Substantial excavations over several years in the Kentish village of Lyminge now show the extent to which the local monastic community dealt with the threat of Viking raids long after the earliest attacks on the English coast. 

Changing the narrative

Recently published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, In The Shadow of Saints: The Long Durée of Lyminge, Kent, as a Sacred Christian Landscape presents the findings of the chief archaeologist on the Lyminge project, Gabor Thomas FSA of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading. 

The study offers a fresh appraisal of the previously accepted narrative that monastic culture was extinguished by repeated Viking attacks.

"This area of Kent was particularly vulnerable," Gabor Thomas tells The Viking Herald, describing a location just inland from Folkestone on the Channel coast but within the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Canterbury. 

It's also an area that Gabor and colleagues have been investigating on various digs and several surrounding sites since 2008.

Lyminge has one of the longest continuous Christian histories in Britain. Its early Norman church was built close to the site of Lyminge Abbey, one of the earliest stone-built, post-Roman religious houses in England. 

The original Saxon church was first discovered in the 1850s by Canon Robert Jenkins, then Rector of Lyminge and founding member of the Kent Archaeological Society, then explored more recently by the current team.

"By putting together the original charters, radiocarbon dating, and analysis of our bioarchaeological data," says Gabor, "we have gained a much clearer picture of monastic life here." 

The Lyminge Parish Church. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Reading

Protected status

While Lyminge today is a village of barely 3,000 people, its status was considerably more prominent in early medieval times. 

A charter in 804 granted land in the defended urban enclave of Canterbury to the abbess of Lyminge and her community to serve as "a refuge of necessity." 

"As the first Viking raids on the south coast took place in 789," says Gabor, "this would have been protection from that threat."

But Lyminge also took steps to defend itself. "While Kent was separate and not included in the Burghal Hidage," says Gabor, referring to the document outlining the network of fortified towns across southern England mainly built by Alfred the Great in the late 800s, "it set up a similar sophisticated defensive system."

As Gabor explains, Lyminge would have been a prime target for the Viking raiders: "There was more here than just liturgical items, chalices and so on. Lyminge was an economic center. It would have kept animals and stored food supplies. It produced its own iron". 

Taking both historical documentation and analysis of their recent findings into consideration, Gabor and his team could piece together evidence of considerable and sustained activity around the monastic complex after the offer of refuge in 804. 

The excavation site at the chancel of the Anglo-Saxon church. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Reading

This was not only a picture of relative stability but, indeed, interaction with the Viking foe. "The Viking strategy had shifted from the initial hit-and-run raids of the 880s and 890s to overwintering and a more permanent occupation." 

Lyminge managed to mitigate the danger from the Norse warriors. A manuscript found in Canterbury refers to wealthy Kentish landowners paying the Vikings a ransom for the return of a precious book.

We don't know exactly when the end came for the monastery at Lyminge. As Gabor puts it, "there is no smoking gun evidence," given that the burial ground attached to the monastery lies somewhere beneath the present-day church and cannot be examined for clues. 

With no proof of violent confrontation nor any Viking remains, the most accurate timeframe we can put on its demise lies between 840 and 920. 

This means that the local community carried on with its daily activities for at least half a century, if not a whole century, after the Vikings first came.
 
Following the lengthy excavation, a route of ice-resistant paths now snakes around the later medieval church, showing where the uncovered chancel and nave of its Anglo-Saxon predecessor were once located. 

Information panels and an interactive touchscreen showing 3D digital reconstructions give today's visitors to Lyminge a much clearer idea of how the church would have looked 1,400 years ago. 

For more information, see here.

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