It is of little wonder that Canterbury has attracted visitors from far and wide for hundreds of years. Pilgrims since time in memorial have trudged through the Kentish countryside on their way to Canterbury in search of salvation, from Chaucer’s motley band of pilgrims in the 14th century to modern day shoppers hunting for bargains!
Just as you would expect of such an ancient city the cobbled streets are lined by an eclectic mix of buildings which help to highlight the changing architectural styles, reflecting the demands of different residents through the ages. From mellow brick built Georgian properties to timber framed homes of important medieval merchants all vie for attention, but in reality the star attraction is the cathedral and quite rightly so! Visible from afar the cathedral rises high above the other attractions. With its size and majesty demonstrating its heavenly status and down on earth the glorious cloisters transport the casual visitor into a seemingly mythical realm, there is little wonder that Canterbury is a World Heritage Site.
It should come as no surprise to learn that Canterbury has been inhabited since prehistoric times with all of the basic requirements life, a safe environment, running water and a plentiful food source! The inhabitants of this far distant time have left little evidence of their existence just a few Lower Palaeolithic axes and some Neolithic and Bronze age pots. These people disappeared into the mists of time with the arrival of the Celtic tribes, one of which gave Canterbury its name, the Cantiaci. This particular tribe settled all over what we now know as Kent and were the first to have contact with the new invaders, the Romans! Late in the first century AD the settlement was appropriated by the Romans who promptly renamed it Durovernum Cantiacorum, which quite literally means “stronghold of the Cantiaci by the alder grove”. The Romans were very fond of their home comforts so they quickly set about building a modern town with all of the creature comforts with a theatre, temples, public baths and a forum. Although the public baths were a place to wash, and the Romans were incredibly clean especially in comparison to the tribe’s men that they supplanted, the baths that became a common sight in every Roman town had more in common with a modern day pub. It was a place to socialise as well as wash away the days grime!
The Roman town flourished for nearly three hundred years but as time moved on the threat from the northern barbarians became greater, so the Romans in the late third century built an earth bank and wall which completely enclosed an area of around 53ha. Unfortunately during the 4th century the Roman Empire went into a decline from which it never recovered. The Romans fled these shores abandoning their towns and leaving the natives to the mercy of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes!
The grand buildings of Roman Canterbury gradually decayed but there are still a few that exist to this day! Eventually a new community discovered the abandoned ruins and decided to create a settlement of their own within the old Roman walls. The new settlement was named Cantwaraburh meaning the “stronghold of the Kent people”. Nearly two hundred years later in 597 AD, Pope Gregory sent St Augustine to Kent in a bid to convert the heathen King Aethelberht along with the rest of his subjects to Christianity. His job was made much easier because Aethelberht’s Frankish wife Berta was a Christian and she had already persuaded her husband to give Augustine an audience. There is a legend of the king being unduly worried about Augustine’s “magic”, he insisted that the meeting took place outside so that any magic powers were weakened! Aethelbert was so impressed with Augustine that he gave the missionary permission to settle in Kent and convert all of his people.
They were a remarkable couple, King Aethelbert was a man who was far in advance of his time, because of his enlightenment Christianity was established across the South East within a couple of years and even more impressive were his legal reforms; his written legal code was one of the earliest Saxon codes to survive! His wife Berta was later canonized for using her influence to establish Christianity in Anglo Saxon England.
Saint Berta or Saint Aldeberge as she is also known was the daughter of Charibert I who was the Merovingian King of Paris. When she left France to marry Aethelbert, her chaplain Luidhard came to England as well. There was an old Roman church in Canterbury that she had restored and dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours, a church of the same name still occupies the same site!
Augustine decided to make Canterbury an Episcopal See, in other words the official seat for a bishop and in so doing he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. An abbey was built outside the city walls and cathedral was also eventually built. The cathedral that we see today dates back to the Norman Conquest with the remains of the original Saxon cathedral, wrecked by the Danes underneath amongst its foundations.
Canterbury at the heart of English Christianity became very important, trade flourished leading to a rapid rise in population. Unfortunately a couple of centuries later in 842 and 851 Canterbury because of its close proximity to the coast and the wealth created by its flourishing traders became a magnet for Viking raiders. Canterbury’s inhabitants were put to the sword, resulting in a huge loss of life along with the usual pillaging for which the Vikings became renowned!
During the reign of Ethelred the Unready the Danish fleet sailed up the Thames, anchored near Greenwich and used Blackheath as a base. For three years between 1011 and 1014 the Danes terrorised southern England, laying siege to Canterbury they even managed to capture Archbishop Alfege. They believed that the Archbishop was a rich prize and that a huge ransom would be paid for his release, unfortunately he refused to cooperate with them and was killed in Greenwich on the 19th April by a drunken mob throwing bones and cattle heads. Thorkell the Tall was so appalled by the behaviour of his fellow countrymen that he changed sides and joined the Anglo Saxons! Archbishop Alfege’s body was disinterred and returned to Canterbury in 1023 by King Canute with great ceremony!
Alfege has the dubious honour of being the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death, to be followed by Thomas a Becket, Archbishop Sudbury, Thomas Cranmer and William Laud. It was the murder of Thomas a Becket that set Canterbury firmly on the pilgrimage trail and even inspired Geoffrey Chaucer to write the “Canterbury Tales”.
Thomas became a thorn in the side of King Henry II, his onetime best friend! In an age where the king usually had the last word Thomas felt that he should have it! His demise was brought about because of his refusal to allow clerics and other church members to be tried by the courts of the kingdom when they committed felonies like rape, robbery and murder. He thought that they should be disciplined by the church courts which invariably meant that the perpetrators received a slap wrist, hardly a sufficient punishment!
During the Peasants Revolt created by the imposition of the Poll Tax (supposedly a one off tax, which became such a good source of revenue not only for the exchequer but also the barons that it was imposed around three times in total) the church wasn’t as sympathetic to the plight of poorer members of society as it should have been and Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury) became a “hate figure”. A band of peasants raided the Tower of London capturing him alongside the architect of the Poll Tax, John Legge and the Kings treasurer, Sir Robert Hailes. All three were dragged out to Tower Hill where executions were commonly held and had their heads chopped off.
Thomas Cranmer was the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. He compiled the first English Book of Common Prayer. He was burned at the stake for heresy and treason because of his opposition of Bloody Mary, Henry VIII eldest daughter by Catherine of Aragon. He has a feast day is 16th October.
William Laud was deeply unpopular because of his support for Charles I, the censorship of the press and the persecution of the Puritans. When he attempted to impose the Prayer Book in Scotland it became the straw that broke the donkeys back! With the coming Civil War he was impeached by Parliament in 1640 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was eventually condemned to death and beheaded.
Even though these gentlemen held high office it didn’t save them from violent deaths, some were responsible for their own demise and the others were quite innocent; but all of them guilty or not have had a lasting impact upon the city!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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