Adventures in Bookland: St Augustine’s First Footfall by Gerald Moody
This slim (87 page) book does exactly what it says in its subtitle: An Investigation into the Probable Location of the Landing Site of Augustine’s Mission in 597 AD. Of course, the really fascinating thing is why Augustine (the missionary sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring the pagan and barbarian Angl0-Saxons into the fold of civilisation) should land right where, in centuries before and afterward, visitors and invaders ranging from the Emperor Claudius, through Hengist and Horsa, all manner of Vikings and, even would-be invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler, all made first footfall.
The answer lies in part in geography. Yes, Dover is closer to France, but it is exposed and has great towering cliffs standing over it: a particularly vulnerable place to make a landing. The great secret to landing where Augustine, and so many others, landed, is that the Isle of Thanet really was an island back then, a chalk hill cut off from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel. In places, this channel was a mile wide, and up until the 15th century a ferry trip was still needed to get to Thanet. But the Wantsum silted up, joining Thanet to the mainland. However, while Thanet was an island, it provided a unique, and uniquely defensible, entry point to England.
In this book, Gerald Moody, deputy director of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, employs the latest research into how Thanet’s coastline has changed to investigate just where Augustine and his team of Italian missionaries landed in 597 AD. According to our chronicler of the event, Bede, Augustine and crew were detained on Thanet while the king of Kent, Æthelberht, decided what to do with these strange visitors. Moody does an excellent job of examining the historical account through the lens of modern archaeology, and makes a convincing case for his siting of the landing and the location of Augustine’s stay on Thanet.
In short, an absorbing and detailed little book, well worth reading for anyone interested in the particulars (Augustine’s mission) or the general (England’s changing coastline).