Cliffe History

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The Ancient Parish of Cliffe

The ancient parish of Cliffe is one of the largest parishes in Kent and now contains two villages: the ancient village of Cliffe and the more recent village of Cliffe Woods and it is now known as the Parish of Cliffe and Cliffe Woods.

It is situated in North Kent: its northern boundary is that of the River Thames with Gravesend laying some six miles to the west and Rochester five miles to the south and to most casual visitors it appears to be a sleepy, ‘out-of-the-way’, small rural settlement of little importance.

However, once boasted as being far different from today with one of the earliest writings on the history of Cliffe by William Lambarde, (A Perambulation of Kent, 1576) where he mentions that ‘Cliffe is a large town of great importance’ and this is reinforced by Richard Kilburn in 1659.
During the medieval period the population of Cliffe has been estimated to have been around 3,000. Up until the 10th century a ford made crossing the River Thames to Essex possible and, after sea levels rose, a ferry system replaced it. However, with rising sea levels and numerous storm surges, the low laying lands near the Thames became unusable and the process of land reclamation was put into operation. By 1779 Edward Hasted, in his work ‘The History and Topographical History of the County of Kent’ Cliffe was recorded as “once being a larger town than it is now” and continued to describe Cliffe as ‘daily growing into further ruin and poverty, the number of the inhabitants lessening yearly, and several of the houses, for want of them, lying in ruins’.
By the mid 1800’s the population of Cliffe had fallen to just a few hundred until the building of the cement factories and later explosives works brought the population of Cliffe back to around 3,000 by 1880’s
Cliffe parish church of St. Helen’s is one of the largest parish churches in Kent and was a site of Christian worship since at least AD 774 when King Offa of Mercia  granted land for the building of a church.
The original church has gone, with the possible exception of a rough doorway which may be Saxon. This can be seen on the outside of the north wall. A Norman church followed, the chancel arch of which remains.
The present nave, transepts, and lower part of the tower date from 1260. The chancel was rebuilt, and the aisles widened, about 1350. The belfry is 15th century and the top of the tower is modern.
The Parish of Cliffe, together with its church, was known as a ‘Peculiar’ which meant that it was exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop in whose diocese it lies, its jurisdiction lays instead be with another bishop, with the holder of some other ecclesiastical position: in Cliffe's case this was the Archbishop of Canterbury and this situation continued until 1845.
The Old Rectory, itself a listed building, dates from the 14th century and was originally a Great Hall built for Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury and that ‘the Prior of Christ Church Canterbury gave a licence in 1333 to the Rector of Clyve permitting the celebration of divine service in the chapel dedicated to St Lawrence within the house’.

In 1337 the Bishop of Rochester, Hame de Hethe, rebuilt the house at great expense. Historic records of Kent detail the later damage caused during the periods of civil disturbance by Watt Tyler’s men from the Peasants Revolt in 1378 and/or Jack Cade’s forces in the 1450’s rebellion. It is also believed that the hall was used as a staging post, by the Archbishops and monks
The Old Rectory housed Cliffe Rectors in the past with Cliffe Rectors producing six Archbishops, eighteen Archdeacons, seven Bishops, four Deans, six Chancellors (four of which being either King’s or Lord’s) and twenty-six Canons. Is it no wonder that the living at Cliffe was described, in the 17th century, as ‘one of the prizes of the church’.
The Councils of Clovesho/Clofeshoas were held in the 8th & 9th centuries. It is these councils, or synods, where bishops, abbots, kings of Mercia and chief men of the kingdom would meet to discuss matters of state: the Acts passed in the Synod of AD 825 had over one hundred and twenty signatories of whom ninety-five were clerical.
Although the location of these councils it is totally unknown and a number of places have been suggested, it has been strongly rumoured that Cliffe, and its surroundings, may have been the location.


Many thanks to the many individuals from Cliffe and Cliffe Woods, and the surrounding area, who have helped with putting this site together. Special thanks goes to the staff at Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre,  Emma Thompson and Richard Penny of the University of Southampton for their research help and especially to Peter Tann, of Kent Archaeological Society, who kindly approached the KAS Publications Committee for permission to reproduce their work.

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