Enjoy one of my research articles…. Special thanks to the current Members of Minster Priory and The Trust for Thanet Archaeology who assisted me with the research 🙂
Sigaburga …. In her time the Danes began their depredations in Thanet, and frequently plundered the nuns, and wasted their possessions. This conduct was occasionally continued during two centuries; but at length they entirely destroyed the monastery with fire, together with all the nuns, the clergy, and many of the people, who had fled hither for sanctuary (Brayley & Britton 1808: 988).
Minster-in-Thanet is a small village which lies at the south-western edge of the Isle of Thanet, in Kent. This quiet country spot has seen some of the worst attacks on English soil through the ages, and its history is stained with the blood of many innocent people.
The Isle of Thanet used to be detached from Kent by the Wantsume Channel, a watercourse which stretched from Reculver in the north to Ebbs Fleet at the southern end. During the early medieval period the Wantsume was approximately two miles wide and crossed with the use of small craft. The waterway was used as a short cut through to the Thames and London, as well as giving access by sea to Canterbury.
The Isle of Thanet has a history stretching back to prehistoric times, with ‘white flint, shaped and cut in the form of a broad chisel’ (Hasted 1801: 299) being uncovered, as well as a ‘Bronze Age looped and socketed axe’ (Boast 2010: n.p.). Numerous Roman, Iron Age and pre-conquest coins have been uncovered and include a total of 56 Iron Age coins were found just east of Sandwich, and a further 43 located at Ebbs Fleet. The Ebbs Fleet collection is recorded as being ‘the highest percentage of Kentish Primary potins for any site in Kent’ (Holman 2005: 17) perhaps demonstrating the importance of the area during the Iron Age period as ‘this very location would have made it a major strategic hub for the exchange of ideas and goods with continental Europe’ (Holman 2005: 43); there remains evidence of a possible Iron Age settlement north of the Abbey (Boast 2002: 2). The Romans are known to have used the area with Richborough sitting at the southern edge of the Wantsume Channel.
North of the Abbey site the remains of a Roman villa have been uncovered ‘dating from the first and second centuries with later alterations and robbing of building materials in the third and fourth centuries’ (Ransom 2005: n.p.). Roman coins have been found in the area and include those of Lucius Aurelius Verus (AD 1261-169) (Hunter 1796: 78), Domitian (AD 81-96) and the Emperor Constantine (AD 324-337) (Brayley 1817: 20).
The Saxon mercenaries Hengist and Horsa landed at Ebbs Fleet around AD 449 at the request of King Vortigern, to assist him in fighting the Picts and Scots (Hasted 1801: 230). For their troubles, Hengist and Horsa were granted the Isle of Thanet. Their legacy lives on – Thanet has a unique law, not known or practised anywhere else in Britain, that of the law of Intestacy
The custom of gavelkind. The right of a widow or widower, the freedom of escheat for felony and the infants right to ‘aliene by feoffment’ at the age of fifteen years (Shore 1906: 182).
Thanet is also associated with the spread of Christianity for St. Augustine first set foot on British soil here, in AD 596, when Pope Gregory sent him to England to convert the island to Christianity (Brayley 1817: 15), the site is now marked by a Cross.
Minster Abbey had unusual beginnings, passed down the ages through legend and oral history told by past monks, (Spelman & Stomford 1853: 164) who state that the Abbey was built upon lands which were acquired by Domneva, a princess from Kent, in retribution for the murder of her two brothers, under the care and protection of their father’s friend, following the King’s death. Domneva was granted as much land, in Thanet that her tame deer could ‘run over in one course’ (Timbs 1870: 283). The deer managed to ‘run from Westgate to the opposite shore, was 48 plough lands, in length and breadth’ (Seymour 1783: 576), and it was on the southern aspect of the island that Domneva chose to build an Abbey which she then dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Domneva was the daughter of Ermenred, King of Kent, and had married Merwood, ‘the son of Penda, King of Mercia’ (Tims 1870: 282), making her a very powerful woman in her own right. Marrying into the mighty Mercian kingdom she thus bought more land and authority by owning Thanet, the quickest and easiest route across the channel to London, avoiding the Goodwin Sands. Grants of land through charters meant that the Mercian kings could ‘insert their own men within, and assert their own authority over, the kingdoms that bordered their own’ (Oosthuizen 2007: 165), therefore controlling more land in the kingdoms of others.
Women setting up monastic communities were not unusual in the early medieval period. Just under ‘300 foundations were established for women’ (Schulenburg 1989: 265) for the period AD 500 – 1099, and although there is a lack of information surrounding this period, the number may be greater. The social status of these women showed them to be of wealth and means; some were childless and had no one to pass their wealth onto, others were married or widowed, yet all made agreements with the church for ‘the promise of relief for the soul’ (Crick 1999: 401), whether for themselves, or other family members. The church knew the importance of recruiting the labour and means from women of wealth for they were viewed as ‘domestic proselytizers (in the conversion of their families to Christianity)’ (Schulenburg 1989: 270).
Young girls were often sent to France for their education in monastic life, as was the case with St. Mildred, Domniva’s daughter. St. Mildred took over the Abbey when Domniva passed away, c. 690, and it has been shown that
As part of the general strategy to maintain control over their proprietary foundations, the founders installed family members as abbesses, guardians or advocates of the monasteries and required that in the future these positions be held by their heirs (Schulenburg 1989: 272).
This would ensure that the lands and property remained in the family of those who had founded it – or so they thought at the time. History, however, had other plans for Minster, and they were none too pleasant. Scant records remain of this period, except for the writing of some monks, including the Venerable Bede.
What we do know about Minster is that it was completed in around AD 680 and ‘consecrated by Archbishop Theodore, in the honour of the Virgin Mary…. endowed it for seventy nuns with the lands granted for the purpose’ (Timbs 1870: 283). When Domneva passed away, c.AD 690 (Minster Abbey 2007: n.p.) the abbey passed to one of her daughters, Mildred. Mildred had been in France learning about Christian life, and upon her return, she stepped onto a rock at Ebbs Fleet, since known as St. Mildred’s rock, which bears the imprint of her foot (Brayley 1817: 15).
Daughters’ following mothers into Abbess roles was common in early medieval England. This enabled descendants to hold onto family lands and property. Far from being viewed as a dangerous occupation in times when raids from the continent were increasing, a woman’s position within a monastery or abbey was a way of demonstrating her strength.
Juliana is an old legend based upon an Anglo-Saxon poem believed to have been written to inspire Anglo-Saxon women to devote their lives to Christ (Horner 1994: 659). Juliana is betrothed to a man but decides instead to give herself to Christ, much to the anger of her father and man she was supposed to marry. Eventually she is ‘repeatedly tortured, imprisoned and finally beheaded. Juliana survives the torture miraculously unharmed but ultimately chooses death over losing her virginity’ (Horner 1994: 659). The legend gave strength to women to protect themselves against the desires of others, to lead a Christian life, and to devote themselves to God,
It functions at once on a physical, spatial level and on a spiritual one: the woman is closed off, enclosed; she must maintain her body as an impenetrable fortress against evil intrusions (Horner 1994: 660).
With the positioning of Minster-in-Thanet, a legend like Juliana would be viewed as an inspiration for the nuns. The Abbey ‘was first raided in the mid-eighth century’ (Horner 1994: 670), and later in the ninth century.
The Abbess during the eighth century was Edburga, daughter of King Ethelbert of Kent. With the Abbey having expanded due to the miraculous work of St. Mildred, Edburga built a ‘new, larger, and more stately temple with convenient offices and dwellings’ (Timbs 1870: 284). Archbishop Cuthbert consecrated the new church which was dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul around AD 750. The building was in the usual cruciform shape, had a square tower situated at the west end measuring 20ft, and standing 50ft high. Roman tiles were used in the building, showing that some Roman structures must have remained in the area (Bubb 1862: 82). The body of St. Mildred was relocated here, possibly as a means to secure pilgrimage to the new site, as was common then.
Silethrida, the next Abbess was to see much destruction during her time, ‘there can be no question that monastic life in England was seriously disrupted during the eighth and ninth centuries’ (Fleming 1985: 247). The situation and topography of Minster made it an easy target for the bloodthirsty Vikings, and the nuns were easy prey.
They continued their ravages throughout this island almost every year; hence by degrees, this monastery fell into decay, and the nuns decreased in number, being vexed with grief and worn down with poverty, by the continued insults of these merciless pirates (British History Online 2013; n.p.).
Remembering the story of Juliana, many nuns may have stayed to show their strength, solidarity and above all, their faith that they would be safe; yet their prayers were unanswered. Not happy with the constant insults upon the island, the Vikings eventually, in AD 978 or 988, totally destroyed the site. Writers may dispute the year but the results were devastating for the nuns and those they sought to protect.
[They] Destroyed this monastery by fire…. which the clergy and many of the people were shut up, having fled there for sanctuary…. together with the nuns all burnt to death (Hasted 1801: 272).
There are scant references applying to Minster Abbey itself, but the destruction wrought on other similar sites paints a story of blood, rape, murder and pillage, ‘no direct evidence attests to the destruction of vulnerable coastal monasteries such as Dover and Minster-in-Thanet, both disappear from the records….’ (Fleming 1985: 249).
The remnants of the monastery may have attracted a few survivors for in 1009 the Viking Turkill landed in Thanet, followed by a large number of his fellow countrymen, who then headed inland. In ‘1011 the Danes returned; this time they took the abbess hostage, after which the community disappeared’ (Schulenburg 1989: 276).
The Abbey grounds, and the land held by the nuns, then fell to the king, Ethelred II. After a short period of abdication in favour of King Sweyn between 1013 and 1014, he held the lands and there is no known recorded mention of them during this time. Cnute came to the English throne in 1016 (Weir 1996: 22, 29) and granted ‘the body of St. Mildred, with all the possessions of the monastery she had founded’ (Seymour 1783: 579) to Abbot Elstan of St. Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury. The monks who had gone to collect the remains were so fearful of retribution from the people of Thanet that they went under cover of night, broke open the tomb, bundled all the relics in a sack and escaped as quick as they could back to Canterbury. The people of Thanet realised what had happened and tried to pursue them, but could get no further than the Wantsume Channel, for the monks had taken the only available boat to cross the water (Timbs 1870: 284-285).
The Domesday Book entry from 1086 shows that the Island of Thanet was still in possession of St. Augustine’s Abbey, with the Minster Abbey lands being held by monks, ‘The church of St. Peter and St. Paul was rebuilt, as was the old church of St. Mary the Virgin which now served as the Parish Church’ (Minster Abbey 2007: n.p.). The tenth and eleventh centuries saw large changes in the face of Christianity in Britain. The constant raids on British shores left Abbeys and convents run by women mostly abandoned, or set up within town banks and ditches, for security, and they were ‘generally founded as ‘secondary foundations’ or priories, rather than as independent’ (Schulenburg 1989: 270). Abbeys and nunneries also changed their role to suit the times with many seen as places where wealthy woman, widows and those in need of shelter from unwanted marriage partners, could find solace, live out their days, or donate their wealth in order to have their souls looked after through ‘perpetual prayers’ (Schulenburg 1989: 272). In order to survive, and grow, the Church made moves to ensure that monasteries and Abbeys were the chief seats of males, with females being pushed further into the background with ‘clear priorities and direction of the reformers in their reestablishment of monastic life. Providing new opportunities for women was no longer a primary concern’ and many families now viewed women in a different role, being ‘more valuable for political purposes, territorial consolidation, and marriage alliances’ (Schulenburg 1989: 281).
In 1104 Henry I granted an annual market to the Abbey, ‘with all customs, forfeitures, and pleas’ (Hasted 1801: 273) and in 1124 the sacristie of the church at Minster was assigned to St. Augustine’s Abbey, under Abbott Hugo II by William Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury (Seymour 1783: 579).
The year 1215 saw the Barons revolting against King John. It was a turbulent time, and is now more commonly known as the first Baron’s War; and Minster played its part in the events. Having signed a document, the precursor to the Magna Carta at Runnymeade in July, both sides remained armed and the Church also had its say, ‘the papacy had excommunicated thirty of the rebellious barons’ (Daniell 2003:51) believing the document to be illegal as it was signed under duress.
The war flared up again and the Barons invited Louis, the Dauphin from France, future King Louis VIII, to assist them (Daniell 2003:51). The Dauphin landed at Minster, rested his army, and then made his way to Sandwich, where he met with the Barons (Brayley 1817: 16). Once again, Minster played a role in the events that shaped British history.
Free warren was granted to Minster Abbey by Henry III in 1270, exempting the monks from killing game within the area, and this was then confirmed by Edward II in 1313. In 1310
Thomas Fyndon, Abbot of St. Augustine’s made, of his own authority, a particular deanery of the churches of Minster, St. John, St. Peter, St. Lawrence, Stonar, Chislet, Swale Cliff, and Westbeare, of which the monks were patrons, and ordered that, for the future, it should be called the deanery of Minster (Seymour 1783: 582).
The above demonstrates the extent in which monks then acted to secure places and property to add to those they already had, thus making their Abbeys more prosperous, and thus, able to attract more pilgrims, resulting in larger incomes.
Edward III granted Minster Abbey free from Homage in 1333 and in 1363 confirmed all past grants, charters and gifts (Hasted 1801: 274); they also had a weekly market, frank pledge and were entitled to salvage and to recover ‘wreck of the sea’ (British History Online 2013: n.p.); thus giving even more power to the already mighty St. Augustin’s Abbey. However, not everyone was happy with the way events were being conducted.
Around 1441 the Abbot and monks of Minster Abbey found themselves on the wrong side of their tenants through distress. So the tenants took up arms against them,
For the space of five weeks, having got them the greater number of people, who coming armed with bows and arrows, swords and staves, to the court of this manor and that of Salmanstone, belonging likewise to the abbot, laid siege to them, and after several attacks set fire to the gates of them…. setting fire to the houses destroyed the abbot’s ploughs and husbandry utensils, which were in the fields; and cut down and carried away the trees on both these manors (Hasted 1801: 274).
The abbot did not take the matter up with the king as he had been guilty of abuse to his tenants, but he did have the ringleader fined six hundred pounds and locked in Canterbury jail until it was paid. From that point onwards the tenants had to ‘pay compositions for every acre of the land called Cornegavel and Pennygavel land’ (Hasted 1801: 275).
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Minster Manor went to the Crown and stayed with them until c.1612 when James I granted it to Sir Philip Cary, William Pitt Esq., and John Williams (Minster Abbey 2007: n.p.). After this it passed through marriage to Colonel Conyngham. In 1668 John Williams died and was buried in the Temple Church, London.
Part of the estate included a large tithe barn measuring 352ft long by 47 foot wide and the walls standing to 12ft high, with the ‘roof made of chestnut’ (British History Online 2013: n.p.) which mostly burnt down in 1700. A new house had been built on the site and was called Minster Court. The remains of the chapel built by St. Eadburgha lay to the south of the house and human remains have been uncovered there in past centuries.
In 1937 the remains of the Abbey were purchased by the Benedictine Nuns from St. Walburga’s Abbey, Bavaria, who converted it back into a monastic house (Minster Abbey 2007: n.p.). The nuns were determined to restore the Abbey to its original purpose and in 1953 a relic of St. Mildred was returned. In 1970 the Abbey saw the 1300th anniversary of its foundation.
Having seen so much destruction in its past, the future was no safe guard to protect it from tragedy and in 1987 two events gave the inhabitants a taste of what their predecessors had faced. The chapel was mostly destroyed by a fire and a bad hurricane ripped through the village – both having heartbreaking effects upon the occupants. However, like their predecessors, the nuns recovered from these events and between 1989 and 1993 a new chapel was built, and in 1996 the site became independent.
Excavations were carried out on the site in 1929/1930 (Knowles & Hadcock 1953: 275) and the remains of ‘a demolished Norman church which formed the southern range of the main courtyard’ were uncovered. The Abbey buildings are Listed Grade I with the remains of standing portions dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Some alterations were had been undertaken in 1413, and the seventeenth and twentieth centuries (Pastscape 2013: n.p.), which can be seen in the fabric of the building.
Archaeological evidence from the site gives us an added window into the past, albeit a very small one, but one which we can learn from and add to its history. A drainage ditch was uncovered in 2002 when a request was submitted for an extension to the gatehouse. This was given an approximate date of the thirteenth century (Boast 2002: 5). With the site being located on what would then have started to become more a marshy area rather than the channel it was once known as, drainage ditches would have been a necessity.
During a 2010 Archaeological Watching Brief at the site ‘the right angled remnant of wall foundations of rammed chalk’ was uncovered (Boast 2010: n.p.) made from local materials. The find was unique in that no remains were expected to be at the location in which they were found, and also they were in a different orientation to those of the other buildings of the site. This opens up more questions relating to the history of the Abbey and what the function of the building may have been, especially due to its orientation.
It is clear that St. Mildred’s Abbey is a site that has more history to it than is known and understood. Archaeological investigations at the site have provided more questions which can only be answered through more excavations and research into the finds and results. The site is a unique place, where saints have lived, loved and died – some even murdered. Anyone who calls Minster a sleepy little village is ignorant of its turbulent past and the characters that make it one of the most intriguing places in East Kent.
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