England and the Narrow Seas


IN English records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there is a phrase which often recurs — ‘the Narrow Seas.’ Historians treat it as a name, and tell us, rightly enough, that it refers to the seas which lie just north and south of the Straits of Dover. But what they do not tell us adequately is how greatly the fate of the world has been affected by the peculiarities of these narrow seas. The marked character of these seas has impressed itself upon the populations on its shores: in England these are the East Kent folk and East Anglians from Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire; and on the continent across the water they are the people of the Low Countries — namely, Holland, Belgium, and the northwestern coast of France. There are two characteristics impressed on all these populations, with the possible exception of the French section, which has for its hinterland the Latin influence of France. These characteristics are obstinacy and a tendency to lonely thought. There are some things which cannot be learned from state documents in record offices; and one of these facts, which is thus apt to escape notice, is how the Narrow Seas impressed their character on these coastal populations. The Narrow Seas are the parents of all the free governments in the world — Holland, England, the United States. The Pilgrim Fathers were their offspring.

The Straits of Dover form the southern apex of the small triangle in which the North Sea ends; and they form the northeastern apex of the triangle where the English Channel narrows down to the twenty miles separating England from the civilized world of Latin influence. On the map it looks the simplest job in the world to sail up the Channel, pass through the Straits, and thence up the estuary of the Thames to London. Alternatively there is the short voyage from Antwerp to London. Philip of Spain saw that. Yet there are only four records of a successful invasion across the Narrow Seas: the Romans, the Saxons, William the Conqueror, and the Dutch William the Third. The list suggests high-class efficiency; and it is all wanted for the task. I always suspect that Julius Cæsar and his Roman successors had colossal luck in getting across and in getting back. A fog and a gale, with a Roman fleet wrecked on the treacherous sunken sands or blown on to some dangerous headland, — Beachy Head, or the South Foreland, or the North Foreland, — might have left England barbarous for another four hundred years and have altered the history of the world. The chances were heavily against those fair-weather Mediterranean sailors, used to tideless, fogless seas. Perhaps Providence sometimes takes a hand in the game of history.

The Narrow Seas put up almost every form of difficulty known to sailors — tides, fogs, winds, dangerous headlands, sunken shoals. The tides are the foundation of most of the trouble. The North Sea and the Channel act as funnels and concentrate their tides at the Straits. The rise and fall in height is a detail compared to the current, which runs like a race horse. There are four tides a day, two from the north and two from the south. Their relative strengths depend on the winds. Accordingly in the Narrow Seas, four times a day, there is repeated that contest between the North and the South which makes the history of Europe throughout the ages.

These currents have formed shoals which run northward from the Straits of Dover to the mouth of the Thames. My earliest recollections are entwined with flash lights from the lightships on the Goodwin Sands. We could see them on winter evenings from our nursery windows at the top of the house. Sometimes during a fog the boom of a gun would be heard at slow intervals across the sea. It was a ship ashore on the Goodwin Sands. At other times we saw rockets rise mysteriously from the dark waters. It was the Gull lightship signaling a wreck. Next day we were taken down to the harbor, and there was the lifeboat decked with flags: during the night it had been out and had saved the crew of some vessel slowly sinking into the merciless quicksands.

The navigation of the Narrow Seas is the key to Dutch and English history. There are perils in every direction; there are winds and currents to carry you to them; and there are fogs and blinding storms of sleet to hide all knowledge of your whereabouts. The Dutch and English sailors learned their lesson on the Narrow Seas. The Spanish sailors were used to galleys in the tideless Mediterranean and to huge galleons which ran before the trade winds across the open waters of the South Atlantic. When it came to fighting for freedom in the Narrow Seas the oar-driven galleys and the unhandy galleons were helpless. It was no use trusting to oars for large ships in the chops of the Channel: and if you could not sail close to the wind you could say your prayers, for your last moment had come.

As you read a history book, compiled by a learned landsman, it is not so easy to understand why the Armada bolted in terror when it had reached its appointed destination between Antwerp and England. King Philip’s strategy must have seemed perfect as he sat in his study in Madrid. Freedom was saved for the world because he had ordered his fleet to halt in a death trap for that type of vessel. Such craft could anchor in the Downs or in Calais Roads, but they could only move thence by running before the gale and making a bolt for it up the North Sea.

In our parish registers for the year 1588, my father’s predecessor in the vicarage had written, ‘Today buried three sailors from the queene’s shippes.’ I read the entry exactly three hundred years afterward, in the same room in which it had been written. Poor nameless men! I wonder whether they ever knew that they had given their lives for the salvation of English freedom.

Every little harbor along that Kentish coast had, and still has, its lifeboat and its luggers, which, by some mysterious art inbred in the population, keep the seas in all weathers — Deal, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Kingsgate, Margate, all had these lifeboats, and harbors swarming with luggers and fishing smacks.

The fishermen were decidedly ‘wet’ in the technical American sense of that word. I remember one old man who used to row us children out to bathe from his boat. He was a weather-beaten old fellow, and the philosophy of life which he imparted to our eager ears was that ‘eating is a beastly habit.’

We all understood, without explanation, that the great-souled way of life was to sustain it on alcoholic beverages — beer for daily life and brandy for festivals. You may criticize the moral code of these men when you have risked your life in saving others as often as had that old lifeboat’s man. He shall not remain nameless: his name was Saxby — ‘Old Saxby’ we called him. In his old age, when we were entrusted to him, he got his livelihood by shrimping and by leasing his rowboat. Old Saxby was more remarkable for obstinacy than for lonely thought. But this sole relic of his conversation proves that even he had elaborated his individual outlook on the universe.

The fishing smacks used to trawl in the neighborhood, and also go farther afield into the North Sea to the Dogger Bank. About every third fish in the North Sea ends by being eaten either in England or in Holland. If you drop a ring, either in Boston or in London, your chance of seeing it again is very small. But if you will send it to the English Fishery Board, they will tie it to the tail of a fish and let it loose in the North Sea; and every third time you will get your ring back.

During the Russo-Japanese War, England and Russia nearly went to war over the fishing smacks on the Dogger Bank. The Russian fleet going from the Baltic to Japan, where the Japanese sank it in their Narrow Seas, crossed the Dogger Bank in the nighttime and found it studded with small boats and lights. They concluded that they had fallen into an ambush of Japanese torpedo boats, and accordingly opened fire on the fishing smacks. England was aflame with indignation. But luckily Mr. Balfour, the then Prime Minister, and the Lords of the Admiralty — who in England play the august part of your Supreme Court here — kept their heads. The naval officers said that, if you thought you saw a hostile torpedo boat, you had to shoot first and inquire afterward, — since there was not time for the converse procedure, — and Mr. Balfour remembered that the Russians were probably ignorant of the peculiarities of the Narrow Seas. So the Russian fleet was allowed to pass through the British squadron, and sailed on to its appointed doom.


The history of the world depends on a lot of little things, apart from which events would have happened differently. London would never have been heard of as a great centre of commerce unless just to the north of the Straits of Dover there had been a magnificent anchorage off Deal. It is called the Downs. In English naval history the Downs loom large. With an east wind a sailing ship bound from London southward cannot tack and get round the capes of the South Foreland and Beachy Head. The Narrow Seas, at their narrowest part, forbid that. So in old days the ships from London anchored in the Downs. They wanted good anchorage there: on the French side lies Cape Gris-Nez, on the English side there is the South Foreland, and a few miles behind, ready to engulf them, lie the Goodwin Sands with the treacherous water rippling over them. It is not healthy to be caught in a gale in that spot without good anchorage. The Downs have lost their importance in these days of steam; but in my boyhood I have seen a hundred sail anchored in the Downs. Such a sight might have been seen for centuries, but now the Downs have disappeared from history.

In 1871, during the Franco-German War, an English squadron anchored in the Downs for months. I remember being taken out to see the battleships. In those days all but one had sails as well as steam power. During the Great War it would have been certain destruction to anchor in the Downs. The haunts of my boyhood in Ramsgate fared badly then: a bomb fell on the house where I was born, another in the garden where I played, and a third blew up a powder magazine on the quay where Old Saxby used to embark us for bathing. I do not think anyone left the town by reason of these little incidents. People repaired their windowpanes and stuck it out with East Kent obstinacy. Certainly my own aunt, who still lives there, never moved her establishment.

But at that game of determination Yorkshire beats us hollow. During the war a general examination of all the school children in Scarborough, a seaside town of Yorkshire, had been arranged by the local authorities to take place from nine to twelve in the morning. At six on that morning three German cruisers appeared and shelled the place for over an hour. It never occurred to the authorities to put off the examination, or to the parents to keep the children from school; nor was the work of the children in any way affected. By the time the examination had begun, a British squadron had turned up, and a North Sea fog had descended to save the Germans; so the townspeople did what they always have done in a fog — they went on with their appointed work.

I wonder if you noticed the names of the little Kentish seaports which I mentioned: Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Kingsgate, and Margate. To a man of Kent — Kentishmen are an inferior brand who live at the west end of the county beyond the River Medway — to a man of Kent these names by their very form all suggest the white chalk cliffs of Old England. These cliffs are perpendicular, with ‘gaps’ or ‘gates’ in them at intervals. Wherever there is a gate there is a small fishing town. I suppose that some early Anglo-Saxon pirate got weary of these endless ‘gates,’ and so preferred ‘stairs’ for the Broadstairs ‘gate.’


When the Anglo-Saxons grew tired of piracy and took to Christianity and the quiet life, they were bothered by the piratical habits of their unconverted cousins in Scandinavia. So all the old villages and churches are about one or two miles inland. Behind the gaps which lie around the headland of the North Foreland there stands a magnificent group of eleventh-century Norman churches — Minster, St. Laurence behind Ramsgate, St. Peter’s behind Broadstairs, St. John’s behind Margate, and Monkton. If you do not understand something about life in the eleventh century when you have visited these, you are incapable of learning. They all have one very useful characteristic. They could hold all the villagers of those times; and when the massive oak doors were shut and barred, from the top of the square Kentish flint tower, with the aid of a few arrows and stones, you could watch the pirates till they went off with the next tide.

I do not mean to imply that the inhabitants were foolishly peaceable; because they weren’t. Modern America has nothing to teach East Kent in the way of bootlegging. We finally gave it up with the advent of free trade in 1848. But during the Napoleonic Wars the whole population, country gentlemen, magistrates, and clergy, took a hand in the trade. In those good old days the Established Church showed a surprising liberality of sentiment. The services at Minster Church had sometimes to be interrupted to enable the congregation to remove the brandy from the church vaults to neighboring marshes on the rumored approach of the preventive men. In my father’s vicarage garden at St. Peter’s there were caves with legends of smugglers attached to them.

In recent years the population has been diluted by the influx of Londoners, rich and poor, seeking health from the bracing sea air which comes straight down from the North Pole over the North Sea. But throughout the nineteenth century the East Kent population was devoted to Church and State and moderate Whig principles. My grandfather was a Whig in 1815 when Whiggism was dangerous; he voted Whig in 1832 when Whiggism was allpowerful; and he voted Whig in his old age when Mr. Gladstone triumphed in the early 1870’s. Throughout the nineteenth century in East Kent the clergy were the real leaders of the people; bootlegging at the beginning, social reform in the middle—it was all one to them. They were all sturdy Englishmen, clergy and laity together. At the beginning of the century Mr. Harvey, the vicar of St. Laurence, was highly respected, and very deservedly so, though he shared in the jovial habits of that period and sometimes was taken home in a wheelbarrow like Mr. Pickwick. He was a man of energy, and formed the new parish of Ramsgate, which had outgrown its mother village of St. Laurence. His son, Mr. Richard Harvey, was appointed to the new Ramsgate church; and in the second quarter of the century, till 1860, presided there amid universal respect, exhibiting the reformed manners of the new age. In fact he was even HighChurch, and introduced an altar cloth with the sacred monogram which can be read as the Latin capital letters IHS. This aroused some Protestant feeling, which was allayed only by the happy conjecture that the letters stood for Jenkins, Harvey, and Snowden — the surnames of the vicar and his two curates. This is an interesting example of how religious strife can be allayed by the ingenuity of scholarship.

The population was very Protestant, but curiously antagonistic to the Nonconformist minority whose theological principles were identical with its own. About 1830 an old gentleman — Townsend was his name — made a vow that if ever he entered a Nonconformist place of worship he hoped that God would make him stick in the doorway. He took the vow seriously, for, when a respected Nonconformist died, during the funeral service he stood outside the church by way of respect, but did not venture into the doorway. In those days there was no honeyed sentiment about the union of the churches.

Throughout the middle of the century the vicar of St. Laurence was Mr. Sicklemore, a considerable landowner who lived in a small park in the parish. He was the incarnation of ‘Church and State’ sentiment. Even in his own time he represented an England that was fast passing. He had a magnificent voice and always preached in black kid gloves. The sermons expressed his sentiments about things in general, frankly expressed in the vernacular. Here is one of his perorations, which modern America might take to heart: —

‘This Sunday morning, as I walked through my village, I saw its very walls defaced by advertisements. It’s shocking! ’Pon my honor, it’s shocking!’

And with that beautiful sentiment he dismissed the congregation. I can well remember Mr. Sicklemore; and I cannot begin to imagine his sentiments if some enterprising medium should evoke him to a knowledge of the modern world.

I think that my father was the last example of these East Kent clergymen who were really homogeneous with their people, and therefore natural leaders on all occasions, secular and religious.

The present-day English clergy are excellent men, but they are divorced from the soil. My father could remember the arrival of the first railway engine in Ramsgate, and he died at the end of the century. So he exactly represents the period of transformation. He had all the habits of thought of a man who had always taken the lead, not because he thought about it, but because it was the natural thing to do. He was entirely devoid of any artificial tone of ‘uplift.’ In fact he hated it, and expressed his opinion of ‘cant’ with direct Saxon vigor. But in his generation a tenderness of tone had crept in, and he was an example of it. When the Baptist minister of the village was dying, my father was the only minister whom he would see. Despite all the differences between their churches, they were both East Kent men; and when they read the Bible together they understood each other without many words.

In his youth he had ridden with the hounds, and had a magnificent seat on horseback. He had also played cricket with every club in the neighborhood. He knew all the farmers and the laborers; and in his later years he had christened a fair percentage of them, after playing cricket or hunting with their fathers in earlier days when they were boys together.

He was an equal mixture of a HighChurchman and a Broad-Churchman. His favorite history was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. I do not think that any of Gibbon’s chapters shocked him; for his robust common sense told him that the people of East Kent, with whom he was quite content, were really very unlike the early Christians. His favorite character in the Bible was Abraham, who exhibits many features to endear him to the East Kent mentality.

My father was a natural orator, equally at home in the pulpit or at a mass meeting either of townspeople or of countrymen. His church was always crammed with the villagers, and with townspeople who had walked some miles, and with Londoners spending their holidays in the district.

These East Kent clergy of the old school had a simpler view of the relations of a pastor to his flock than that which prevails at present. They viewed with disapproval the growth of the complex parochial machinery which obtains at present throughout England. It was a case of one-man rule. They were simple and direct in their methods, and yet they got at the heart of the people in a way denied to the present generation. As they walked through their villages, or across the country footpaths, they stopped and chatted with every man, woman, or child whom they met. They knew all about them — whether their patch of vegetable garden was good or bad, whether they were sober or whether they drank, what their fathers were like, and how their sons had turned out. They had homely advice and kindly sympathy to give. Above all, they saw to it that every child in the village went to school and had an education according to the lights of those days. They visited the schools, listened to the children, patted them on the head, and made friends with the school-teachers. It was a humanizing, kindly influence, which trusted mainly to the mercy of God to save the souls of men.


This corner of Kent is called the Isle of Thanet. The arm of the sea which separates it from the mainland had just ceased to be navigable when the Tudors came to the throne. Now its old bed forms desolate grass flats surrounded by tidal ditches. This flat marshy country is from four to six miles broad and about twenty miles long. It is protected from the North Sea by a dike in the Dutch fashion. The connection with the Low Countries used to be closer than it is now. England supplied the raw materials for the industrial cities, such as Ghent and Bruges. The sixteenthand seventeenth-century cottages are all identical with the corresponding cottages in Flanders. Sandwich, once the chief naval dockyard of England, is an old Dutch town, so far as its buildings are concerned. Its importance finally ceased in the seventeenth century when its harbor silted up in consequence of the closing of the sea channel between Thanet and the mainland. If you go there, you will find quiet Dutch streets, a glorious Norman church, and in the old Townhall contemporary pictures of sea fights with the Dutch. In the intervals of fighting their Protestant kinsfolk for the sake of trade, they got over some Flemish men ‘cunning in waterworks,’ as their records say. But even these engineers were powerless against the tides of the Narrow Seas, which remorselessly rolled up sand till Sandwich joined with Ravenna in Italy to exemplify how puny are the efforts of man to stay the hand of Fate.

The witness of Sandwich, the lonely marsh telling of the lost sea passage, and the wonderful group of Norman churches, and in the far distance to the west the towers of Canterbury Cathedral, all proclaim that we are in the midst of a district where events have happened which shaped England. It is natural that it should be so, for we are at the very focus of the Narrow Seas.

Place yourself at the southwest angle of the finest of all these Norman churches, the church of Minster in Thanet, now some four miles from the apex of a large shallow bay dividing the two capes, the North Foreland, in Thanet, and the South Foreland, near Dover on the mainland in Kent. Parts of the church are older than the Normans: the small tower behind us is mainly Saxon, but some of its masonry is Roman. Inside the church there is an oak chest said to have been brought over with William the Conqueror — the heavy luggage of some Norman knight. This is the spot which best overlooks what in old times was the main gateway into England from the French coast. The marshes at our feet stretch up to Canterbury to the west; on the south their seashore looks toward France; and on the north another shore touches the estuary of the Thames. Till near the end of the Middle Ages these marshes formed the sea passage; and the traffic to London passed through it, avoiding the dangerous voyage round the North Foreland.

Roman soldiers guarded forts, Richborough and Reculver, — Rutupiæ and Regulbium, — which still exist at either end of it. Reculver retains only the foundations, with twin mediæval towers to mark the desolateness of its present site. Richborough still shows the massive Roman walls round the huge enclosure. Then Thanet was an island, and Minster in Thanet overlooked the seaway near the Richborough end. From that position you can see the spot where Hengist and Horsa landed with the first band of Saxons, and also, one hundred and fifty years later, Saint Augustine — the missionary, not the theologian. The first Saxons and the first Christian missionaries landed in Thanet for the same reason, because both they and the inhabitants of Kent felt safer with an arm of the sea between them.

Till the beginning of the nineteenth century an old oak tree could be pointed out near the church, under which Augustine is said to have first preached Christianity to Ethelbert, the king of tKent. All the sermons to be delivered in New England next Sunday morning are derived from that ancestor which still haunts the sea winds in the churchyard of Minster in Thanet.

Ethelbert died at Reculver more than thirteen hundred years ago, and its modern desolateness seems to stand guardian over those simple remote times when the pagan king became Christian. Across the marshes you can on a clear day see the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. In St. Martin’s Church, just above the Cathedral, is the font in which Ethelbert was baptized. Even in Ethelbert’s time the building was a restoration; it was an old Roman church put in order for his Christian wife. In the Cathedral you are shown the stone in the pavement on which Becket fell as he was murdered by Reginald Fitzurse and his companion knights who with him had hurried across the Narrow Seas from France. ‘The traitor will never rise again!' cried his murderers. It was a false boast, often repeated on like occasions. Becket is one of the greatest of those traitors who have ‘risen again’ in English history as immortal patriots, glorious for resistance to brute force by whomsoever wielded, King, Parliament, or People. Opposite to this spot, on the other side of the Cathedral, the armor of the Black Prince hangs, reminiscent of the battle of Crécy. In the Cathedral there is a Brenchley chapel. The modern Brenchleys were agricultural laborers in my father’s parish, thus exemplifying the rule that the descendants of the mediæval barons are chiefly to be found among the peasantry.

Finally, coming back to modern times and to our observation post in the Minster churchyard, we could see thence, during the Great War, train after train of ammunition, in endless procession, pass along the little branch railway track which runs through the marshes from Canterbury to Minster, and thence past Richborough to Sandwich. Richborough had awakened from the sleep of centuries. At its feet the mouth of a small stream forms a harborage in the marsh, guarded from the air by the mist which for a thousand years had arisen each night finally to perform this last service to freedom, and protected from the sea by a devious passage amid sand banks. In my childhood I have watched a horse sucked down into the quicksands of that bay, the rider barely escaping. This spot again became a gateway from England to France. The English ammunition was transported across the Narrow Seas in barges or on train ferries. A battleship was moored with its guns trained on the bay across which the Romans, the Saxons, and Augustine had sailed.

Once more the scene has relapsed into its age-long quiet; and yet, as you stand and absorb it into your being, it takes its character from haunting memories, and from the solitary cry of a sea gull sounding like a stray echo from the past.

The small tower of Roman and Saxon masonry in the churchyard of Minster in Thanet, facing the Narrow Seas where the North Sea meets the English Channel, and Plymouth Rock, sheltered by Cape Cod from the Atlantic Ocean, are the two spots which mark the two origins — the English origin and the American origiti, separated by a thousand years — of a new type of civilized culture, now becoming dominant wherever lands of temperate climate border upon seas and oceans.