The remnants of Penenden Heath, now a recreation ground
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Before the expansion of Maidstone, the heath was often used as a venue for a site for shire moots (or assemblies) during the Middle Ages. The most famous of these occurred shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and involved a dispute between Odo bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror and Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury (see below). The Domesday Book of 1086 subsequently recorded Pinnedenna as the place for the landowners of Kent to gather to receive notice in matters of administration at the shire court (and, if they did not attend, they should pay forfeiture of "one hundred shillings" to the King).
The heath was used for local administrative meetings and executions for several hundred years as well as a site for large gatherings of the populace. Wat Tyler led a mob gathered at Penenden Heath to Union Street in Maidstone in an early skirmish in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The heath continued to be used as a gathering place in the 16th century to voice popular opinion or to amass the public, in particular during Wyatt's rebellion, and early references to the heath as such were made in Alfred Tennyson's 1875 drama Queen Mary about the 1554 Rebellion. George Goring, Earl of Norwich and leader of the Kent Royalists during the Second English Civil War gathered an army of 7,000 men on Penenden Heath in May 1648 in his unsuccessful defence of the town of Maidstone from the Roundhead army of Lord Fairfax.
Executions took place at the site from the Anglo-Saxon period through to the 19th century and suspected witches are believed to have been tried and hanged on the heath between the 12th and 17th centuries.
It is reported that, in 1652 at Penenden Heath:
"Anne Ashby, alias Cobler, Anne Martyn, Mary Browne, Anne Wilson, and Mildred Wright of Cranbrook, and Mary Read, of Lenham, being legally convicted, were according to the Laws of this Nation, adjudged to be hanged, at the common place of Execution. Some there were that wished rather, they might be burnt to Ashes; alledging that it was a received opinion among many, that the body of a witch being burnt, her bloud is prevented thereby from becoming [sic] hereditary to her Progeny in the same evill."
In 1798 Edward Hasted described the heath as follows:
"[T]hat noted plain Pinnenden, now usually called Pickenden heath, a place made famous in early times; the western part is in Maidstone parish, the remainder in this of Boxley. From its situation almost in the middle of the county or shire of Kent, this heath has been time out of mind used for all county meetings, and for the general business of it, the county house for this purpose, a poor low shed, is situated on the north side of it, where the sheriff continues to hold his county court monthly, and where he takes the poll for the members of the county, and for the coroners, the former of which, after a few suffrages is usually adjourned to Maidstone; on a conspicuous hill on the opposite side of the heath, though in Maidstone parish, is the gallows, for the public execution of criminals condemned at the assizes."
During the 18th and 19th centuries the heath remained a common site for the execution of criminals (by hanging). The Rev. James Coigly a United Irishman, was arrested en route to France. Upon his arrest, English authorities discovered a letter by the United Britons addressed to the French Revolutionary Government calling for an invasion of England, hidden in Coigly's garments. He was hanged at Penenden Heath, Maidstone on 7 June 1798. The last public execution on the heath took place in 1830 where John Dyke from the nearby village of Bearsted was hanged for burning a rick, although it later emerged he was innocent. New gallows were subsequently built outside Maidstone Prison.
In 1828 the heath was again recorded as the site of a large gathering to debate the issue of "Protestant Ascendancy" before the passing of the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. A detailed report of the assembly on 24 October 1828 by Richard Lalor Sheil describes the heath as a "gently sloping amphitheatrical declivity" and still, in the 19th century, the principal venue in the area for massing the populace.
However during this time the heath was also used for recreation and was the venue for at least two early examples of county level cricket matches. Between 31 August and 2 September 1795, a team from Kent played England on the heath with England winning by five wickets. Later, on 20 July 1807, "All England" again played Kent at Penenden, with the county winning by 162 runs.
During the 19th century the heath was slowly enveloped by the growth of the town of Maidstone, becoming a residential area at the junction of the main routes to Sittingbourne and Boxley. Following landscaping, the heath was presented to the people of Maidstone by the Earl of Romney in 1882 for use as a recreation ground.
Odo de Bayeux was previously earl of Kent and the primary landowner of the region subsequent to his half-brother William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066. Several years after the invasion in 1070, Archbishop Lanfranc succeeded to the see of Canterbury and requested an inquiry into the activities of Odo (and Lanfranc's predecessor, Stigand) who had allegedly defrauded the Church (and possibly the Crown) during his tenure as Earl of Kent.
Lanfranc demanded that the matter should be settled by the nobles of Kent and William I ordered that an assembly be formed at Penenden heath [sic] for the purpose.
Various prominent figures in the country at the time were called including Geoffrey de Montbray bishop of Coutances (who represented the King), Lanfranc (for the Church), Odo de Bayeux (defending himself), Arnost bishop of Rochester, Æthelric II bishop of Chichester (an elderly bishop regarded as the authority on the laws of the realm), Richard de Tunibridge, Hugh de Montfort, William de Arsic, Hamo Vicecomes and many others.
Precisely when the inquiry was held is unclear although many historians have determined it to be between 1075 and 1077. The trial itself lasted three days and ended in the partial recovery of properties for the church from Odo and others.
Today a residential suburb of Maidstone, Penenden Heath is situated between arterial roadways at junction 6 of the M20 motorway and the A249 Sittingbourne Road. The area includes a variety of shops, a public house and a playground.
The heath has been recorded under several names. First appearing in the Domesday Book as Pinnedenna, it has also been recorded as Pinnenden, Pickenden, Pinenden and Pennenden. It has been suggested that the name derives from the Saxon pinian meaning "to punish", which may date the site as a place for executions before the Norman Conquest.
Certain remnants of the heathland and its environment remain. Mature lime trees, with some younger replacements, line the boundaries to the recreation ground. In addition, large oak, chestnut, hawthorn, sycamore and ash trees feature.
Soil at the northern end of the recreation ground displays characteristics of heathland and dry acid grassland. Other areas evidence sheep's sorrel and common heath. Gorse and broom have been introduced in recent years.
- A Report on the Penenden Trial by W. Levison, The English Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 108 (Oct. 1912), pp. 717–720
- Consuetudines Kanciae: A History of Gavelkind, and Other Remarkable Customs by Charles Sandys at page 304 (Google Books)
- England's Topographer Or A New and Complete History of the County of Kent by William Henry Ireland
- A Short History of the County of Kent Kent Online Parish Clerks
- Wyatt's Rebellion[unreliable source] at TudorPlace.com.ar
- Act II scene I Archived 15 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine of Queen Mary by Alfred Tennyson
- 1648: The Second Civil War:Kent and Essex, British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website by David Plant 2001–2007
- The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray (Oxford) Clarendon Press 1921
- Maidstone Witches part of a "HiddenMedway" blog entry dated 17 June 2007 describing the execution of 7 witches in 1652
- Parishes: Boxley The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, Volume 4 by Edward Hasted (1798), pp. 324–353. Date accessed: 6 December 2007
- The early days of Policing in Kent Archived 7 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine by Roy Ingleton
- John Dyke described at Bearsted village notes Archived 9 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine from Historic-Kent.co.uk
- Photograph of John Dyke's grave
- The Lonely Planet: Guide to Maidstone
- Sketches of the Irish Bar by Richard Lalor Sheil and Robert Shelton Mackenzie at Google Books
- Scorecard at CricketArchive.co.uk
- Cricketana from the New York Times 25 July 1880
- Penenden Recreation Ground Archived 18 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine at GardenHistory.org.uk
- The Conquest and its Aftermath by Dr Mike Ibeji at BBC History
- Feudal Empires: Norman and Plantagenet by John Le Patourel at Google Books
- A Handbook for Travellers in Kent and Sussex by John Murray (1858) at Google Books, p.87
- Maidstone Green Spaces Strategy: Penenden Heath Archived 20 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine dated March 2006
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