mary. But other examples of Kent getting stroppy are less well known. Did you know that Maidstone was the nerve-centre of the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III or that Ashford’s ducks were the cause of protests by angry farmers during the Tithe Wars of the 1930s?
So why is Kent always revolting?
Apparently there is no individual reason. “It’s very complex,” says Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh of Canterbury Christ Church University, who believes it has a lot to do with the county’s strong sense of regional identity including ‘gavelkind’, an ancient system of land tenure giving people rights over the land.
“Highly unusual and chiefly associated with Kent, gavelkind allowed for land to be inherited equally among sons (or daughters if no sons) and could be sold,” she explains. As a result of this freehold rather than servile tenure, many of Kent’s peasants had far greater freedom of action compared with others elsewhere.
After the Black Death decimated the population in 1348 land was more plentiful and wages rose. This didn’t last, though – measures fixing wages and curbing their movement angered peasants and contributed towards the grievances of 1381.
Geography is also important. During the Middle Ages Britain was frequently at war with France, with Kent at the frontline of hostilities. In the early Middle Ages the Kentish Cinque Head Ports of Dover, Sandwich, Romney and Hythe were important to Britain’s defences. They supplied ships and seamen in return for valuable privileges from the Crown, fostering a strong sense of civic identity. Men from the Ports were involved in the Peasants’ Revolt and several rebellions: in 1450 (Jack Cade), in 1471 (Fauconberg) and in 1483 (Buckingham).
Road to rebellion?
As a main highway, Kent experienced a continual movement of people and goods between London and Europe. Some of the county’s trade was illegal. The smuggling of Kentish wool across the Channel began in 1200 but acts of piracy were more important as far as the Crown was concerned.
Merchants and pilgrims also brought in news, gossip and ideas. Some parts of Kent sympathised with Lollardy, a ‘subversive’ political and religious movement following the ideas of 14th century academic John Wyclif. Later the county welcomed Protestants fleeing persecution in Europe.
Kent has always been a politically aware county, near to the seat of government and with a strong sense of its own identity. Add to that a Continental influence and a desire to make life better and one begins to understand better the reasons for Kent’s independent attitude over the centuries.
“It’s a mindset,” says Dr Sweetinburgh. “People make up their own minds and express themselves through religious and social protest.”
Kent’s major acts of defiance
- Peasants’ Revolt (1381)
England’s first popular uprising began in Essex against a war tax. Disaffection spread to Kent and Maidstone’s Wat Tyler led a group of peasants (and disgruntled nobles) to London where they demanded economic and social reform. After meeting with King Richard II Tyler was killed and the revolt died with him. There were executions but the tax was revoked for good.
- Jack Cade (1450)
Taking the title of ‘Captain of Kent’ this mysterious 20-year-old published a manifesto denouncing corruption, debt, war and the loss of Normandy. He marched to London with 5,000 men – a sundry mix of peasants, shopkeepers, landowners and MPs from Canterbury, Faversham and the Isle of Sheppey. After behaving badly the rebels were repelled by the citizens of London. Cade was captured but died on his way to trial.
- The Protestant Martyrs and Wyatt’s Rebellion (1554)
After becoming queen in 1553, Mary I returned England to Catholicism after her father Henry VIII’s break with Rome. She arranged a marriage with Philip of Spain and persecuted Protestants for heresy, burning 283 people at the stake. Kent’s victims included Dartford linen-weaver Christopher Waid and bricklayer Nicholas Hall, as well as Pembury widow Margery Polley. They all died in 1555, followed later by miller William Allin and six others near Maidstone. Mary’s marriage was unpopular, even among such staunch Catholics as Kentish nobleman and MP Sir Thomas Wyatt. He raised a 4,000-strong army from Kent as part of a doomed conspiracy to put Princess Elizabeth on the throne. The plot failed and Wyatt was executed.
- The Maidstone Royalists (1648)
Like many counties, Kent was a fierce battleground during the Civil War. When Parliament banned Christmas celebrations riots broke out in London and Canterbury. Calling for reinstatement of the King, the Royalists occupied Canterbury, Dover and Maidstone in 1648. The Earl of Norwich and 3,000 men fiercely defended Maidstone against the superior, and ultimately victorious, Parliamentarian army.
- The Kentish Tithe Wars (1930s)
Peasants had paid Church tithes – one-tenth contribution of their money, goods or crops – since AD855. Farmers were still paying in the 1930s, which proved particularly ruinous because of The Depression. The Church authorities auctioned off stock or implements from those unable to pay. Sales were frequently disrupted – in 1935 farmers caused disturbances at an auction of seized cattle in the Romney Marsh village of Newchurch. Other tithe protest hotspots included Sandwich, Dover and the Weald.
Photograph from Shutterstock