Medieval kings and queens of earlier times led busy lives, fighting enemies at home and abroad, thinking up cunning plans for raising taxes and arguing with their knights. Their current archbishop of Canterbury could be a useful ally or a potential foe in such tasks, and Charing’s palace would therefore have been strategically positioned for discussion of mighty matters and not just a bed and breakfast stop on the way to or from Canterbury. Whereas Canterbury itself might have been considered the archbishop’s home territory, Charing could provide more neutral ground.
Several kings are known to have visited Charing’s palace , often at important points of their reign. All of them must have provided a great source of interest for Charing residents; some would have been rubbing their hands with glee at the extra income from their goods and services being in demand; others would have been less than enthusiastic. The archbishops too might have been disgruntled at having to fork out the huge sums involved in entertaining royalty .
In June 1297 King Edward I – affectionately or otherwise known as Longshanks – came to stay at a critical point in his plans for warfare in Flanders. He had been on bad terms with Archbishop Winchelsea over whether or not clergy should be liable for taxes to the crown. Although this thorny problem had been solved at the end of the previous year, Edward’s visit could have been a strategic visit to improve relations as he was engaged in bitter fighting with his barons over the exact terms of the military service they owed him .
Two years later Edward was again at Charing in June and this time perhaps for happier reasons. Firstly, Charing was an important stop on a 24-day royal progress around Kent , and secondly in September Edward was to marry again and the ceremony would take place in Canterbury. The death of his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, had caused the king great grief, but his marriage to the sister of the King of France, Margaret, was to prove equally happy, although she was forty years his junior .
Edward’s son, later Edward II, also married a French princess, Isabella who became known, fairly or unfairly, as the ‘she-wolf of France’. She had a lot to put up with, having been sidelined by her husband and his favourites, first Piers Galveston, after whose execution she and Edward enjoyed some happier years. Then the marriage came seriously unstuck when Hugh Despenser took Piers Galveston’s place as favourite.
Having been sent to France by Edward on a diplomatic mission in 1325, which she loyally carried out, Isabella then refused to return to England – at least while Hugh Despenser remained at Edward’s side. On 28th May the following year Edward stayed at Charing Palace , on his way to a meeting that had massive political implications, and it’s possible that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, who was backing Isabella, was with him. Edward was on his way to the archbishop’s castle of Saltwood to meet envoys from the pope who were still trying to prise Edward away from Hugh Despenser . If Archbishop Reynolds did his best at Charing to persuade Edward that this was a good plan, it didn’t work. Hugh Despenser remained at court.
Views vary on whether this undoubtedly wronged wife and capricious husband secretly yearned for reconciliation, but the Gordian knot was cut when Isabella and her co-conspirator (and, as most believe, lover) Roger Mortimer, lst Earl of March, mounted an invasion of England. Raising an army they set off across the Channel in September 1326, landing at Orwell in Essex. Unfortunately Edward had been expecting an invasion by the king of France on the south coast and Isabella and Mortimer’s comparatively small force landing in Essex proved his downfall. He fled to Wales only to face abdication and then be murdered.
Over a hundred and fifty years later, King Henry VII, who had come to the throne after the Battle of Bosworth and Richard III’s death, came to Charing frequently . Perhaps he remembered the area from earlier times, as his happy marriage had taken place in Canterbury . At the time of Henry’s first known visit in 1498 the archbishop was Cardinal John Morton, expert in interesting ways of exacting taxes (known as Morton’s fork), as he had also been Lord Chancellor. Henry obviously had a good time at Charing as he was back again the next year on two occasions. It was about this time that there was some rebuilding and modernisation work done at Charing’s archbishop’s palace, which might have helped tempt him there. Morton died in 1500, but Henry returned in 1505, having appointed William Warham as archbishop of Canterbury. Warham like Morton was also Henry’s Chancellor. He was also, according to his friend Erasmus, ‘one of the best of men and an honour to the realm…so modest that he is unconscious of his superiority. Under a quiet manner, he is witty, energetic and laborious .’
Henry VII had been going through a time of great grief personally. His eldest son and heir Arthur had died three years earlier and only a year later his wife Elizabeth had also died. Henry was a peacemaker, and greatly interested in the economy, and his frequent visits to the palace at Charing might well have been business discussions as well as for a retreat from the hurly burly of London.
His last visit to Charing in 1507 proved to have little to do with the economy, however. The king was having a great many problems with the arrangements to marry Catherine of Aragon to his younger son, Henry. The snag was that Catherine had been married to Prince Arthur, the elder son who had now died, which required negotiations not only with her family but with the Pope – all to a continual barrage of complaints at her treatment from the lady herself . Henry’s health was not good and it was about to get worse. Shortly before Easter Sunday, 1507 (Easter Sunday was on 4th April, Henry fell victim to a very painful attack of quinsy, an abscess in the throat that prevented him from swallowing for nearly a week; he was ‘left so feeble he thought he might die’ . He remained at Charing for three days on this visit and had arrived on 24th March , which suggests he either contracted the quinsy at Charing or came here for a rest to recover from it.
His health did not greatly improve and Henry VII died in 1509. His younger son and heir Henry was only eighteen when he was crowned king by Archbishop Warham, and twenty when he paid his first two visits to Charing in 1511. Two years later he was back for two whole weeks. Was this devotion to business, or the fact that Archbishop Warham was known for his warm hospitality, or had the young (but now married) king discovered the joys of life in the form of Maids of Kent?
Henry then became busy with wars against France but in 1520 Charing was on the route of his famous procession to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in which the trappings of royalty replaced armies in the two countries’ power struggles. On 24th May 1520, Henry and his then wife Catherine of Aragon galloped into Charing along with a retinue of over 5,000 men and women . Even the kindly Archbishop Warham found the cost of entertaining them eye-watering .
By the time Henry VIII paid his next visit to Charing over twenty years later in 1541, he was enjoying marriage to his fifth wife, the much adored young Catherine Howard, whose mother was from the Culpeper family of Hollingbourne . By now Archbishop Warham had been replaced by Henry’s trusted confidant Thomas Cranmer. Much had happened since Henry’s last visit to Charing. In the struggle to obtain a divorce from his first queen, Henry, with Cranmer’s help, had also divorced himself from the Pope, turning England from Catholicism towards the Protestant church and resulting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. By 1541, Cranmer presented Henry with evidence that his cherished queen had had a lover before their marriage – an accusation that was to lead to her death on the scaffold in 1542, a year in which Henry paid another visit to Charing.
By 1544 when the king returned once more to Charing he was married to Katharine Parr, in whom he placed such trust that she was appointed England’s regent while the king was fighting in France for several months. Perhaps he brought her to Charing with him and she too liked the palace, for the following year Cranmer handed over Charing archbishop’s palace to Henry in return for two lesser properties. What was it prompted Henry to want Charing so much? To spite Cranmer? To please Katharine Parr? Mere love of acquisitions? Or perhaps a sentimental memory of happier times here as a young man.
Whichever it was, royal enthusiasm for Charing palace did not last long. Only fourteen years later, by which time Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, Charing palace was leased out to tenants with little claim to royalty. The glory days of yesteryear were past. Did Charing miss its visiting royals, fathers telling children of the day when a King of England came to the village with five thousand people? Or did it breathe a sigh of relief that the dangers, expense and disruption of such visits were over? Perhaps a little of both.
Main image: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017