Sandwich was once one of England's main ports, and an important naval base. In Roman and Saxon times, Sandwich sat at the southern end of the Wantsum Channel, which ran between Kent and the Isle of Thanet. This channel, up to three miles wide in places, offered a short cut for ships travelling from the continent to the Thames Estuary. In many ways Sandwich was the gateway to England, and in Roman times this was reflected in a huge symbolic archway built near Sandwich at Richborough.
Once the Romans left in the fourth century, Sandwich emerged as a major naval base for the Saxon kings. During his battle for supremacy with Ethelred the Unready, King Canute was making a point in 1014 when he put English hostages ashore at Sandwich minus their ears, noses and hands. The fact that these people were landed at Sandwich, England's premier naval base, was meant to rub in the insult. Once Canute won power in England, he used Sandwich as a major base of operations. The same was true of the Saxon king who followed Canute's dynasty, Edward the Confessor. Edward the Confessor came to Sandwich every year from 1043 to 1047 to personally take command of the fleet gathered to face a potential invasion from Norway. It was also at Sandwich that Edward the Confessor gathered a fleet to try and resist a rebel fleet led by his rival the powerful Earl Godwine in 1052.
Three King's Yard
Edward's successor, King Harold, in his turn used Sandwich as a naval base. But it was an attack from overseas that would soon see the end of Harold's reign. William invaded, and defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As far as Sandwich was concerned this shattering event made little difference, and did not stop the rise of the town as a major port. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries Sandwich reached the height of its prestige. An alliance known as the Cinque Ports formed between Sandwich and four other ports - Hastings, Dover, Romney, Hythe - close by on the English coast. These ports were obliged to provide ships and seamen for national defence, in return for significant trading privileges, which made the Cinque Ports into a very powerful organisation. This influence began to decline during the reign of King John when the first moves were made towards a professional navy. Portsmouth had been established as a naval dockyard by John's predecessor Richard the Lionheart, and slowly influence began to move towards Portsmouth and the professional navy. However, Sandwich remained an important base. Edward III sailed out of Sandwich in 1350 to defeat Castilian galleys off Winchelsea. The Barbican on the Quay, built in 1539 remains as evidence of Henry VIII 's consciousness of the strategic importance of Sandwich.
Ironically it was during the reign of Henry VIII that Sandwich experienced a major change in its status. This began with the silting up of the Wantsum Channel. Sandwich harbour, which had once been able to hold hundreds of ships began to shrink. Appeals were made to various monarchs to help. Henry VIII with his usual confidence offered to sort the situation out, but actually did nothing. Back in the eleventh century King Canute had granted a charter to operate a ferry across the Wantsum Channel from Sandwich and collect fares. Canute famously demonstrated the limits on the power of kings when he tried to hold back the tide. Similarly no monarch could make the tide come back in at Sandwich. With the loss of the channel and most of its natural harbour Sandwich was no longer the gateway to anywhere. From the seventeenth century Sandwich settled into its new role as a quiet market town two miles from the sea. In many ways it was this decline that has preserved Sandwich as the town it now is.
Today all that is left of the Wantsum Channel is the river Stour, and pleasure boats tie up at a quay which once served battle fleets. Sandwich might have fallen out of the history books, but it was this decline which preserved Sandwich as an historic town.
Directions: Sandwich is in east Kent off the A 256. Click here for an interactive map centred on Sandwich Quay.
The Sandwich Local History Society provides guided tours of Sandwich for groups, lasting about an hour and a half. A donation of at least £1.50 per visitor is requested. Three weeks notice are required for any tour.
Contact: 01304 617197
River trips from Sandwich Quay, with historical or wildlife commentary are available.
Contact: 07958 376183
The Sandwich Guildhall Museum is housed in the sixteenth century Guildhall. It has displays on the Roman occupation of the area, the Cinque Ports, the sea battles in which Sandwich has been involved, and commerce.
Address: Guildhall, Sandwich, Kent CT13 9AH
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Access: There is level access to the museum
telephone: 01304 617197