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Florence - in, up and under the Duomo

When in Florence, the first thing that jumps out at you is the cathedral, known as the Duomo. Yes, there are many famous pieces of art as well, but when you look out onto the city from a vantage-point like the car park at the Piazzale Michelangelo (the location of one of several Davids) on the hill to the south of the Arno, it is the Duomo with its red-tiled dome, bell tower and marble façade is what grabs the eye. That is what dominates any view of the city, one of Italy’s finest.

Strictly speaking, it is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore (the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower); built to replace an old church on the same site, work began on it in 1296 and it took around 150 years to complete, although the neo-Gothic marble façade on the western end was added in the nineteenth century. The famous dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the key figures of Renaissance architecture, between 1420 and 1436; he modelled it on the Pantheon in Rome, and used over four million bricks to build both the inner and outer octagonal domes. Glimpses of his great work can be spotted throughout the city.

That said, I do think that Peter Moore is onto something when he points out (in the excellent Vroom with a View) that it, and Florence in general, has space issues:

“There’s just no sense of space. Take the Duomo, for example … smack bang in the centre of town and topped by the red-tiled dome that is to Florence what the Opera House is to Sydney. Here we have one of the most amazing buildings of the Renaissance, clad in white, green and pink Tuscan marble. It was designed by Brunelleschi to dwarf even the great buildings of ancient Rome and Greece, but you only have to walk 10 metres before you hit another building. The dome is the largest of its time built without scaffolding, but there’s just no room to appreciate its size. And what little room that’s there is filled with thousands of people trying to get into the cathedral and just as many Senegalese hawkers trying to sell them fake Louis Vuitton handbags.”

Rather than consider such matters, though, we wanted to explore the Duomo itself, along with everyone else who was visiting Florence on a hot day in June. Getting into the cathedral itself is free (all you have to do is queue), but the rest – the bell tower, the baptistry (separate buildings, as is the case with several other Italian cathedrals), the crypt and the top of that famous dome – are places you have to pay to get in, up or down to. A €15 ticket, valid for 48 hours, covers the lot.

After paying my €15 and acknowledging that climbing the dome was out because it was already fully booked (not that I minded, as I’d done the dome of the Duomo before, on a previous trip), I made my way up the campanile, as the bell tower is known. Designed in the mid-fourteenth century by the architect Giotto di Bondone (usually known simply as Giotto, just like his fellow-Florentine Dante Alighieri is usually just known by his first name), this slender square tower is slightly shorter than the cathedral dome (Giotto’s plans had included a spire which was to have made it 400 feet tall, but he died before his great work could be completed and his successors decided against the spire, leaving the tower just under 280 feet tall). It has 414 stairs. I am not usually one to turn down the chance to climb a tower, and despite the heat (the mercury was over 30°C for most of our short trip to Tuscany, an unusual occurrence for June which has the wine-growers rather worried about how their 2017 vintage is going to turn out) I was up for this one.

I climbed up the steep stone steps, sometimes stopping to let people coming down go through (unlike the dome, which as I recall has separate ways up and down, it’s just the one staircase for the bell tower). Yes it was warm but it could be worse – ten years ago I went up the one at Pisa, which was a precarious experience not because it leans but because the steps of that one are made of marble, and it was raining at the time. Climbing the Florence campanile, there were occasional views out of the small windows – not just the cathedral dome, once again putting in an enticing appearance, but also the similar (albeit smaller) dome of the nearby church of San Lorenzo. 

I was grateful for the stops at the various levels. One had a view up through which you could see the people two levels above us standing on a metal grate; when I got to that level I naturally made sure to stand on said grate – which, I’m happy to report, has no problems with supporting 13-odd stone of English tourist.

Up top, I was not surprised to not that us successful climbers were encased in a metal cage through which we could look out over the city – most high towers have cage-like structures on the top. 

I could see across to the dome, which in my opinion makes the view from the bell tower a nicer one than the view from the dome, because by looking out over Florence from the dome you’re seeing Florence without its most famous landmark (rather like seeing Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, when you think about it). There was also the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce (the big representation of the Star of David on the front of that church has a theological message – a six-point star formed of two interlocking triangles is an old symbol of creation, expressing the eternal nature of the Holy Trinity which is itself sometimes represented by an equilateral triangle), San Lorenzo and all those red-tiled roofs of Florence stretching out to where the city ends and the hills begin.

After making my way down, I joined the queue to get into the cattedrale itself.

A church or a cathedral is usually a good place to visit on a hot day as it’s usually fairly cool inside, and it looked as though quite a few others had had the same idea. It seemed fairly spartan inside, with any effect the high altar might have being off-set by the construction work going on behind it. 

The crowning glory of the Duomo’s interior, of course, is seen by looking up to the inside of Brunelleschi’s dome with its large depiction of the Last Judgement; Brunelleschi, apparently, envisaged it as being gold in colour, but after he died it was simply whitewashed and it fell to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, one of the Medici dynasty who ruled Medieval Florence, to decree that it be painted with a very big representation of the Last Judgement, a project that took 11 years to complete (it was started by two artists, Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, but after the former died six years into the project the latter got help from several others).

Down below next, for entry to the crypt was included in the €15 ticket. The crypt was excavated during the mid-to-late twentieth century, and contains remains going back to Roman times although for the most part it has the remains of the previous church that stood on the site of the Duomo, a (smaller) fifth-century church dedicated to St Reparata (a third-century Christian martyr) which was, apparently, in a somewhat parlous state by the time the Florentines decided to build the present-day Duomo. The old church was apparently where two eleventh-century popes were buried. A look around yielded several slabs from old tombs as well as the grave of Brunelleschi himself, buried (like Wren) underneath his greatest achievement. In a roped-off section there was also a recess in one of the walls containing what I took to be a saint’s relic of some sort, although there was nothing to indicate which saint; St Reparata, perhaps?

Back outside, there was one more thing to do and that was the baptistry. The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St John) dates back to the eleventh century although bits of it are thought to be much older than that – there are Roman columns inside and it’s thought to have been built on the site of a Roman temple. The first thing to marvel at, before you even enter it, are the three sets of bronze-relief doors, the most famous of which are the eastern ones which were the work of one Lorenzo Ghiberti who won a competition to design them in 1401 (actually, he won it jointly with the afore-mentioned Brunelleschi, although the latter withdrew in a fit of pique because he hadn’t won outright). Michaelangelo was so impressed with the east doors, which depict scenes from the Old Testament, that he dubbed them the Porti del Paradiso (‘gates of paradise’) although the ones we see today are replicas, the originals being in a museum; Ghiberti, by the way, also did the north doors which have scenes from the Gospels as well as depictions of eight saints.

What’s truly impressive about it once you get inside is the glittering dome mosaics, the oldest of which are from the mid-thirteenth century. Even more impressive is the fact that pews are provided so weary, sweaty visitors (what can I say? It was a hot day and I’d already climbed the campanile!) can take a load off and look up at the mosaics without leaning back too far and falling over. I marvelled at the big depiction of the Last Judgement before trying to figure out passages from the Bible the other panels depicted (there was a fair bit from Genesis before the artists decided to skip to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and – appropriately enough, given the building’s dedication – John the Baptist). 

Then I looked around the rest of the building, and wondered why it is that the font is tucked away to one side, almost as an afterthought; given that this was a building constructed specifically for the purpose of baptism, I found that odd.

Another oddity, or at least something I perceived to be an oddity, is that the Baptistry has a tomb. While the crypt is believed to have been the place where two eleventh-century popes were buried, the Baptistry is most definitely the final resting-place of a fifteenth-century antipope. Baldassare Cossa is known to history as John XXIII, although he is not to be confused with the actual, twentieth-century pope of the same name and number. Although he was elected as pope in 1410, history does not regard him as a real pope because his (sort-of) papacy occurred at a time when there were three popes, each claiming to be the one true pope and each being recognised by different countries! This unholy mess was known as the Western Schism, and it was eventually sorted out at the Council of Constance, which declared that all three popes should abdicate so that a new, single pope could be elected. John’s lasting contribution to papal history, and the reason for his burial in Florence, is that it was he who enabled the Medici family – those Medieval rulers of Florence – to get into papal banking, which was what made them very rich indeed. Burying him in the Baptistry after his death in 1419, and getting Donatello to sculpt his tomb, was probably the least they could do as a posthumous thank-you.

And on that note, it was time to leave the baptistry and go off in search of some gelato. Well, we were in Florence, and it was a hot day.


The swifts overhead

As I write, I have a sunny view over a valley in the heart of that part of Tuscany which is sometimes called ‘Chiantishire’. The village we are staying in is called Panzano-in-Chianti, and it is located on the road known as the Chiantigiana (although on the maps it goes by its numerical designation, route 222, which runs from Florence to Siena). Lunch later today will be courtesy of the local butcher, and there are no prizes for guessing what the wine will be. For now, though, the principal sounds are the bells of the church (Santa Maria, located at the top of the hill), the cicadas and the shrill calls of the swifts circling overhead.

There are a lot of swifts, and they do a lot of flying. From a superficial perspective these dark-coloured yet fascinating summer visitors look a little bit like swallows and martins but they are in fact more closely related to hummingbirds. Their wings are much bigger in proportion to their bodies, which is appropriate as they spend most of their lives in flight – so much so that the ancients believed that they didn’t have any feet (actually they do – they have very short legs with which they can cling to vertical surfaces – although their Latin name, apus, derives from the Ancient Greek a pous, meaning ‘without feet’).

They eat, mate and even sleep on the wing. They fly higher than swallows and martins, and for great distances in a matter of days – once, a bird ringed in England was found in Spain four days later. They are fast, too; the hobby, another summer visitor, is one of few birds of prey that can catch them. They do land to nest (usually in tall buildings nowadays, although holes in trees and cliffs are also used), but unlike swallows and martins you’ll never see them perched on telephone wires.

These airborne symbols of summer can be seen in towns and rural areas all over Europe and Asia between April (May in places as far north as Britain) and August; they winter down in sub-Saharan Africa. It is most likely because of their association with summer that I find it pretty hard not to smile when I look up and see the swifts.


Glastonbury, place of myth and legend

To Somerset, the ancient ‘Summer Land’ in the West Country and a county of endless fascination to historians. This was where Alfred the Great hid out in the marshes in early 878 after the Vikings had taken him by surprise and raided his stronghold at Chipenham; he took refuge in an old woman’s hut and, so legend has it, forgot to keep his eye on the cakes while thinking about how he could overcome his enemies (which he did, triumphing over them at Ethandun – modern-day Edington in Wiltshire – later that same year). This was also where the Duke of Monmouth’s ill-fated rebellion against James II came to an end in 1685 at the battle of Sedgemoor (an illegitimate son of Charles II and an experienced military leader, Monmouth knew that his peasant rabble was no match for the regular army and so went for a night attack, which failed). In the far north-east of the county, there’s the old Roman spa of Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath).

And then there is Glastonbury.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the landmark that can be seen for miles around. Glastonbury Tor, the hill just outside the modern town, is topped by a distinctive tower that is all that’s left of a fourteenth-century church (itself built on the site of an earlier church). It’s dedicated to St Michael and it can be reached after a half-hour walk from the town. The Tor appears to have been called Ynys Afalon by the Ancient Britons, a name which translates as the Isle of Avalon which has led many to associate it with the mythical island of that name; certainly there was a time when the Tor was indeed an island, or at least high ground surrounded by marshland. “At the beginning of the Christian era”, writes Geoffrey Ashe in Mythology of the British Isles, “the Glastonbury hill-cluster was almost an island in times of high tide and flooding. Vessels could reach it from the Bristol Channel.” The views from the top are quite spectacular.

Down in the town, there’s the ruins of the monastery. Glastonbury Abbey dates back to at least the early eighth century, although in Medieval times it claimed to be much, much older. What can be in no doubt is that it produced one of the great English statesmen of the Dark Ages, St Dunstan, who was the Abbot of Glastonbury before becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which capacity he served under King Edgar whom he crowned at Bath Abbey in 973. Glastonbury, then, was clearly an important place and it was a major destination for pilgrims before the Reformation; even now it retains a reputation as a place of great spirituality steeped in myth and legend (appropriately, Glastonbury is twinned with Lalibela in Ethiopia, a fascinating place which I will write about one day). The abbey ruins themselves are quite majestic, giving visitors a very good idea of just how imposing the abbey would have been in its Medieval heyday.

Glastonbury Abbey grew rich on the wool trade, that staple of the Medieval English economy, after the monks drained the surrounding marshland in order to create grazing-land for sheep. The earliest actual date for which we have documentary evidence about Glastonbury Abbey is 712, when King Ine of Wessex endowed a community of monks there, although some would have it that the abbey had been established prior to this royal endowment. The stories about Glastonbury Abbey’s origins certainly go back further than the conversion of the English in the late sixth and early seventh centuries; there were places on the island of Britain, especially in the West Country, where Christianity existed before St Augustine landed in Kent in 597. Christianity had originally come to these isles in Roman times, and when they left some traces of it stayed here (Bede, for example, refers to the post-Roman British leader Ambrosius beating the Anglo-Saxons at Badon Hill “with God’s help”, as well as noting that the “Pelagian heresy” had “seriously infected the faith of the British church”). St Patrick, who lived in the fifth century, is said to have become the leader of a group of hermits in Glastonbury after returning from Ireland. According to the plaque at the ruined St Michael’s Tower atop the Tor, he “discovered an ancient ruined oratory on the summit after climbing through a dense wood”.

The monks of Glastonbury, though, claimed a much older foundation for their monastery. They propagated a quite extraordinary legend, involving a person from the Bible. Christianity at Glastonbury, so the story goes, went right back to the origins of Christianity itself. Joseph of Arimathea is the man in the Gospels who convinces Pontius Pilate to let him take care of Jesus’s body after the Crucifixion; it was in the sepulchre (rock-cut tomb) that was presumably meant for Joseph that Jesus’s body was placed, and from which it had vanished by the time Mary Magdalen went there on the third day.

After the Resurrection, so the Glastonbury legend goes, Joseph travelled to Britain, to the Isle of Avalon to be exact, bringing with him the cup used at the Last Supper and his staff which had been cut from the same thorn bush which had provided the Crown of Thorns. At Avalon he founded and built a Christian church; if true, this would make Glastonbury the location of not just the first Christian church in Britain but the location of one of the first anywhere. It’s said that when he planted his staff in the ground, it flowered, and there are to this day various thorn bushes in the vicinity that are off-shoots of the original Glastonbury Thorn (which is said to have been destroyed by the Puritans in the seventeenth century). 

The cup – the Holy Grail – he buried, and in time the place where he apparently buried it would come to be called the Chalice Well (so maybe Indiana Jones was looking in the wrong place for the Holy Grail as well as the Ark of the Covenant).

The full story goes even further back, for as an addendum to this we have the notion, not mentioned in the Bible, that Joseph of Arimathea was related to Jesus – specifically, he was the Virgin Mary’s uncle and thus Jesus’s great-uncle (the notion of his being related to Jesus is not inconceivable, offering at the very least an explanation as to how he was able to persuade Pilate to give him the body after the Crucifixion). He was a merchant – evidently a successful one, since he was rich – who travelled to Britain on business. This too is not inconceivable, for it is a matter of historical record that, even though Britain didn’t become a Roman colony until 43 AD (a decade or so after the Crucifixion), merchants and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean had for some time been coming to Britain to buy local products, most notably the tin which has been mined in the West Country for millennia (it is under the name of the ‘Tin Isles’ that the British Isles crop up in Herodotus’s The Histories). And on one of his trips to pre-Roman Britain, he took his great-nephew with him.

This would have been at some point during the big gap in Jesus’s life between when he went to the Temple at the age of 12 and when he started his ministry at around 30, a period of some eighteen years in the life of the Son of God about which the Bible tells us nothing. As well as Glastonbury, which would have been an island (Avalon) back then, there are also a couple of places in Cornwall that claim to have been visited by a young Jesus. They’re not alone, for there are quite a few other places in the world that have been suggested as places which Jesus travelled to during this time (evidently there is an urge for him to have been doing something a bit more interesting than the obvious explanation, that he was working as a carpenter in the Nazareth area). The Glastonbury legend has even inspired a famous song – the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

But is this true? There are many, drawn to the myths of Glastonbury, who would happily believe it. It’s telling, though, that Bede, who is happy to mention the battle of Badon Hill (an event so shrouded in myth and mystery that no-one can say with absolute certainty where it was fought, with that British victory usually being attributed to King Arthur – of whom more shortly), doesn’t mention anything in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People about Joseph of Arimathea bringing a young Jesus to Britain, or of the former coming back after the latter’s death and resurrection. In fact, he doesn’t even mention Glastonbury (which, if we accept the 712 date, was founded in his lifetime) at all. “As to the actual date of Glastonbury's first Christian presence,” writes Ashe, “it remains a mystery. There may have been individual residents, or scattered hermits, before there was anything like a monastery. The monastic legends, however, grew around a material fact. While Joseph himself could hardly have built a church as such – buildings for Christian worship were unknown till much later – the church which he was alleged to have built did exist. Fire destroyed it in 1184; the Lady Chapel today marks the site. Before that it had stood within the precinct from time immemorial, so long that there was no written record of its foundation. It was a simple structure of wattle-work, twigs bound with clay, plus reinforcements of timber and lead. Understandably it was known as the Old Church ... Its dedication, unparalleled in Britain till long after, was to the Virgin Mary, a fact that may hint at pre-Christian Glastonbury having been a goddess sanctuary.”

Finally, no account of Glastonbury can be complete without mentioning the once and future King of the Britons, for the Isle of Avalon is indelibly associated with the legends of King Arthur. And, since his knights were involved in various quests to find the Holy Grail, it make senses (sort of) for Glastonbury to have a legend about that too (see above). One of the places you can see from the top of the Tor is Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort which some reckon to have been the location of Arthur’s court, Camelot. Avalon’s main Arthurian association, though, comes with the final part of Arthur’s story. When Arthur was wounded at the battle of Camlann (the one in which he defeated the treacherous Sir Mordred), he was taken to Avalon, an island that was said to have healing properties.  

The association of Avalon with Glastonbury was cemented in the year 1191. In that year, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey were digging in an old cemetery during the rebuilding of their monastery (following the afore-mentioned fire of 1184) when they unearthed a lead cross. The Latin inscription on it read Hie Jacet Sepultus Inclytus Rex Arthurus In Insula Avalonia, which is translated into English as ‘here lies interred in the Isle of Avalon the renowned King Arthur’. The monks, so the story goes, dug deeper and found two human skeletons, one male and one female, which they assumed to be those of Arthur and Guinevere. This may have a dubious ring to it, especially when one takes into consideration that this was the same monastery that claimed to have been founded by someone from the Bible, but what’s evidently important here is not necessarily what the remains were but what they were believed to be. The historical record shows that in 1278 these remains were reburied amid much pomp and circumstance (and in the presence of King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile) close to the high alter of the abbey church; Glastonbury Abbey’s status as a major pilgrimage venue was assured. The tomb survived until the abbey’s dissolution in 1539, and to this day the site of it can still be seen amid the majestic ruins of this once-great monastic establishment.


Kentish landings

To Kent, where on a twenty-mile stretch of coastline you can find the locations of not one but four sites commemorating famous landings in England, all of which have played a key role in shaping the world in which we live today.

The first one is in the woods near Dover Castle, that fortress atop the White Cliffs that overlooks the UK’s busiest port. The castle, said to be England’s largest, has for centuries existed with the purpose of preventing hostile forces from landing on our shores; it was used by the military until the 1980s, and not for nothing has it been called the ‘Key to England’! Dover, of course, was part of the Medieval confederation known as the Cinque Ports, established to ensure that men and ships were available to defend that part of our coast that was closest to Europe in the event of an invasion. Dover is of course older – its status as the gateway to Britain goes back to Roman times, when it was called Portus Dubris and was the principal means by which Roman troops and traders arrived in the province of Britannia.

Anyway, somewhere in the woods just to the east of the castle is the concrete outline of an old aeroplane. This commemorates the first (and historically the most recent) of our landing-spots, the place where Louis Blériot landed in July 1909, having completed the first flight over the English Channel. Actually, it wasn’t the first flight, for a Frenchman and an American had crossed the Channel in a hot-air balloon in 1785, but it was the first flight in an aeroplane. This was just six years after the Wright brothers had done the first powered flight, and public interest in who would be the first to fly across the Channel was high thanks to the Daily Mail which had in 1908 offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could complete the feat. When 1908 ended with the money unclaimed, the paper upped the prize to £1000. Apparently the paper’s owner reckoned that one the Wright brothers – Wilbur – would be the first, but in the event he had already amassed a fortune from prize money from duration and altitude flights, as well as from sales contracts, and thought the cash on offer to be not worth the risk. Several days before Blériot took off, a rival had attempted the crossing, only to become not the first person to fly an aeroplane across the Channel but the first person to a crash-land an aeroplane on water (he survived).

Blériot flew without a compass, planning instead to take his course from a French destroyer which was sailing across the Channel as his escort, however he hit low cloud and the wind blew him off course; when he did land, it was a crash-landing which damaged his craft’s undercarriage and propeller. But he had successfully flown across the Channel all the same, even though the Mail’s correspondent didn’t witness the landing (he’d been expecting Blériot to land on the beach, and on being told that the intrepid aviator had actually landed above the cliffs near the castle he quickly got hold of a motor-car and headed up there). Louis Blériot’s place in history was assured, and today he is commemorated by the concrete outline of his aeroplane – his own design, called the Blériot XI – on the spot where he landed, which is a few minutes’ walk through the trees from Upper Road (just off the A258); there were no trees there when he landed, which just goes to show how landscapes can change over time.

Along the coast in a northerly direction there are castles – Walmer, which to this day is the home of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (now entirely ceremonial but the position does still come with a castle!), and Deal, built as a defensive fortification by Henry VIII (it’s got round walls, thus eliminating the corners of square keeps which were the most vulnerable points once cannons started to be used, and has three levels from which cannons faced out to sea). Between the two is a plaque commemorating the oldest of our landing-sites, that of Julius Caesar in 55 BC.

This is the event that is often said to mark the beginning of British history – although the Romans and others had certainly traded with Britain before (the Phoenicians are known to have bought tin from the West Country for centuries before 55 BC), the British Isles were very much on the edge of the known world and Julius Caesar’s visit was the first time anyone had come over in a military capacity. He’d just conquered Gaul, and his invasion of Britain was, according to Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “an integral part of his task of subjugating the Northern barbarians to the rule and system of Rome.” Caesar, who suspected the Britons of having aided their fellow-Celts the Gauls in their struggle against Rome, regarded the people of the south-eastern corner of the island (modern-day Kent) as being the most civilised on said island on account of their being the closest to mainland Europe.  Not that that was saying much, for they were nevertheless “a tougher and coarser branch of the Celtic tribes whom he was subduing in Gaul” (Churchill again), and he appears to have regarded their pre-battle preparations, which consisted of taking their clothes off and painting themselves blue, with some distaste (he was even less keen on their priests, the Druids, who he’d heard performed human sacrifices).

Caesar judged Dover to be unsuitable for a landing (those blue-painted warriors standing on top of the cliffs must have been off-putting), so he opted to land on the beach between Walmer and Deal instead. His troops were able to fight off the natives and establish a beach-head but they were beset by bad weather and the tides, not something they’d ever had to worry about in the Mediterranean. Unable to advance further inland, he returned to Europe after a couple of weeks. He was back a year later, better prepared and with a larger force, and this time he was able to advance inland and indulge in a bit of dividing and conquering by setting one of the British tribes against another, but when he heard of a revolt in Gaul Caesar left once again, never to return. The Roman conquest of Britain would not happen until 43 AD, when Emperor Claudius sent Vespasian over with an army (which, interestingly, included elephants) to subjugate the Britons and establish a new Roman colony, Britannia.

Further along the coast, beyond Sandwich but not quite as far as Ramsgate, is Pegwell Bay, once the location of a major hoverport from where big vehicle-carrying hovercraft departed for Calais. The hovercraft have long gone (the hoverport closed in 1982), but there is one very large piece of evidence that points to an older sea-crossing. Back in 1949, a group of intrepid Danes sailed a life-size replica of a Viking longship from Denmark to Kent. They actually landed at Broadstairs, but the ship, called the Hugin, was put on display at Pegwell Bay to commemorate a landing which took place at Ebbsfleet, a hamlet at the head of Pegwell Bay marking the eastern end of the channel which once separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kentish mainland, in the year 449. This arrival would have a profound effect on the course of our history; indeed, the island of Britain would never be the same again.

Although a Viking longship commemorates this landing, those who landed weren’t Vikings. The arrivals of 449 were two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, warriors apparently invited over as mercenaries by a warlord known as King Vortigern. They brought with them a motley crew of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who hailed from what’s now Denmark and northern Germany; in due course, more of them followed. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede records that they “were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on the condition that they protected the country: nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it.” This they did, becoming the ancestors of the English, for as Bede continues: “From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight … From the Saxons … came the East, South and West Saxons. And from the Angles … are descended the East and Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the Northumbrian stock … and the other English peoples.” A plaque close to the Hugin thus commemorates this landing as the ‘beginning of English history’.

Not far inland, there is commemorated an arrival of a more spiritual kind which also changed Britain for ever.  Over a century after the arrival of Hengist and Horsa, the Anglo-Saxons (as they became known) had come to dominate much of the island of Britain, establishing several kingdoms – an arrangement known to historians as the Heptarchy. By the 590s, the kingdom of Kent was ruled by one Ethelbert (sometimes referred to as Æthelberht), who according to Bede was a descendant of the afore-mentioned Hengist. In the year 597, a missionary arrived from Rome. Christianity had come to Britain before, when the Romans had converted to it, but the Anglo-Saxons had arrived after the Romans had left and were very much a pagan people.

That changed with the arrival on the Isle of Thanet of St Augustine, the missionary sent by Pope Gregory to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to the true faith, starting with the ones in Kent since they were the closest to Europe (like Caesar before him, Gregory appears to have regarded the people who lived in Kent as the most civilised in Britain, probably for the same reason). Ethelbert, who according to Bede “had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house called Bertha, whom he had received from her parents on condition that she should have freedom to hold and practice her faith unhindered”, went out to meet him. He listened to Augustine preach a sermon, following which he allowed him to establish a base in Canterbury (which is why to this day the most senior Anglican clergyman is the archbishop of that fine city). He even converted to Christianity himself, which gave Augustine “greater freedom to preach and to build and restore churches everywhere”; thus did the English become a Christian people. The spot where Augustine preached his first sermon on English soil is, therefore, of great historical importance, and it is today commemorated by a cross – St Augustine’s Cross, the last of our Kentish landing commemorations.