Canterbury: Britain’s Place of Pilgrimage

Roman and Saxon Canterbury

The area of Canterbury was once a boggy wasteland, but gradually over time, the area was cultivated and cleared for settlement. The Roman legions arrived at Canterbury underthe command of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54. In 43 A.D. the Romans returned in force and quickly conquered Britain, including Canterbury. A Roman civil settlement was soon established and was an important capital as it connected 3 trading ports to London, with all the luxuries of a Roman city such as theaters, baths, temples, forums and houses with intricate mosaics.

The invasion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th and 6th Centuries left Canterbury abandoned and in ruins. A century later new timber buildings were built over the Roman village. During the reign of King Ethelbert in 597 AD, Canterbury was converted to Christianity. The Abbeys of the Saints Peter and Paul were built just outside the city walls. They later became St. Augustine’s Abbey where Archbishops of the church were buried with Kentish Royalty. Ethelbert’s son began the Christ Church monastery in 602 A.D., which became the present day Cathedral. During the Viking raids of 991-1016 A.D. the city was pillaged and the Cathedral destroyed. The first Danish King, Canute, repaired the Cathedral.

Medieval Canterbury

In 1066, after the Battle of Hastings, Canterbury surrendered without a fight to William the Conqueror. After a fire in 1067
destroyed the Cathedral, the new Norman archbishop, Lanfranc, reconstructed and enlarged it. The work was carried out by the two succeeding Archbishops and was consecrated with many royal, state and religious dignitaries present. To ensure that Canterbury was kept as a stronghold, it was fortified with new walls, gates and towers, a massive stone keep, similar to those at Dover and Rochester.

When Henry II became King, thinking he could get an ally within the church, made his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The King’s hopes of getting his own way within the church were soon dashed when Becket began campaigning for the rights and independence of the church. This began a struggle between the King and Becket that lasted for the next decade, during which Becket was exiled to France for 6 years. In 1171 Becket returned to Canterbury and infuriated the King with a provocative sermon. The King, in irritation, uttered the fatal line: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” In response to the King’s utterance four knights set out to confront Becket. A heated argument ensued in which the Archbishop defiantly defended the rights of the church above the King. The knights were so roused in
anger that they murdered him within the Cathedral.

Before his murder the monks had been divided in their loyalty to Becket, but after his martyrdom for the church, they proclaimed him a saint. Their esteem for him was heightened when under his Archbishop’s robes they found him to be wearing a Benedictine monks’ hair shirt, showing his true piety by denouncing any pleasures of the flesh. From then on his blood and clothes were seen as holy relics and many miracles were attributed to the saint. In 1174 Henry II came to
Canterbury to pay penance for causing Becket’s death, so as to avert the wrath of heaven. At St. Dunstan’s church he stripped down to a hair shirt and walked barefoot to the Cathedral. At the tomb he knelt and wept, he was then whipped
by monks and knelt there in prayer until morning. In the same year the Cathedral Choir caught fire and it was rebuilt after many years in the gothic style architecture. The new shrine to Becket was completed in 1220 and his remains were moved there at a procession on July 7th led by Henry III and many religious dignitaries.

Canterbury as a Place of Pilgrimage

Pilgrims poured into the city for the next three and half centuries, with the popularity peaking in the 14 century. St. Augustine’s Abbey and the Cathedral built halls to house the pilgrims. Inns sprung up all over the city, with some outside the city walls to house people after the gates had been closed for the night. Many friaries opened in Canterbury. There were the White or Austin friars, the Black or Dominican friars and the poorest Grey or Franciscan friars who looked after the poor at the St. Thomas Hospital of Eastbridge.

The Pilgrimage and surge in the population was halted by the 100 Years War, the Black Death, crop failure, bad weather and disease. The Plague outbreaks halved the population of Canterbury. Citizens rebuilt the walls of the city against the threat of invasion from France. The West Gate was added, with holes for guns, a drawbridge and towers. The nave of the Cathedral was demolished and rebuilt in the new perpendicular style, but not without a break of a decade. A peasant revolt in 1381 against the Archbishop’s poll tax caused the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace to be ransacked, and the
Archbishop to be murdered. An earthquake also damaged the Cathedral and St. Augustine’s Abbey. Henry IV funded the building of the Arundel tower in matching perpendicular style and he and his queen were buried in the Cathedral
instead of Westminster Abbey.

When Black Death receded, a resurgence in pilgrimage to Canterbury began. Many new inns were started. The largest one, set up by the Cathedral, was the setting for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The city also gained more civil status when, in 1448 they were allowed to elect a mayor instead of having a king’s bailiff and in 1461 Canterbury was made its own county, independent of Kent, a position it held until 1974. In the Jubilee of 1470 so much work was being done on the Cathedral that only the martyr’s site was left in its original Norman state. The Bell Harry Tower was added and rebuilt even
higher in 1494 and the Cathedral Gate and the Precincts were finished in 1517 in late Gothic architecture with Renaissance decoration.

Canterbury and the Reformation

The Reformation of the 16th Century caused great turmoil, especially for religious bodies in Canterbury. Thomas Cranmer, King Henry VIII choice for Archbishop, went against the Vatican’s beliefs when he declared the divorce of the King and Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent marriage to a very pregnant Anne Boleyn as valid. The King and Thomas Cranmer then devised the Act of Supremacy which made Henry the head of the English church, an act which severed ties with the Catholic Church. An Act of Parliament in 1537 gave the state the right to demolish or close all religious houses making less than Ã?£300 a year. Thomas Becket was declared a traitor, posthumously, and all shrines to him in the Abbey and Cathedral were destroyed. The abbots lodging at St. Augustine’s Abbey was made into Henry’s royal palace in 1539 and a queen’s lodging was built for his new wife Ann Cleaves, complete with a deer park. In 1541 the roof of the abbey was removed and used as a quarry for building materials. Canterbury’s three friaries were dissolved and the monks fled overseas. The Blackfriars was used as a weaving factory and the Greyfriars and Whitefrairs were used as residences. The monastic school became the King’s School, a fancy school for scholars. One of its greatest pupils was Canterbury playwright Christopher Marlowe who wrote the plays Dr Faustus, Tamburlaine and Edward III.

When Queen Elizabeth I, she compromised on matters of religion by keeping some of the ancient ceremonies but mostly followed the protestant religion. In 1570 many Walloon and Protestant families arrived in Canterbury to escape religious persecution in their countries. Most were in the weaving trade, so they settled down around the rivers in timber framed houses, using the water to power their machines. They prospered well and by the 1580’s there were more than a thousand looms in the city. By 1620 they made up more of Canterbury’s population than the English. They first used St. Alphege’s church for worship, but as numbers swelled, Queen Elizabeth gave them the Black Prince’s Chantry in the Cathedral crypt, in which a weekly service is still given in French. Elizabeth visited Canterbury in 1573 for her 40th birthday.
The Archbishops Palace was rebuilt for the occasion and a banquet was held there. She visited Canterbury again in 1579 to bid farewell to her suitor, the Duke of Anjou.

Musketeers came down from London in 1642 during the English Civil War, to take over and secure the city for parliament. The Puritans in Canterbury began to rid the city of anything Catholic. They desecrated the cathedral, smashing stained glass and statues of saints. In 1650 the city gates were burnt down and the Archbishop’s Palace destroyed. Canterbury became a small market town, with very few Archbishops coming to the city. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, along with the church hierarchy, Charles II donated money to repair the town.

Modern Canterbury

The 18th and 19th centuries were a time of peace and stability for Canterbury. Very little construction was done. The population increased very gradually and was around 40000 in the 19th century. By World War One, Canterbury was still a
small market town. On June 1st 1942 explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped on Canterbury by the Nazis as a reappraisal for the bombing of Cologne Cathedral and city. The target, the Cathedral, was virtually untouched because
incendiary bombs were thrown in the grounds to make it look as though it was on fire. After two later bombing raids the death toll reached 115, with 800 ancient buildings destroyed, the worst being on the Burgate and St. George’s streets. After the war there was a redevelopment controversy, so no scheme was decided on and ugly modern buildings were built. Destruction of medieval buildings continued until in 1974, a conservation effort was started. The same year Canterbury lost its county status and was merged into Kent. The bombing had exposed the city, enabling excavations to be done, yielding more information on the past inhabitants of the city. New buildings in the city have been erected as replicas of medieval buildings. Canterbury today has the two million tourists visiting each year and it works hard to maintain the
atmosphere and beauty of the city.

The Cathedral

This impressive Cathedral dates back to the coming of the first archbishop, Augustine, from Rome in A.D. 597. The earliest part of the present building is the great Romanesque crypt built circa 1100. The monastic choir erected on top of the crypt was destroyed by fire in 1174, only 4 years after the murder of Thomas Becket. The destroyed choir was immediately replaced by a magnificent early Gothic one, the first major expression of that architectural style in England.

The Cathedral is famous for tombs of royal parsonages, such as those of King Henry IV and Edward the Black Prince, as well as those of numerous archbishops. The great 14th-century nave and the famous central “Bell Harry Tower” were built in the later Middle Ages. The Cathedral stands in spacious precincts amid the remains of the buildings of the monastery, cloisters, chapter house, and Norman water tower, which have survived intact from the dissolution in the time of King Henry VIII to the present day.

Becket’s shrine was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, but the site of that tomb is in Trinity Chapel, near the High Altar. The saint is said to have worked miracles, and the Cathedral contains some rare stained glass depicting those feats. Perhaps the most astonishing miracle is that the windows not only escaped Henry VIII’s agents, but Hitler’s bombs as
well. The windows were removed as a precaution at the beginning of the war. During the war, a large area of Canterbury was flattened, but the main body of the church was unharmed, though the temporary windows were blown in. East of
the Trinity Chapel is “Becket’s Crown”, in which is a chapel dedicated to “Martyrs and Saints of Our Own Time.” St. Augustine’s Chair, one of the symbols of the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is situated behind the High Altar.

St. Augustine’s Abbey

Founded in 598, St. Augustine’s Abbey is one of the oldest monastic sites in Britain. The Abbey endured destruction during the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538. Visitors today are able to see not only the ruins of both Saxon and Norman churches, but also the remains of Tudor brickwork from a Royal Palace built by Henry VIII. The attached museum contains
over 250 objects excavated from the abbey site over the years. It includes pieces of carved stonework, objects from the scriptorium, funeral items, and the remains of a young woman in a medieval lead coffin liner.

Norman Castle

The first mention of Canterbury’s stone keep was in the Domesday Book of 1086, when the king traded houses for land on which to build the fortress. The walls of the rectangular castle are made from stone and flint and range from 9 to 14 feet thick in places. It stands on a platform made from rubble and roman brick and it originally stood 50 feet high. The first floor housed the Kings hall and chambers, as well as a large fireplace and its own chapel. There were no ground level entrances to the castle but a staircase, demolished in 1817, once gave access to the first floor. There was also a steep stairway down into the dungeon from the first floor. The castle stood on 4 acres of land surrounded by fortress walls, towers and a defensive ditch.

In the late 16th Century, the castle began to fall into a bad state of decay. Between 1770 and 1792, the surrounding walls were demolished, the ditch filled in and houses were built on top. Demolition attempts in 1817 only succeeded in removing the top story, as the fortress remained rock steady. In the 1820’s the Gas, Light, Coke and Water Company
bought the castle and used it as a warehouse to store its machinery and coal, causing vast damage to the interior of the castle. Only when the town council took over the castle in 1928 was it secured as a historical site. It has now been restored and preserved and is opened for all to see.

Roman Museum

The Roman Museum is set below street level, at the level of the rediscovered Roman town. The museum incorporates the remains of a small Roman town house that was unearthed during the 1990s. Computer images display what the town house and the adjoining bath must have looked like in ancient times.

The first display depicts a scene with a museum archaeologist at his desk bringing together the diverse artifacts from recent excavations, the discoveries of earlier antiquarians, to chance finds, and adding in his knowledge of remains elsewhere in the Roman world. The museum makes use of reconstruction settings, such as a market place with stallholders displaying their wares, or the interior of a Roman house with kitchen and dining room, to show a great range of real finds in their original contexts. Visitors can also touch the past in the celebrated hands-on area where trays of
real excavated finds can be handled and the real work of archaeologists can be followed.

Visiting Canterbury

Canterbury is accessible by road or rail from the rest of Britain, particularly London. The town has an excellent bus service, though taxis are also available. Many of the sites are within walking distance of one another.

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