Hernhill Church, Kent

The first church here was constructed in the Saxon period and was eventually replaced by a stone and wood church built around 1120 and dedicated to St. Stephen. Some of the masonry from this original stone construction is still visible in the south wall. The church which forms the core of today’s church was begun around 1450 at which time the dedication was changed to St. Michael. It is unusual in Kent being almost entirely perpendicular in style. As if often the case the church was heavily rebuilt, particularly inside, in the late Victorian period.

Although the fabric of the church has a fairly typical English parish church history, the church is associated with one of those typically Kentish peculiarities, in this case the Battle of Bossenden Wood.

The Battle of Bossenden Wood took place on 31 May 1838 and has been described as the ‘last battle on English soil’. The Battle was between a small group of local labourers and a detachment of soldiers from Canterbury.

The background starts with one “Sir William Courtenay” – in reality a Cornishman named John Nicols Tom who appeared in Canterbury in 1832. In December that year he had unsuccessfully stood for election and in 1833 was convicted to perjury after giving false evidence in defence of some smugglers. He was sentenced to transportation but when a woman from Cornwall turned up and identified him as her missing, and sometimes insane, husband he was instead locked up in Barming Health Asylum. By 1837 he was out of the Asylum and generally stirring up trouble around the Kentish farms.

On 29 May 1838 Courtenay and his band of rag-tag followers began to march around the countryside with a flag and a loaf of bread on a pole (a traditional sign of protest). Local landowners were unsettled by this protest and on 31 May a warrant was issued for his arrest. The parish constable arrived to arrest Courtenay, and Courtenay shot him dead.

At this point all hell broke loose and a detachment of the 45th Foot Regiment were detached to take control. By this point Courtenay’s band had dwindled to around 40 men armed with sticks and farm implements. Only Courtenay had a gun. The army surrounded the protesters and it looked as though the rebellion might collapse. Then Courtenay shot dead Lieutenant Henry Boswell Bennett. This was the final straw and the soldiers opened fire. Courtenay was shot and killed as were eight of his followers plus one man on the side of the law.

In the end eleven men died that day. Six, including Courtenay, are buried at Hernhill. Lieutenant Bennett was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. A further 30 of Courtenay’s followers were later arrested and many were sent to Australia for life. All in all, a peculiar footnote in history but one which adds a little spice to the story of Hernhill Church.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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