The closeness of Romney Marsh to the continent, its flat shores and hinterland and easily accessible beaches, has meant that the Marsh has been in the front line whenever invasion has threatened, particularly from across the English Channel. Invaders from the Romans legions, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the French all tried.
On a clear day, you can actually see the hazy outline of the French coast from the beaches of Romney Marsh, so it’s no surprise that this iconic stretch of the Kent coastline has been the site of conflict for millennia.
The beaches at Dymchurch, Greatstone, and Dungeness are just 29 miles away from the French Coast (Cap Gris-Nez), just about 4 hours sailing time. London is twice as far, being over 60 miles away.
France as seen from Greatstone Beach ►
The Romney Marsh covers an area of about 100 square miles and its coastline extends south from Hythe round Dungeness Point, some 20 miles of flat and easy accessible coastline.
The closeness of Romney Marsh to the continent, its flat shores and hinterland and easy accessible beaches, has meant that the Marsh has been in the front line whenever invasion has threatened, particularly from across the English Channel.
Indeed, invaders from Julius Caesar’s Roman legions, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and Napoleon’s warships to First World War bombers and Hitler’s planned invasion in 1940, all tried with some succeeding.
Over hundreds of years, given this vulnerability to invasion, many forms of defending Romney Marsh, and thus the rest of Britain, were put in place. Many of these remain today on the Marsh.
The Roman legions abandoned Britain in the early fifth century. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Vortigern, the British ruler in Kent invited the mercenaries Hengist and Horsa to defend his principality from outside attack. They are said to have landed at Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate in 448 or 449 AD.
Excavation of Stutfall Castle as reported in an
issue of the 'Illustrated London News' of 1850
By the end of the fifth century the Saxon kingdom of Kent had been firmly established. Under its king, Aethelbert (c.560-616), Kent became one of the most advanced Saxon kingdoms in England. It was to Kent that Pope Gregory sent his missionaries under Augustine to begin their preaching of the gospel of Christianity to the English people, although the religion was already established. They were well received and instead of moving on to London as they had planned, they established their first cathedral at Canterbury. Romney Marsh has two churches named after Augustine; St Augustine in Brookland and in Snave.
The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic Tribes from northern Europe who raided the shores of south and east England in the fourth century AD, but they were beaten back by the Romans. At the beginning of the 5th century, the Romans left Britain. They had not trained the British to defend themselves and so the next time the Saxons tried to invade Britain they succeeded.
The Anglo-Saxons founded the kingdom of Kent in the 5th century. They ruled in England for about 500 years, ending at about the time of the Norman invasion. However, unlike the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons never 'went home'; many people living in Britain today have Anglo Saxon ancestors. The name England even comes from the Saxon word 'Angle-Land’.
Twice in the first century the Vikings in their longships invaded Romney Marsh. In 841 they killed large numbers of the people of the Marsh, whilst in 892 about 250 Viking longships rowed past New Romney and continued inland as far as Appledore.
Routes taken into Britain, by the Angles, Saxons
and Jutes, in the 5th century
The Vikings established camps over the winter months and it was not until King Alfred engaged the Vikings in battle in Essex in 893 did the Vikings in 896 finally abandon their attempts at permanent settlement.
In 1066, when William the Conqueror invaded Britain, some of his men landed at New Romney by mistake. After the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror, on his march to Dover castle, passed this town, where he is said to have revenged himself on the inhabitants for having killed some of his men.
A Royal Charter of 1155 in the reign of Henry II established the port of New Romney as one of the first Cinque Ports, maintaining ships ready for the Crown in case of need.
The chief obligation laid upon the ports, as a corporate duty, was to provide 57 ships for 15 days' service to the king annually, each port fulfilling a proportion of the whole duty. In return the towns received many privileges.
Lydd became a corporate member of the Cinque Ports in the 13th century as "limb" of New Romney.
More about the Cinque Ports
The Spanish monarch, Philip II (1527-1598), was a devout Catholic. He felt it was his duty to invade and conquer England in order to convert the country back to the Church of Rome. He was also angry that Queen Elizabeth had not punished Sir Francis Drake and other English seadogs for plundering Spanish ships. In 1588 he ordered the Spanish fleet, or Armada, to sail up the English Channel, collect the army waiting at Calais and transport them across the Channel to Kent.
Cinque Ports Map
The Spanish plan was for Philip's Armada of 132 ships carrying 8,000 sailors and 20,000 marines eventually sailed from Spain under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The plan was to sail to Calais. There they would meet with the Duke of Parma and his 30,000 soldiers. Parma had ordered the construction of flat-bottomed barges that were to be used to transport his troops across the channel in order to invade England. The Armada was to provide protection using their crescent formation with the barges in the centre.
The Spanish soldiers would then land in Kent and march on London where they would be met by an army of 25,000 English Catholics. London would be captured. Elizabeth I was to be removed from the throne and replaced with a Catholic monarch, originally, Mary Queen of Scots.
But the planned invasion never happened. The Armada was intercepted off Plymouth by the English fleet, with Sir Francis Drake as Vice Admiral, and managed to inflict some damage but could not stop it. The Armada anchored off Calais and the English sent in eight fireships which the Spaniards to panic, cut their anchor cables and scatter out to sea to avoid them.
A day of fierce fighting between the two fleets followed, called the Battle of the Gravelines, during which the Spanish fleet were blown dangerously close to the shore. Then the wind changed and they sailed northward. Victory for the English followed shortly afterwards when the Spanish decided to give up and return to Spain by sailing north around Scotland.
Reference and more information
English Ships and the Spanish Armada in 1588
Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. One of the greatest commanders in history, his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide.
Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, Napoleon is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide. Napoleon waged war against Britain from 1803 to 1815, when he was defeated by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. He also remains one of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in human history
Martello Towers are small defensive forts that were built along the Kent coast to defend Britain against the French in the early 1800s, then under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon.
More about Martello Towers
The four batteries and redoubt at Dungeness and Lydd-on-Sea were part of the defences built along the Kent coast to defend Britain against the French in the early 1800s.
More about Dungeness Batteries
'The Men of Kent inviting Bonaparte to a banquet!!'
Dymchurch Redoubt was built between 1804 and 1812 to support a chain of 21 Martello Towers that stretched between Hythe in Kent and Rye in Sussex, and to act as a supply depot for them.
More about Dymchurch Redoubt
Royal Military Canal
The Royal Military Canal was built in 1804 to 1809, as a third line of defence against Napoleon, after the British Royal Navy patrolling the English Channel and the line of 74 Martello Towers built along the south coast.
More about the Royal Military Canal
Find out more about the The impact of the Napoleonic Wars on the Romney Marsh
The Second World War with Hitler's Germany lasted from 1939 to 1945, and during the summer and autumn of 1940 the Battle of Britain fought over Kent was to be Hitler's precursor to invasion.
more about Second World War
Martello Tower No.24 at Dymchurch
No 2 Battery (Lade Fort) at Lydd-on-Sea