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Isle of Thanet from the air

The Isle of Thanet lies at the most easterly point of Kent. In the past it was separated from the mainland by the channel of the River Wantsum that was 2,000 feet wide. The channel though has largely been drained and reclaimed from the sea, and Thanet today it is no longer an island.

The area of Thanet is coterminous with Kent's Ringslow Hundred.

Archaeological remains testify to the fact that ancient peoples lived here. Today, it is a tourist destination, but it also has a busy agricultural base. The Port of Ramsgate serves the Continent.


The name "Thanet" seems to be Celtic in origin, coming from the Brittonic *tanets (Welsh tân) meaning "fire", possibly a reference to a beacon on the island. Ptolemy calls it Tolianis, the Romans Tanatus and Bede referred to it as Tanatos insula. The name 'Tenet' appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in the Domesday Book of 1086.

St Isidore of Seville's etymology is, if doubtful, certainly colourful and borrows a theme from the mediæval myths about Ireland:

"Thanet is an island in the Ocean in the Gallic channel [English Channel], separated from Britannia by a narrow estuary, with fruitful fields and rich soil. It is name Thanet (tanatos) from the death of serpents. Although the island itself is unacquainted with serpents, if soil from it is carried away and brought to any other nation, it kills snakes there."[1]


Roman Tanatus
15th century map from Historia Monasterii S Augustini Cantuariensis (north on the left)

Archaeological evidence shows that the area now known as the Isle of Thanet was one of the major areas of Stone Age settlement. A large hoard of Bronze Age implements too have been found at Minster-in-Thanet; and several Iron Age settlements have also come to light.[2]

The Romans came to Thanet when they invaded Britain: Julius Caesar came first, briefly, in both 55 and 54 BC; one hundred years later Claudius landed further away, but this time the Romans did not run off again. During their time the port of Richborough, on the opposite side of the Wantsum Channel became one of the chief ports.

The Romans retreated in about AD 410. According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Vortigern, King of the Britons, sought assistance from the fiercest of the the Germanic nations, among them the Jutes of Jutland, whose kings Hengest and Horsa brought their army:

Then came three keels, driven into exile from Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa and Hengest ... Vortigern welcomed them, and handed over to them the island that in their language is called Thanet, in British Ruoihm.

In 597 Augustine of Canterbury is said, by the Venerable Bede, to have landed with 40 men at Ebbsfleet, in the parish of Minster-in-Thanet, before founding Britain's second Christian monastery in Canterbury (the first was founded fifty years earlier by Saint Columba on Iona in the Hebrides): a cross marks the spot.[3]

Minster's village website states "It is widely believed, around AD 670, whether in truth or legend, that the Hind emblem owes its origin to Egbert, King of Kent and Princess Domneva. The King purportedly asked Domneva which piece of land she wished to take as compensation for the murder of her two brothers. Her answer was that she would take no more than her tame deer would run around. This the King granted her with pleasure, and the land became the new Minster."[4] "Domneva" Domina Eafe or Æbbe.

In 851 and again in 854, the Vikings wintered on Thanet.

By 1334–1335 Thanet had the highest population density in Kent according to Edward III's lay subsidy rolls. It acted as a granary for Calais and documents towards the end of that century refer to turreted walls beneath the cliffs needing maintenance. Coastal erosion has long since destroyed these structures.

Throughout all this time, the Isle remained an island. The Wantsum Channel allowed ships to sail between the mainland and the island in calm waters. Gradually this silted up, and the last ship sailed through the Channel in 1672.[5]


The Isle of Thanet first came into being when sea levels rose after the last Ice Age, around 5,000 BC. The North Sea encroached on the land which is now the estuary of the River Thames, and southwards to reach the higher land of the North Downs, leaving behind an island composed of Upper Chalk in its wake. Eventually the sea broke through river valleys in the North Downs to the south (Middle Chalk) and finally today's English Channel was opened up.[2] The Upper Chalk is a soft pure-white limestone with abundant flints.[6] The proto-River Stour then formed part of the intervening water, with a new tributary, the River Wantsum, completing it; it became known as the Wantsum Channel.

The Wantsum Channel gradually narrowed as pebble beaches built up at the southern end of the strait, blocking silt coming down down the Stour. In the eighth century it was reported that the Channel was now three furlongs wide (660 yards), and a map of 1414 showed a ferry crossing at Sarre. The first bridge over the channel was built there in 1485. Until the mid 18th century there was a ferry between Sandwich and the island; a wooden drawbridge was built, and the ferry was closed.

Today the Isle is an island no longer and the erstwhile channel is now flat marshland criss-crossed by drainage ditches. Meanwhile the exposed chalk cliffs are gradually being worn down by the sea, particularly at the North Foreland. Much else of the coast is a built-up area. The Wantsum area is still liable to flooding: during the North Sea flood of 1953 Thanet was cut off for a few days, but the sea defences have been strengthened since then.

The soil and equable climate of the Isle have always encouraged arable farming. William Cobbett wrote of it:

... a garden indeed, a county of corn but the labourers' houses all along, beggarly in the extreme. The people dirty, poor-looking, but particularly dirty.[7]

Today there are still farms inland, but the coast is nearly all covered in towns and villages, most of which have come into being in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As the popularity of the seaside resort grew, so did that of the Isle of Thanet. At first the holidaymakers came by boat from London; after the coming of the railways in the mid 1840s, that became the preferred mode of transport. The population grew.

Landmarks and seamarks

The principal features on the Isle of Thanet are the North Foreland and the bays around the coastline. The principal bays are Minnis Bay, Palm Bay, Botany Bay, Joss Bay, and Pegwell Bay: the latter being part of the estuary of the River Stour. The beaches are popular with holidaymakers.


  1. [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, Stephen A., et al, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pg. 294]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jessup, Frank W. (1966). Kent History Illustrated. Kent County Council. 
  3. Notes on Ramsgate:’’Historic Kent‘’
  4. Rollason, D.W. (1982), The Mildrith Legend: A Study in Early Mediæval Hagiography in England, Leicester University Press, pp. 10-1.
  5. Wantsum Channel
  6. "The Rural Landscape of Kent, SG McRae and CP Burnham, Wye College, 1973.
  7. William Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1823

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