Kentish history highlights
PUBLISHED: 18:11 05 August 2016
From the mystery of a King's remains to melting church bells, Kent Life's history sleuth delves back into Augusts past in Kent
IN SEARCH OF A KING
The question of whether the remains of Henry IV were actually inside his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral had been asked for centuries. There was only one way to find out, and on 21 August 1832 the matter was finally resolved – by opening up his coffin.
Having deposed his cousin, King Richard II, King Henry IV took the throne in September 1399 to become the first King of England from the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets.
As with any shift in power, not everyone was pleased to have him as a leader and many rebellions and assassination attempts filled his reign. Ill-health and a disfiguring skin disease also plagued him towards the end of this life and on 20 March 1413 King Henry died at Westminster Palace, aged just 45.
Having chosen to be buried at Canterbury Cathedral, rather than Westminster Abbey, his body was then taken by sea towards Canterbury. An incident that reportedly occurred on this journey but was not widely known until some 278 years later, sparked a rumour that would live on for centuries.
According to a supposed first-hand account, found in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, a great storm occurred when the King’s “body was conveying in a small vessel from Westminster towards Canterbury. The waves ran so high, that many of the nobles, who followed us in eight small ships, were scarcely saved from death, their vessels having being dispersed by the tempest. But we who were with the body, being in peril of our lives, by common consent threw it into the sea and immediately there was a great calm.”
Upon publication in 1691 this report received mixed reviews, but enough credit was given to the rumour that in August 1832 the Hon. and Right Rev. The Lord Bishop of Oxford, Dean of Canterbury gave his permission for the coffin to be re-opened and the question resolved once and for all. Eight people were in attendance at the re-opening of the King’s tomb and the Rev. Dr Spry wrote: ‘To the astonishment of all present, the face of the deceased King was seen in complete preservation. The nose elevated, the cartilage even remaining; though, on the admission of air, it sunk rapidly away, and had entirely disappeared before the examination was finished. The skin of the chin was entire, the consistence and thickness of the upper leather of a shoe, brown and moist; the beard thick and matted, and a deep russet colour.’
Dr Spry summarises: “Having thus ascertained that the body of the King was actually deposited in the tomb, and that it had never been disturbed, the wrappers were laid again upon the face, the lead drawn back over them, the lid of the coffin put on, the rubbish filled in and, as the ‘marble pavement was immediately replaced’, both rumours and the King were finally put to rest.
SWIMMING FOR GLORY
The English Channel can look uninviting even on a sunny day so the thought of swimming from one side to the other is not something many of us contemplate. Ninety years ago, an American lady named Gertrude Caroline Ederle, took a slightly different view, however; not only did she want to swim the channel, she wanted to be the first female to do it.
Gertrude or ‘Trudy’ as she was fondly known, was no stranger to a vigorous training schedule. She broke her first swimming world record at the age of 12 and by the time she first attempted to swim the channel in 1925, had already won 29 US national and world records, and a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Paris in 1924.
Gaining sponsorship from The Women’s Swimming Association allowed Trudy to turn professional and she moved to France to train with Jabez Wolffe, a swimmer who had unsuccessfully tried to swim the Channel 22 times.
It wasn’t a good partnership and during her first cross-channel attempt Trudy was disqualified when another swimmer, who was keeping her company in the water, was told to rescue her as she appeared to be drowning. Trudy strongly protested that she’d just been ‘resting’ and the partnership was broken beyond repair.
Teaming up a year later with Bill Burgess, a swimming coach who had successfully swum the Channel, led to Trudy’s second attempt on 6 August 1926. Wearing motorcycle goggles sealed with paraffin, Trudy set off from Cape Griz-Nez in France at 7.08am and came ashore at Kingsdown in Kent 14 hours and 34 minutes later.
At the age of 20, Trudy had achieved her goal. She’s quoted as saying “people said women couldn’t swim the Channel but I proved they could.” A fact soon supported by other successful female cross channel swimmers, but it wasn’t until some 24 years later that her world record time was beaten.
Dover Museum has a fantastic online Channel Swimmers exhibition and you can find out far more at www.dovermuseum.co.uk/Exhibitions/Channel-Swimmers/Channel-Swimmers.aspx
A MAYOR IN MOURNING
Once upon a time, due to a series of invasions and royal marriages, the borders of England’s territory spread across France as far as the Spanish borders. As you can imagine the French weren’t particularly happy about being ruled by the English and a series of wars broke out. This period is known as ‘The Hundred Years War’ despite the time frame it refers to (1337 to 1453) actually being 116 years long.
Initially the English were winning but after Joan of Arc stepped in to take the French leadership, the tables were turned and the French began to take back their land. By 1453 only Calais remained under English rule and the people of Honfleur, a port occupied between 1419 and 1450, wanted revenge.
Sixty ships, carrying artillery and roughly 4,000 well-armed French soldiers left Honfleur during the third week of August 1457. Their destination was the Cinque Port of Sandwich and they were planning a multi-directional attack.
Approximately 1,800 men disembarked five miles from the town at 6am on Sunday 28 August and attacked the town’s Bulwark, a two-storey stone built defence crowned with guns. They met with little resistance despite the fact that two or three armed English ships are believed to have been anchored in the town’s harbour.
The lack of defensive assistance on behalf of the English ships’ crew is apparently due to a promise made by the French that they, and their cargo would not be harmed if they stood by. If this is true, it’s an act that contributed to the mass carnage that followed.
The bells of St. Clements Church pealed loudly, calling all men over the age of 14 to assist with the defence of their town but the people of Sandwich were heavily outnumbered and woefully unprepared.
The French leader, a famous commander by the name of Marshal Pierre de Breze, or ‘Bracy’ to the English, is said to have given his soldiers the order to avoid slaughter in cold blood and to behave chivalrously towards the women of the town. By nightfall, however, half of the town’s population was dead, including the town’s Mayor John Drury.
It took Sandwich a long time to recover and since that date, all subsequent Mayors have worn black robes as a symbol of honour for the Mayor who fell during the battle and the bravery of his townsfolk. Every Mayor is also presented with a blackthorn stick as a sign of their authority, which as well as warding off ‘evil spirits’ is a traditional sign of mourning.
As for Honfleur, it may have taken 500 years but in 1957, the Mayor of Sandwich paid a visit of reconciliation to the town Sandwich is now twinned with and townsfolk take part in an annual exchange.
THE DAY THE CHURCH BELLS MELTED
Hidden within the records of Goudhurst and Kilndown Local History Society is a transcript of a Kings letter circulated within the parish in 1637. Kings’ Letters were issued when emergency funds were needed for individuals, public calamities and churches and given the fact that 103 were circulated in Goudhurst between 1713 and 1722, they must have been a familiar sight.
This one details a night in 1637, ‘when a grave catastrophe overtook the Church Tower’. It reads: “That upon the three and twentieth day of August last about eleaven of the clocke in the night time, there happened a most fierce and sudden storme of thunder and lightning which set on fir the Steeple of the church of Gowdhurst aforesaid and brake and melted five great bells and burnt and consumed the tower lofts and all the timber and woodworke of the steeple.” How hot that fire must have been to melt the church bells!
The charge for repairing the tower was £2,745, an enormous amount of money for the time, and after several appeals, enough funds were raised to sign a contract. A firm of London contractors called Messrs. Kinsman, Holmes and Young were brought in and the work was to be completed by Michaelmas 1640.
Taking advantage of an opportunity to not only repair but improve the church, the new tower should have measured 70 feet high from the ground to the top of the battlements and been topped by ‘four pinnacles to be twenty-feet high a-piece from the battlements, eight foote square below and six foote square above’.
Sadly, this improvement was never made and the work was delayed to such an extent that, in the end, the churchwardens were more than happy to have a finished tower one storey shorter than contracted. It took a little longer but the bells were also eventually replaced and the earliest one now dates from 1692. Hopefully these ones will be safe.