A History of Penshurst

Prior to 1066

No prehistoric remains have been found in Penshurst except for a burial urn found near Chested. It is therefore assumed there was a cemetery on the site since the name CHESTED was given to the spot in the times of the Jutes and means “the place of the coffins”. However, evidence of Neolithic flints have been found at Bore Place, Chiddingstone, which suggests that Stone Age hunters had roamed there.

In early Saxon times nearly all the Weald of Kent, the land between the chalk ridges of the North and South Downs, was covered in ancient broadleaf forest but there are indications that much of what is now Penshurst had been cultivated clearings since Roman days. The Romans left no tangible relics although we have a record of their measurement for land in the “Yokes” of Chested, Vexour, Chafford etc. The yoke is the old Roman ‘jugum’, about 50 acres. This word has survived only in Kent. One theory is that the the Jutes conquered Kent, whereas the Angles and Saxons (c 450 AD) settled over the remainder of England. In these ‘yokes’ along the banks of the river Medway crops such as corn would have been cultivated.

No charters or writings survive concerning Penshurst from Saxon times, but in that period the boundaries of the Parish were defined.The suffix ‘hurst’ is a Saxon word meaning a settlement in underdeveloped woodland. Neighbouring parishes were made up of a collection of “dens” these were clearings with grazing rights for pigs which fed on the acorns. They were granted by various Jutish Kings of Kent to the overlords of certain populations. Interestingly, in 2004 wild boar are once again roaming Kentish woodland, although not in these parts. Many nearby villages still have ‘den’ incorporated in the name, for instance, Horsemonden, Cowden, Edenbridge.

When there were two kings in Kent, Otford is believed to have been the capital of the western one. At some stage, date unknown, the overlordship of Otford Manor was granted to the Archbishop of Canterbury by a Saxon King of Kent and until the Reformation (c. 1535) it was the Archbishop who was the capital lord of the Manor of Penshurst Halomote. He collected a percentage from all ground rents collected from the inhabitants of Penshurst. These ‘Manor Courts’ even controlled the price of bread and ale and it was fixed according to the price of corn. In the Penshurst Manor Court Roll can be read the punishment they awarded to cheats or transgressors. For example, to the bad baker the pillory, or to the wicked common brewer the tumbril.

The Norman Invasion 1066 and beyond.

When the Normans invaded village life would have been quite an organised affair and the small Saxon church would have been filled with villagers as it had been for 300 – 400 years.

The Men of Kent had put up considerable resistance to William 1 so he set up garrisons of Normans in a few key sites in Kent from where they could oversee large districts. Tonbridge Castle, six miles to the east, was one of these. To provide for his garrison a district surrounding Tonbridge was mapped out, the original owners dispossessed and it was handed over to William’s nominees. This district was called The Leuga or Lowy of Tonbridge.

This Lowy became the hereditary right of a family who later became the Earls of Gloucester. Gradually the Earls of Gloucester gained more and more power and encroached further and further upon the rights of neighbouring landlords, especially upon the lands of the Archbishop. So in 1259 it was decided by Royal Authority that a commission should make a perambulation of the Lowry to decide the boundaries of the Earl’s land. In 1280 this was repeated since not everyone was entirely satisfied.

Until 1280 the Earls of Gloucester received all rents within the Lowy of Tonbridge whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury received, through the Manor of Otford all rents from the remainder of the parish.

Occupants of the original Penshurst Place

We do not know the names of the officials of the Lowy who presumably occupied the Court of Penshurst during the 150 years following the Conquest, though it seems that a certain Ralph de Dene was living there in 1200 when he is referred to in a deed dated 1202 as ‘Ralph de Pensherst’

In 1240 there is a record referring to “Sir John Belleymeyns, Cannon of St. Paul’s, London and Lord Mayor of Penshurst.” His sister married Sir Laurence de Cobham and their son was Sir Stephen de Pencestre. The name of Pencestre does not occur until 1263 and was almost invariably in association with Sir Stephen - it is believed he changed his name. It faded out about 1340 after Sir Stephens grandsons sold their interests here. Sir Stephen died in 1299 and his damaged monument lies in the church. The Court or place in which he lived has now entirely disappeared, it most likely had a moat. Sir Stephen was succeeded by one of his married daughters and her sons sold Penshurst in 1338 to Sir John Pultenay, a rich wool merchant.

Sir John Pultenay built ‘The Great Hall ’ in 1340 which visitors can still see today in Penshurst Place. It is probably the finest remaining piece of fourteen century domestic architecture in England. Poultenay was four times Lord Mayor of London in the 1330’s and died in 1349 (the year of the ‘Black Death’).

The colourful history of this ancestral home from this time to the present can be found on the Penshurst Place website www.penshurstplace.com