Unconquered – The Story of Kent and Its Lieutenancy
PUBLISHED: 11:52 29 April 2014 | UPDATED: 11:52 29 April 2014
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Jutting out like a defiant jaw between the Channel and the North Sea, Kent has long been first step on the invasion route for would-be invaders from the continent. And its strategic position means that it has a more dramatic history than any other British county.
That is why researching the hitherto largely unknown history of the Lieutenancy – the ancient office charged with organising the Frontline County’s defence – has proved a fascinating project for me, a Man of Kent born and bred.
In the 17th century the redoubtable Sir Roger Twisden, constitutional historian, magistrate and sometime Deputy Lieutenant, intended to write a history of the Lieutenancy.
He wrote: ‘I have an intention, God inabling me, to say somewhat of the first raising of Lord Lieutenants and Deputy Lieutenants... and for that purpose doe have the sheetes before here clear, but that I may not forget what happened in my time and that I was an actor in, being now fresh in my memory...’
Sadly, Sir Roger’s attention was drawn elsewhere and the journal pages that followed remained blank.
Much water has flowed down the Channel since then and the Lieutenancy has been inextricably tied up in the life of the county ever since, hence my decision to research and write the remarkable story of the office. The result is the first comprehensive story of a county lieutenancy; another first for Kent.
Here as elsewhere, in the days before defence was organised on a national basis the Monarch had to rely on trusted noblemen to protect the county from both external and internal threats.
From Tudor times these county Lieutenants and their Deputies exercised enormous power, not only organising defence through the trained bands and later the militia but also performing many local government and justice functions that have since largely devolved to other bodies. The Lieutenancy eventually lost its military responsibilities but has continued to perform a valuable role, evolving today into an unpaid, entirely non-political force for good providing a focus for county identity, unity and pride and, importantly, promoting service to others.
The story of the Lieutenancy over the past five centuries is the story of Kent and its people – and of the extraordinary part the county has played in the nation’s destiny.
It is the story of how – peasant, yeoman and nobleman alike – they flocked to the colours ready to do their utmost to throw the Spaniards and later Bonaparte’s soldiers back into the sea if they had managed to win control of the Channel and land on the Kentish coast.
It is the story of Kentish soldiers, including the Lord Lieutenant of the day, marching through the Channel ports to endure the horrors of the First World War. And it is the story of how:
• Kent’s ports sent their little ships and pleasure boats to bring back survivors of the Second World War miracle of Dunkirk, to be welcomed with tea and ‘wads’ (buns) by the Lord Lieutenant as they returned through the county
• The people reacted to the Battle of Britain that was fought in Kentish skies by supporting the Lieutenancy’s appeal and donating whatever they could to fund a County of Kent Spitfire squadron
• And of how the Land Girls braved enemy fire to bring in the harvest – momentous events still commemorated by the Lieutenancy today.
But it is also the story of happier times and especially of the royal visits so enjoyed by the people, whether experiencing the excitement of a wartime morale-boosting visit, receiving Maundy money from The Queen, welcoming a 21st-century countess to a school for disabled children, or a prince and future king for the enthronement of an archbishop.
Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenants are the representatives of the Crown for each county in the United Kingdom.
In Kent they have included many colourful characters: soldiers, statesmen – and rakes – among them.
They include the county’s first permanent Lord Lieutenant, the 10th Baron Cobham; his unfortunate son Henry who ended up in the Tower accused of plotting against the Monarch he was supposed to represent in the county; a French-born soldier; three generations of the Sackville family; a Kent cricket captain; a Governor of the Bank of England – and a self-made business tycoon.
All have contributed to the often extraordinary story of this ancient office which has played such a significant part in the lives of the people of Kent over the past five centuries.
The present Lord Lieutenant is Viscount De L’Isle, who heads up a county-wide network of up to 70 Deputies; between them they perform more than 500 public duties a year.
Today the Lieutenancy’s aspiration is to celebrate Kent, its unique history and culture, serve its communities – and contribute positively to its future.
Where once it raised armies, it now encourages legions of volunteers to work for the good of the county.
And where once it defended the county it now helps to keep alive the wonderful spirit of Kent that has carried its people through thick and thin. It is a great story about a great county. n