Kent, kingdom of

views updated May 17 2018

Kent, kingdom of. Kent was founded, according to tradition, in the middle of the 5th cent. by two brothers of Jutish origin, Hengist and Horsa, who came to Britain to protect the native inhabitants against the Picts and Scots, turned against their paymasters, and won a kingdom for themselves. Archaeology and evidence from place-names (the name Kent itself, Dover, and the first element of Canterbury) and from later institutions tell a more complicated story involving some Romano-British survival and considerable variety of Germanic invaders from high-status leaders with splendid jewellery among their grave goods to poor and backward Germanic peoples. Kingship was not always unitary, and there were two clear-cut divisions within Kent along the Medway, the men of Kent and the Kentishmen. There are also vestiges of survival of Roman administrative divisions. Contact with the continent was never lost, and was intensified in the later 6th cent., especially after the marriage of Æthelbert (before 589) to a Frankish princess, Bertha. Under Æthelbert (d. 616), who was recognized as overlord by all the Germanic settlers south of the Humber, Kent reached the height of its political power, falling back later in the 7th cent. as overlordship passed briefly to East Anglia, and then to Northumbria. Æthelbert's chief claim to fame is his acceptance of Christianity, and with the help of the mission led by St Augustine he framed laws to accommodate the new church and also to lay down rules of social behaviour. Later Kentish kings followed this lawgiving precedent, especially Wihtred (c.690–725), whose laws had a very high social content, showing deep concern over marriage law, and rules concerning Christian oaths, an indication of the completeness of the conversion of Kent to the new faith. But politically Kent had no high aspirations, and was overshadowed in the 8th cent. by Mercia, and after 825 by Wessex. The West Saxon kings used Kent (and Surrey and Sussex) as a sort of appanage to be ruled as subkingdoms by West Saxon princes. There were no independent kings in Kent after 825, though Canterbury preserved its special prestige as the see of an archbishop.

Henry Loyn