Romney Marsh

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 8. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1799.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'Romney Marsh', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 8, (Canterbury, 1799) pp. 465-473. British History Online [accessed 25 April 2024]


WAS known to the English Saxons, at first by the name of Merscwarum, as appears by the Saxon chronicle. And in a grant of king Offa to archbishop Janibert, of about the year 795, it is called Merscware, by which name Camden says, the inhabitants of it were called, i. e. Viri Palustres, marsh or fen men. When it came to be first known by the name of Rommene, or Romney, is uncertain, but the first mention that I have seen of it is in the year 895, in a grant of Plegmund the archbishop, of land called Wesingmersc, which is described to lie near the river called Rumeneia. To reconcile the several names of this river, perhaps it might be conjectured as may be instanced in other rivers in this county and elsewhere, that it had different names in different parts of it. Thus near the source or spring head, it might be called the Rother; lower down and along the branch which separated at Apledore to Stutsall, the Limen; and in this part near Romney, as above, Rumeneia; and yet the whole river might be in general known, [kat exokhen], by the name of Limen, from that principal part of it where the Roman Portus Lemanis was situated; by which name only, this whole district, as well as the principal town in it, seems from that time to have been known. Different have been the opinions of the origin of Romney Marsh, some asserting that it was once wholly covered by the sea, and deserted when that element had made its encroachments on other distant parts; and others, that it was only a large swamp, covered in many places by the tides at times, and by the waters of the river Limen or Rother, (called, at least that part of it which was near Romney, in archbishop Plegmund's grant beforementioned, Rumeneia,) which had then no banks to confine the waters of it from flowing over the lands adjoining to them, insomuch that both together made the greatest part of it, an uninhabitable morass. The river Limen, or as it has been of late times called, the Rother, was in very antient times a large navigable river, which rising in the county of Sussex, flowed down to the town of Apledore, on the northern or inland side of this marsh, and thence separating into two channels, one of which flowed south-eastward under the hills of Rucking and Bilsington, on that side of the marsh under Limne-hill by Stutsall-castle, where the antient Portus Lemanis is supposed to have been, into the sea by West Hythe; the other directed its course south-eastward from Apledore across the Marsh to Romney, where it formed a port or haven, and emptied itself into the sea there, at which time the tide flowed up much higher than Apledore, even above Newenden, where so late as king Edward III.'s time, it came up with such impetuosity, that the bridge there was broken down and destroyed by it, and the lands on each side overflowed and greatly damaged by the salt water. So considerable was the channel of this river, that in the time of king Alfred, the Danes, in 893, sailed up it as high as Apledore, with a fleet of 250 ships, and there entrenched themselves. The former branch of this river, which flowed by Limne, of which notice has been already taken before, was probably soon after the departure of the Romans from this island, first swerved up, so as to render it useless higher than West Hythe, which became a noted haven at the mouth of it afterwards; but this stream soon wholly failing, and directing its course another way, and the sea deserting it likewise, the channel of it became dry land, and though now a green pasture for cattle to feed on, may yet very easily be traced along the whole course of it, under the hills from West Hythe to Apledore. The other branch of this river, which flowed from Apledore to Romney, about the space of four miles, seems, by being navigable for so large a fleet, to have been of considerable size, and by the failure of the other stream to have become still more so, having a large and commodious haven at the mouth of it, near the latter place; but when that dreadful tempest happened in the reign of king Edward I. which by the overflowing of the sea, forced on by the violence of the winds, overturned whole villages in these parts, destroying the inhabitants as well as their houses and cattle, and changing the whole face of the country, (fn. 1) then the waters of this river being forced out of their proper channel, and the mouth of it being stopped up by the beach and sand driven against it, formed another passage from Apledore south-westward towards Rye, where it empties itself at present, having been for many years a very small and insignificant stream. The bed of the river from Apledore to New Romney, though now most part of it pasture land, is very plainly to be traced on the east side of the Rhee wall, and shews it to have been a large river, of considerable breadth and depth; but long before this great change happened in the course of the river Limen, the several proprietors of the adjoining manors and estates, fearing the safety of them, began to embank it, and defend their lands from the overflowing of the waters of it, as well as the sea tides; for even as high as king Henry I.'s reign, the prior and convent of Christ-church found it necessary to tie up their tenants to repair and maintain them, these inundations frequently breaking in and drowing the neighbouring lands, and although every means was afterwards used by frequent commissions for the purpose of the river's returning to its old channel, yet that seems in king Edward III.'s reign to have been given up; and the king granted to the archbishop and others, the old trench or channel of it, leading from an arm of the sea called Apuldre towards the town of Romene with licence to obstruct, dam, and stop it up, the same having, by reason of the sands and other matter flowing in, been so filled up that ships could not pass by it; and that there was another trench leading from the said arm to Romene lately made by force of the sea, (most probably by that great tempest which Lambarde mentions to have happened here three years before,) by which ships passed thither as they had before used to do by the former one, and was more proper and sufficient. But it should seem that this new channel was of use but for a small time, for the same violent irruptions of the sea likewise, by the ports of Rye and Winchelsea, had made way for the Limen or Rother's mingling its waters with that æstury, so that wholly breaking off its usual course between Apledore and Romney, the haven and creek at the latter wanting the river's usual help to scour and keep it open, was by the sand and beach cast up by the sea soon obstructed and closed up, and became dry ground, as it remains at this time.

ROMNEY MARSH is now a spacious level of marsh ground, lying on the southern coast of Kent, between the upland hills and the sea shore. It is about ten miles in length from east to west, and at the broadest part from north to south about four miles. Leland, in his Itinerary, vol. vii. p. 142, says, "Rumeney Marsch ys from Lymme hil upward a x myles yn lenght and wher yt is most abowt v myles yn bredeth, and that as I suppose now is abowt the towne of Rumeney. The Marsch of Rumeney encresith dayly yn breede. But yt is not yn al places of like breede. For yn sum place yt is ii myles, yn sum iii myles, yn sum iiii and v myles over. It ys a marvelous rank grownd for fedyng of catel, by the reason that the grasse groweth so plentefully apon the wose sumtyme cast up there by these. The very towne of Rumeney and a ii myles abowt yt was allway by lykelyhod dry land and ons as yt is supposed the se cam abowte hyt or at the lest abowt the greatest part of yt." It contains four districts, all comprehended under the general name of Romney Marsh, but under different jurisdictions and constitutions, viz. Romney Marsh, strictly so called, under the jurisdiction of the liberty of it, which extends westward as far as the Rhee-wall; Walland Marsh, the next adjoining westward; Dengemarsh with Southbrooks, southward; and Guildford marsh, most of it in Sussex, which three are under the jurisdiction of separate commissioners of sewers. Romney Marsh contains 23,925 acres, and the other three districts 22,666 more. The whole of which, within this county, contains within its bounds two corporate towns and sixteen other parishes. The lands in it are very different in fertility, some being very much so, and others very poor and barren. There are very few oxen fed in Romney Marsh, but mostly sheep, which on an average are about three to each acre. These are much larger than the Down or West Country sheep, but not near so large as those of Lincolnshire and some parts of Norsolk. There are very few trees or hedges in it, the grounds being mostly separated by ditches and a rail fence. The roads, which are wide, are only the marshes fenced off, the soil of which being remarkably deep, makes travelling on them very unpleasant after the least rain. Excepting the villages, which consist of but a very few houses, standing close round the churches, there are hardly any others interspersed in it, and they are all but very mean. The unwholesomeness of the air causes it to be very thinly inhabited, for, as Mr. Lambarde says, it is bad in winter, worse in summer, and at no time good, only fit for those vast herds of cattle which feed all over it. The inhabitants of these villages are but of very mean condition, being mostly such as are hired to look after the grounds and cattle, the owners and occupiers of which live in general in the neighbouring towns or upland country. There is but little land ploughed throughout it, but much more than used to be.

This large tract of marsh-land was perhaps fenced in from the overflowings of the sea, as early as any in these parts of England, for the laws, statutes, and ordinances, for the conservation of it, are, like our common laws, without any known original, and as early as the 35th year of king Henry III. they are called antient and approved customs. Within this district of the Marsh, the king had antiently neither waste nor wrec, but the same were appropriated to such manors as bordered upon the sea, on account of the great charges in fencing and banking against the invasions of it. At the above time it appears that there were twenty-four jurors, or jurats, as they are now called, who were time out of mind elected by-the commonaltie, and sworn to do the best they could for the preservation of the Marsh from such overflowings, and they had, by custom and prescription, power to raise a tax for that purpose; which was confirmed by the same king's letters patent at Romney, in his 36th year.

And in the same reign, several complaints being made by those twenty-four jurors, that persons having land in the Marsh did not pay their due proportions towards the walls and banks, the king directed his precept to Henry de Bathe, a famous justice itinerant, to enquire into and regulate them, who calling to his assistance Nicholas de Handloe and Alured de Dene, held a sessions at Romenhalle in the 42d year of it, the sheriff of the county being, by virtue of his office, present, and having summoned so many and such lawful men out of the adjoining bailiwics, by whom those differences might be determined, they made the laws and constitutions which are called the ordinances of Henry de Bathe, from which laws the whole realm of England take directions in relation to the sewers. Subsequent to which several commissions were granted by the succeeding kings, for viewing the banks, and enquiring into the defaults in the repair of them, and several new ordinances were made, but they all proceeded as Henry de Bathe and his associates had done before; all which were confirmed by the king's letters patent. (fn. 2) King Richard II. out of his special care of the safety of the Marsh, confirmed by inspeximus the above charters and ordinances, and further granted that the bailiff and jurats of the Marsh should be exempt from serving at any assize, jury, inquisition, or any recognizance, as well within the county of Kent as without it, except such as related to the king; nor to be shrieve, bailiff, nor any other officer to him, lest by their absence the whole Marsh might be overflowed in a very short time, and so utterly lost and destroyed. All which in like manner, with the like recitals at large, were again confirmed by Henry IV. and VI.

These instances sufficiently shew with what continual care and assiduity the several kings of this realm watched over the safety and prefervation of this great and fertile marsh, and how highly they estimated the value of it; which induced king Edward IV. in his first year, at the request of all the commonaltie and inhabitants within the Marsh, for the preservation of it, to grant to them, that they should be one body in substance and name, and one commonaltie perpetually, consisting of one bailiff, twenty-four jurats, and the commonalty of Romney Marsh, having a continual succession, and impowering them to purchase lands and tenements, to have a common seal, and to hold a court every three weeks, and all pleas of action, real and personal, civil and criminal, and to chuse four justices of the peace of their own yearly, besides their bailiff, who should have the same authority, and to have the return of all writs, the benefit of all fines, forfeitures and amerciaments, the privileges of leet, lawday, and tourn, the exemption from toll and theam, and from so many other charges, that hardly any other place in England had the like; and this, as the letters patent mention, was granted to invite men to inhabit the Marsh, which was then much deserted, on account of the danger they were subject to from foreign invasions, and the unwholesomeness of the soil and situation. (fn. 3)

By this charter of incorporation, the district now called the liberty of Romney Marsh, which contains nine parishes, besides three others, the churches of which are demolished, is at this time governed by a bailiff, twenty-four jurats, and the commonaltie, the justices of it being justices of this jurisdiction exclusive of all others, but they are no ways concerned in the repair of the walls or drainage of it. To manage and direct which, the power has been by antient custom, time out of mind, vested in the lords of twentythree manors, in and adjoining to the Marsh, who, with the bailiff and jurats of the corporation of the Marsh, who have one vote, are usually called lords of the Marsh. The manors are those of

Aldington, Blackmanstone, Bilsington super. Ditto infer. Bonnington, Burmarsh, Craythorne, Eastbridge, Eastwell, Falconhurst, Horton, Honychild, Kenardington, Newington fee, Orlestone, Packmanstone, Ruckinge, Snave, Street, Tinton, Warehorne, Court at Wick, and, Willop.

These appoint a bailiff, as chief supervisor of the works, who is generally approved of and appointed bailiff likewise of the corporation of the Marsh, the jurats of which are likewise appointed jurats by the lords above-mentioned, for the view of the repairs, &c. of the walls, the management of the drainage and sewers, the taxation of the scots, and other accustomed matters relating to that business.

For the above purposes, the Marsh, and the corporation likewise, hold the courts called the lath, at Newhall, in Dimchurch, a general lath being held by them yearly on Whit-Thursday, at which the annual accounts are passed, differences regulated, and every other business relating to the walls and drainage, as well as all the scots levied, is then transcted by them; and there are two other meetings held there usually in March and at Michaelmas yearly, the latter to settle the expenditor's accounts, and the former for making contracts for materials, and any such other necessary business as may occur at the time.

The Marsh is defended against the sea by an artificial wall, of great strength, called Dimchurch-wall, extending in length 1060 rods, which is the sole barrier that prevents the sea from overflowing the whole extent of the level; and as it is for the common safety, so it is supported, as well as the three grand sluices through it, which are for the general sewing of the Marsh, by scots levied over the whole of it. But the interior drainange, which is portioned out into a number of divisions, called waterings, is sewed and maintained at the expence of the respective lands, by a scot raised separately on each, for the purpose of their own watering.


  • 1. See Somner's Roman Port6, p. 58.
  • 2. See the several commissions granted by Edward I. II. and III. for the viewing, care and preservation of the walls, banks and sewers in the Marsh, printed at large in Dugdale's History of Embanking, p. 11 et seq.
  • 3. Dugd. Emb. p. 34. Rot. Cart. ejus an. p. 2, N. 3.