Medieval (1066-1485)

The manor of Cliffe was held by Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, a major and wealthy landowner. The Domesday Survey indicates that there were two manors in the parish, with the Archbishop’s being the larger, assessed at three-and-a-half sulungs, a Kentish land measure approximating to the amount of land ploughable by one ox-team in a year but essentially used as an assessment unit for tax purposes. There was land for six plough-teams(suggesting that the arable potential was being under utilised), of which one and-a-half were in demesne (tilling the lord’s own land). The manor had an assessed population of 20 villans, 18 bordars and 2 slaves, suggesting a total population of c.150-200 people. The manor included 36 acres of meadow and an amount of woodland, probably to the south in the vicinity of Cliffe Woods.The smaller manor was held by Ernulf de Hesdin from Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and included pasture for 100 sheep, perhaps on the marshes. The main manorial centre appears to have been at Courtsole, adjacent to the church, and later owned by the Kentish historian Edward Hasted. The smaller manor may have had its centre at West Court,overlooking the marshes – place-name evidence attests a medieval origin,being first recorded in c.1100. A further area of medieval settlement appears to have been at Allen’s Hill, first recorded in 1327 in relation to John Aleyn  – surviving as a Grade II Listed Building. Medieval Cliffe appears to have been an important local centre – a fair was recorded in 1257, and there are references to a significant port at Cliffe Creek – it is said to have provided Edward III with two ships in 1346 for his campaign in France. The Study Area has produced 15 records of artefact findspots, most of which cluster on the high ground immediately west of Cliffe village. The artefacts include a pilgrims badge, harness pendants, seal matrices, a finger ring and a dagger.The village was described by William Lambarde as a ‘large town’ prior to a devastating fire in 1520.


The Medieval Landscape at Cliffe

The landscape around Cliffe appears to have comprised a central nucleated settlement at Cliffe, surrounded by open fields farmed on a communal basis,with other smaller nucleated settlements, with their own field systems,scattered around the parish. The marshland will have been largely utilised as pasture, and scattered areas of woodland will have existed along the higher southern part of the parish. The Kent Historic Landscape Character database indicates the village surrounded by ‘Fields predominantly bounded by tracks,roads and other rights of way’ – this is a post-medieval landscape type derived from informal piecemeal enclosure. The implication inherent in this description is of an earlier open landscape of unenclosed fields.The marshland on and around the Reserve became less viable from the 12th century onwards as sea-levels rose, depositing as much as 3m of alluvial silt on top of the Roman/Saxon land surfaces. This threat was met by the building of embankments, funded by the profits of the wool trade but also partly subsidised by the Crown. This reclamation phase was intensive during the period 1250-1450, with Christ Church Priory recorded as enclosing Cliffe Marsh from at least 1296. Matthew Paris recorded major floods in the area in 1236, and all the sea-walls in the estuary were destroyed by severe incursions in 1288. Further floods occurred in the 15th century. The process of reclaiming marshland by creating embankments or sea-walls,known as inning, was simple – ditches were dug around the edge of the marsh and the excavated arisings piled up to form a watertight rampart. Often the earth was piled up around a brushwood fence or timber palisade. The embankments were pierced by wooden sluices to allow drainage. Constant maintenance was necessary to combat fluctuating water levels. As new embankments were built further out into the marsh, earlier walls were often destroyed. The exact process by which the marshes around Cliffe were reclaimed and enclosed is not known – however, it is likely that the marshes closest to the upland and the village were the first to be enclosed – a study of the historic mapping broadly appears to support this. The 1697 ‘Russell’ map shows most of the drainage channels visible on later mapping as existing at that time, and therefore dating to before 1697. However, the network of channels to the east of the Reserve (bounded by the Mead Wall) are noticeably more sinuous in nature and enclose smaller plots. It is suggested,therefore, that this area may represent the earliest reclaimed land, although documentary references to medieval use of Redham Mead would imply that the remainder of the marshland was reclaimed soon after.The reclaimed marshes were used as pasture, mainly for sheep – in 1349, Cliffe was recorded as having 120 sheep grazing on the marshes. Documents in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives make a number of references to sheepfolds held by the priory – one particular document relates to a dispute between Philip de Wilebi, rector of Cliffe and the cathedral priory,‘its farmers, villains and tenants’ in c.1283. He was claiming tithes from a number of marshland plots, including Redham Mead,indicating the economic value of these grazing lands. A number of leases dating from the 15th century refer to grazing land leased by the priory together with considerable numbers of sheep – Stephen Browne was leased one acre of meadow in Redham in 1460 with 200 ewes, each priced at 20d. (equivalent to c.£40 today6). The leases were endorsed with various conditions on husbandry and marsh maintenance. A findspot of medieval pottery within the Reserve, associated with Roman material, has prompted suggestions that some level of industrial activity continued during this period, possibly associated with salt extraction.


Source: R.S.P.B/Archaeology South-East

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