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THE CHANNEL COAST
THE Kentish promontory is the Achilles’ heel of England. There is no other strip of coast that gives to an invader such an immediate advantage over the whole country as that between the North Foreland and Beachy Head. Its possessor has the opportunity to blockade London — the nerve centre of England — by controlling the Thames; he has cut the main communications with the Continent, and he has established his own, if the sea power which transported his army still gives him control of the Narrow Seas.
This was the successful avenue of invasion used by the Romans and by the Normans. Since the Battle of Hastings every large scale attack upon England has been abortive, but the tents of Napoleon’s armée maritime were to be seen upon the cliffs of Boulogne in the last century, and, only that Deus afflavit et dissipati sunt, the captains of the Armada would have attempted to seize the same important part of England.
This history of Kent and Sussex as the cockpit of England is not due to the historical accident that England’s invaders have come from Southern Europe and have naturally chosen the shortest sea passage. It is the result of strategic considerations. When the Dauphin of France invaded England on behalf of the Barons of the Charter, he was advised by his father, Philip Augustus, a brilliant strategist, to secure Dover at once and at all costs. But Louis turned to Dover too late and failed before its walls; and Philip, when the news was brought, cried “Then he has not taken one foot of English land.”
Acting with the same considerations, William the Conqueror did not strike directly at London after his crushing victory at Hastings. He marched, instead, along the coast to Dover, secured the hub of the Kentish roads at Canterbury, seized the crossing of the Medway at Rochester, and then advanced along the valley of the Thames for the blockade of London. Nor have England’s enemies come invariably from the South. Long before the Romans left the Britons to fend for themselves they had arranged a system of defence — the famous Saxon shore — against the enemy from the north who were to give England her name. The Roman defensive for tresses did not front Jutland and the mouth of the German rivers, but they were arranged along the south-east coast from the Wash to Beachy Head. They were true castles, their walls thick and high, protected by a newly-invented tactical device, the bastion, on account of the increased importance of archery.
Of these Richborough, in Kent, remains an unhappy relic, set on a knoll overlooking flat, marshy fields on every side. It once protected the sea channel that passed behind the Island of Thanet to Reculvers, but it has shared a common fate of Kentish ports in being widowed of the sea. For, owing to the racing of the tides through the Channel’s bottle-neck, the coast is blockaded with shifting sands, and one generation has before now seen the complete obstruction of a prosperous harbour.
Richborough Castle is a heap of rubble, stripped of its ashlar covering, and still preserving some of the plan, though none of the appearance, it had in the days of strength. There are interesting contrasts in the neighbourhood of this ruin of Rome. A mile away is Sandwich, a famous port in the Middle Ages. To-day, if one admires the beautiful barbican of chequered stonework, one has seen the sum and total of the military remains of Sandwich. A red-sailed lugger may be observed in the middle of green fields, as it creeps up the winding channel from the sea, and it is difficult to realize that some poor, persistent fishermen still take pride in Sandwich as a port. Then, to crown the contrast, is the modern port of Richborough, the “mystery port “of the war, whence the train ferries set out for France. Already the channel that leads to it through Pegwell Bay is silted up, and the lonely bivouac of concrete huts and rusting ferries is a curious relic of spent energies. Perhaps Richborough will some day become a centre of commerce, but at present it is a fitting epilogue to the story of the Roman fort and the mediæval town.
At Pevensey and Dover, however, are Roman fortresses that added to their military history in later centuries.
Fronting the cliffs of France is a monument to commemorate the heroes of our generation who formed the Dover Patrol, and at the very heart of the castle is an even older monument with a similar significance. Nearly a score of centuries ago the Roman galleys made the perilous passage from Gessoriacum (Boulogne) to Dubris. At both ports lighthouses were erected to guide the mariners, and the Pharos of Dover still watches over the Channel. An ashlar coating was built around it; the ashlar decayed, but the green sandstone and tufa of the pharos is still sound; it was crowned with Tudor brickwork, and it bears the load. Flanking the lighthouse is a building which may have been a part of the fortifications. Its origin is lost in antiquity. It was certainly a Saxon church; it is the garrison church of St. Mary in Castra to-day, and there is a strong opinion that this building was used as a place of worship by the Christians of Roman times. Probably Dover can boast the oldest Christian church in England. Around it are Roman and Saxon fortifications — the Norman walls and towers, the fine keep of Henry II, with its perfect forebuilding, the great redoubt built after the Dauphin’s siege had demonstrated a weakness in the defensive plan.
In all things Dover was England, and Shakespeare made its white cliffs the figure of his country. The names of its con stables included Godwin and Earl Harold, Hubert de Burgh, Stephen Langton, the King Maker, Henry VIII, the younger Pitt, and the Duke of Wellington. Matthew Paris spoke of the castle as the “key and lock of the whole realm,” and Sir Walter Raleigh wrote “A Discourse of Sea Ports,” with the intention mainly of advocating the improvement of Dover. “No promontory, town or haven in Christendom,” he wrote, “is so placed by nature and situation both to gratify friends and annoy enemies as Your Majesties town of Dover.” In less measure that is true to-day. The guns still point seaward, the bugles call, and the flag flies above the Roman and Norman stones of one of Europe’s major fortresses in the twentieth century.
Pevensey (like Porchester, which guarded the great Roman harbour near Portsmouth) is a mediæval castle built within the enclosure of a Roman coast fort. They are symptomatic of the Norman facility for adaptation and of their assumption of the Roman tradition. The walls of Pevensey enclose an area of nine acres wherein lay the settlement of Anderida. The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle makes special note of the destruction of Anderida in the fifth century, and for six hundred years its walls were desolate, until the Conqueror’s half-brother, Roger de Mortain, improvised a fortress there which proved to be impregnable. In those days the sea washed its eastern and southern walls, and at high tide flooded the marshy lands which lay around the other sides of the mound on which Pevensey stood. These natural defences were added to in the thirteenth century by an inner curtain wall around the actual castle in the south-east corner, and by an inner moat of some width. The kernel of the completed castle was the mound thrown up by Roger de Mortain surmounted by its strong Norman keep.
William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey, and in the next reign his son Rufus there besieged his uncles Odo of Bayeux and the Earl of Mortain, who had rebelled in favour of his brother, Robert of Normandy; so Pevensey played a great part in the history of that vigorous family. For three months William’s direct assaults were unavailing, but he obtained the surrender of the garrison by starvation after an attempt at relief from the Norman fleet had been beaten off. In 1147 Stephen was quite as unsuccessful in his bombardment of Matilda’s supporters, but he also compelled the surrender after a strict blockade. In 1264, however, after the battle of Lewes, the tables were turned. Simon de Montfort besieged Pevensey for eight months. He even reached the Roman walls. But the defenders maintained their supplies and communications from the sea until Simon threw up the attempt in despair and marched off to Kenilworth. Pevensey was true to its type: the strength of the castle was relative to the patience, not to the strength, of its besieger.
Under the Tudors the castle was for the first time allowed to fall into decay, and it shared the fate of many a noble building in being used as a quarry by the neighbouring gentry.
Not everyone is aware that the Protector Somerset desired to use the stones of Westminster Abbey for the building of Somerset House. With a like vandalism, which can be more readily excused, the squires set upon Pevensey, and one John Thatcher, may be especially held up for reprobation as the purchaser of six hundred stone loads of Pevensey and English history at the price of twopence a load. It is curiously symbolic that, except for its curtain wall, the mediæval castle is a be wildering ruin, its keep and its hall razed to the ground, while the Roman walls and bastions, robbed of their stone covering, indeed, “still wear their ancient countenance of strength and defiance,” to quote an eighteenth-century traveller. It is a strange consideration that after the lapse of so many centuries the Roman remains in England are a more valuable index to their civilization than the archæological survival of the Middle Ages. If no documents survived from either period, we could more surely reconstruct the life of Roman Britain than the times of the Saxons, Normans, or Plantagenets.
The mediæval castle was ultimately as much an evidence of individualism in society as the nineteenth-century factory. The manufacturer has a monopoly of capital, and the castle builder had made a corner in power. The castles were (unlike the mediæval cathedrals) erected against the mob. But when the mob had control there was no need of a castle, and no opportunity for one to be built by an oppressor. The greatest safe guard of the southern coast in the Middle Ages was the fleet of the Cinque Ports, and because the monarchy realized this fact, the towns of that league had their own privileges of jurisdiction and taxation, making them to all intents and purposes a group of collective barons. They had their walls, but not their castles. So it is interesting to find that the monarchy turned its attention to the fortification of the Cinque Ports when it had become supreme over lords and people, an individualist monarchy — the Tudor despotism. A memorandum of Cromwell’s, dated 1533, is headed “Articles conceived for the defence of the towns of Dover, Sandwich, Deal, Folston, the Isle Tened (Thanet), and Hythe, and all the sea coasts about.”
Dover had always been a royal castle. Fearing invasion from France or Spain, Henry VIII built additional castles and “bulwarks “from Tilbury to Portland, employing as his architect a Moravian, Stephen von Haschenperg. “The Almayn,” as men called him, was ingenious enough in the construction of twisting passages and culs-de-sac in which the struggling enemy could be grilled with boiling lead, but castles such as Deal, Sandgate, Walmer, and Camber, were small, and would probably have been of little value if brought to the test of war. Of them all Walmer possesses the most interest as the residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports. Nelson used to land from his flagship in the Downs to consult with Pitt at Walmer, and the Duke of Wellington, as Warden, lived and died in the castle.
England’s safety has long been in her isolation and in her sea power. But we may see in the near future new defensive works erected on this vulnerable coast. For the aeroplane has narrowed the Narrow Seas and the long-range gun can span them. The modern progress in the art of killing has brought our statesmen face to face with the problem that England has a frontier equally with Germany, Belgium, or France. It may be that the Navy will play a less vital part in the future than it has done in the past. The problem of the south coast has almost become that of safeguarding, not a sea frontier, but a river frontier like the Rhine.