Searching for Hampshire's English Roots
Old Romney, New Romney and Our Romney
Part 3 of a series of articles exploring the connection between
our Hampshire County,
Lord Fairfax, and England. This is the Expanded Web Edition created in support of
the Romney 250th Celebration.
Romney's Unsuccessful Fight Against the Retreating Sea
The light blue shallow waters of the estuary eventually get filled
in with sediment from the rivers and shale and sand from the sea.
Don't miss photo album at bottom of page.
Best viewed in Firefox or other CSS compatible browser in full screen mode (use the "F11" function key to toggle this feature).
The Retreating Sea
Sometimes history leaves us tantalizing mysteries that continue to baffle us. The naming of our county seat, Romney, is one such mystery. Of course, tradition tells us that Lord Fairfax established the town and named it for one of the Cinque Ports ("Five" Ports) of south-east England. But why did he name our Romney in the mountains after a long-esteemed port town that was in his day past its prime and landlocked over a mile from the English Channel? In Lord Fairfax's time it had long ago lost its importance as a port city and instead gained notoriety as a center for smuggling wool. It was noted for its sheep farms since the soil that had filled in the old estuary grew forage that was perfect for large sheep farms, and the French across the Channel were willing to pay more for Romney's precious wool than local markets could fetch. Certainly, our Romney is located on a major branch of the Potomac River, and our settlers did raise sheep although they were not the major livestock. But the connection is somewhat puzzling since we do not know that Lord Fairfax had a personal connection with New Romney. All the other place names he chose were located near Leeds Castle or were places with which he had a personal connection. What was special about "Romney."
New Romney had, in fact, suffered from the vagaries of time and tide for many centuries. Originally, the area where Romney was located was a large estuary or inland bay with an opening to the sea and the mouth of the Rother River (formerly Limen) emptying into it from the land side. It became known as Romney Marsh. Although the estuary was not very deep, it could handle boats of the time which were comparatively shallow draft. Apparently, beginning in 700-800 A.D. climatic conditions began to cause storms and sea currents that would bring drastic changes to the area. As the bay began to be filled up with both sediment brought by the river and by sand, gravel, and slate washed in by the Channel currents, islands arose. Romney was situated on one of these high spots. The first written reference to this island is dated 740 A.D. in a grant of King Ethelbert which mentions the chapel of St. Martin located here. Earlier, in Roman times Julius Caesar had scouted this bay as a landing site for his contemplated invasion of Britain, but he did not reference particular islands that could be identified as Romney.
Over the centuries as the process of silting and debris accumulation continued it became harder to get boats well into the bay, particularly as boats became larger with deeper drafts. There were a number of attempts by the inhabitants to thwart nature's course including the construction of a wall/canal that attempted to force the Rother river into a course that would flush sediment into the ocean. This project became known as the Rhee wall. However, neither this nor other projects nor laws that conscripted people to join in the work of keeping the harbors open, would stop nature from having its way, so people began to move southeast toward the retreating sea. Thus the original town of Romney became "Old Romney" as the people moved just over a mile and a half away to a safer harbor and built "New Romney." No matter what they did, including building a sea wall and a canal, the townspeople could not stop the sea's retreat. Then in 1287 a catastrophic event occurred.
The Great Storm
In the middle of the thirteenth century weather patterns changed and the area experienced a series of great storms. The most powerful was one of 1287 that brought several feet of shale and debris into the area. Today, as a result of these storms, Romney is buried under about a meter of shale. The evidence can be seen at the two churches still standing. The entrance and main floor of St. Nicholas in New Romney is about three and a half feet below the outside ground level. At Old Romney, to get into St. Clements one descends stairs about two and a half feet high. This insurge of sediment moved the sea front over half a mile from New Romney. Where once boats had beached on the shore and thrown their anchors over the stone wall surrounding St. Nicholas's church yard, there was now no possibility of approaching the town. Even the course of the River Rother moved about fifteen miles away to enter the sea at Rye. Thus New Romney became landlocked, and it had to look to professions other than fishing and seafaring for its support.
The Cinque Ports
To understand the history of Romney, one must know something about the association of port towns known as the "Cinque Ports." Romney's fame goes back to pre-Norman conquest times. The Cinque Ports were a group of five (from French "cinque") ports (Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich) known for their shipbuilding abilities and the prowess of their sailors. When William the Conqueror attempted to land at Romney during his conquest of England in 1066, he was repulsed by the men of Romney Marsh and had to move his landing farther west near Hastings. William and the kings after him gave these Cinque Ports special privileges and tax benefits, and in return required them to supply ships in time of war. It was this arrangement, as well as the benefits the ports brought to the country through their sea trading and fishing networks, that made Romney and the other ports so important and relatively rich. The Cinque Ports actually became a sort of quasi-governmental entity of its own with jealously guarded special privileges and democratic rights including their own court system and freedom from most royal taxes. We should note the relationship between these coveted priviledges and the growing English yearning for democratic rights that is part of the foundation for our own democracy. Eventually Rye and Winchelsea were added as full members, and later other town were added as associates.
Much of this importance began to be seriously eroded by the storms of the mid-13th century and the retreat of the sea from Romney. Other ports were similarly affected. Old Winchelsea actually disappeared, and Rye found its coast retreating. By the time of the Spanish Armada of 1588 the shallow draft ships of the Cinque Ports and the fact that they were moving to other forms of occupation meant that the ports had to hire larger warships to fulfill their responsibility to the king. Meanwhile, under Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, the crown was beginning to establish what would become the Royal Navy, so it no longer had to rely on the Cinque Ports to supply ships.
Fortunately for New Romney, the sea that had retreated and left the town without a port had left something in return that allowed a degree of prosperity to continue. The old marsh was now dry and fertile enough to sustain sheep farming and other agricultural endeavors. Wool production became more important, although fishing and trading continued to bring income although other sea ports were taking the lead. In the 14th century this plus the decline in population due to the Black Death and the early effects of the little ice age, meant that less productivity was enjoyed by fewer people. Thus the result was not seriously reduced per-capita income. By the end of the 15th century the expansion in international travel and trade, as well as the the increase in prestige and prosperity of other seaports such as Lydd, Sandwich and, on a larger scale, London, showed New Romney to be in decline. Because of its relative isolation, it would never regain its former stature.
By Lord Fairfax's time sheep farming was a major business for Romney Marsh. However, due to government restrictions and duties, smuggling became a major way of gaining income from wool. A large part of the population was engaged in smuggling pursuits which were relatively lucrative due to the isolation of New Romney and the ease of shipping wool to France by small boats launched from isolated beaches. This profession contributed not only to the financial properity of the people but also to a wealth of local tales about the business. Several literary works made Romney Marsh their setting.
The Scenic Railway
In 1927 the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway opened between Romney and Hythe. A year later it extended to Dungeness. It is billed as the World's Smallest Public Railway and uses 15-inch track. It serves tourists with scenic rides along the sea coast from Hythe to Dungeness through Romney. It also serves to bring school children to the Marsh Academy near the Romney depot. During World War II it was commandeered by the Army and militarized. Its armoured cars guarded the coast particularly were the undersea petroleum line ran to France to supply Allied troops.
Church of St. Nicholas
In the Domesday Book of 1086 Romney is listed as having five churches. The only one that remains today is the Church of St. Nicholas. It is perhaps the oldest complete building in New Romney. Dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, it was begun in the early 1100s by William the Conqueror's brother-in-law, Bishop Odo. Its tower was begun probably in the same century. Then in the 13th and 14th centuries the tower was raised and the church expanded. Today one can see the progress of the centuries by the change in architectural styles throughout the building. Stout Norman pillars and rounded windows are set alongside transitional and early Gothic arches. Interestingly, the Caen stone for the church was brought from France. This gives us some indication of both the wealth and trading power of Romney that allowed shipping stone across the English Channel. The floor has several tomb markers; the earliest brass marker is dated 1375.
For an article and photos on St. Clements Church, Old Romney, and St. Nicholas Church, New Romney, Click Here. Not available yet - check back later.
On High Street, the main commercial street of the town, are many buildings of various ages and styles. Even when a building looks new, it may be built around a very old structure or used in the same way as the first occupant of the site. There are many names that remind one of Romney, West Virginia. You can take care of business at the Town Hall, buy a bike at Romney Cycles, shop at the Hospice used-items store, eat at the Romney Grill, check books at the Romney Library, get some Chinese carry-out, have your computer repaired, buy some real estate, or get some cash at one of two banks sitting side by side. Unfortunately, you can't get a sandwich at Subway; it just closed. Its almost like home, but be careful crossing the street; look to the right first - they drive on the wrong side of the road.
See the Photo Gallery below. Click for an enlargement and caption.
The Town Hall
Like our Romney, West Virginia, New Romney has its Town Hall located on the main highway through town. The building is relatively new, dating from the eighteenth century. Next to it is a small building, now privately owned, that was originally the jail. Next to that is the New Inn which is said to have served its first customers in 1381. The large chamber upstairs in the Town Hall is the Council meeting room; it also formerly served as the court room. It is something of a small museum of New Romney history, and, of importance to us, it has a copy of the oldest surviving plat of Romney, West Virginia, as well as a letter giving the House of Burgesses bill that established Romney in Virginia. Because it has such an interesting collection of artifacts relating to the town's history, we are including a large number of photographs in the album at the bottom of this page. If you click on the small thumbnail images, a larger, full screen image will appear. Click again on the larger image (or press "x") and it will disappear. You must have Java enabled on your browser. Also note that there are informative captions below the large photos or appearing as tooltips when you mouse over the small thumbnails.
We still have not answered the question of why Lord Fairfax chose to name our West Viginia town after New Romney in England. There are some possibilities. First, it is possible that the Culpeppers had landholdings in southern Kent County in the area of Romney Marsh. If so, Thomas would have been familiar with the old Cinque Port town of Romney. Unfortunately, it is difficult to trace all the family's parcels of land across England. Smaller holdings, in particular, may not have been important enough to appear in general references. However, there is also the possibility of a distant link that may have been in Fairfax's mind. In researching the title of St. Clements Church, the late local historian, Ann Roper, states that the advowson of St. Clements belonged to several notable families including that of the Badlesmeres. We had met Bartholomew de Badlesmere and his connection with the Culpeppers earlier in the article about Leeds Castle. Whether the Culpeppers (and thus Lord Fairfax) later came into some of Bartholomew's holdings, or whether it was just an interesting connection, we may never know. There is also the possibility that Lord Fairfax personally knew of Romney by travels to the family's estates on the Isle of Wight. However, there is no documentary evidence of any of these connections. It is still a puzzle.
- 55 B.C. Julius Caesar scouted Romney Marsh bay as a landing site for his contemplated invasion of Britain
- 740 a grant of King Ethelbert mentions the oratory of St. Martin located at Romney (probably New Romney, see: The Sea and the Marsh p. 14).
- 1066 William the Conqueror is turned away from a Romney Marsh landing by local boats; he goes west to land near Hastings.
- c. 1125 coins minted at Romney under King Cnut and later under Edward the Confessor
- c. 1140s-1150s The building of St. Nicholas Church in New Romney is thought to have begun under William the Conqueror's half-brother, Bishop Odo.
- c. 1160s work seems to have stopped on building of St. Nicholas
- c. late 1180s work starts again in tower of St. Nicholas in new Gothic style
- 1287 the greatest storm of a series of storms buries New Romney under about a meter of shale it washes in from the English Channel.
- 1352 date of earliest surviving New Romney records now at the Kent County Archives
- 1380 The New Inn in New Romney begins trading
- 1575 Queen Elizabeth grants a Royal Charter of Incorporation to New Romney
- 1762 The Town of Romney, Virginia, is established.
- 1781 Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, dies in Virginia and is buried in the old Christ Church in Winchester.
- 1863 Romney, Virginia becomes Romney, West Virginia, with the establishment of West Virginia during the Civil War.
- 1884 Railroad completed from Green Spring to Romney, West Virginia
- 1927 Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway opens in New Romney, England
- 1991 Potomac Eagle scenic train begins service out of Romney, West Virginia
The Sea and the Marsh: The Medieval Cinque Port of New Romney revealed through archaeological excavations and historical research by Gillian Draper and Frank Meddens; Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited, Monograph No. 10, 2009.
The Gift of the Sea: Romney Marsh by Anne Roper; Birlings (Kent) Ltd., Ashford, Kent, England, 1988.
The History of St. Nicholas, New Romney by Joan Campbell; PCC and Friends of St. Nicholas, New Romney, 2010.
New Romney Town Trail a tourist pamphlet by the Romney Marsh Countryside Project.
"Churches in a Maritime Landscape" by Nathalie Cohen; The Romney March Irregular, no. 31, Spring 2008.
Hampshire County and its County Town - Not Available Yet
Forts, Towns and a Home on the Frontier