The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas (a) Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday 29th December, 1170 (by knights acting on what they had interpreted as an instruction from the King, Henry II). The site became an important one of pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages (the penitent Henry making the journey barefoot – at least from the hospital of St Nicholas in Harbledown – in 1174, the year after Thomas was made a saint). The practice of pilgrimage ceased after the Reformation and Dissolution under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, but may be said to have resumed in later centuries. Research published by the Chaucer Society in the nineteenth century suggests that the route taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury ran more less along the line of the old Roman road of Watling Street – or its modern equivalent, the A2 – through Dartford, Rochester and Faversham (note in this context that Rochester is mentioned in the Monk’s prologue, Sittingbourne in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and Boughton-under-Blean, which is near Faversham, in the Canon Yeoman’s prologue, in “The Canterbury Tales”). Further research from this time suggests that the journey along this – sixty-mile or so – route would probably have taken four days, with overnight stops at each of the three aforementioned towns (where suitable accommodation was available). I follow in the pilgrims’ tracks …
From Faversham, the old Roman road of Watling Street continues to run ESE along the northern edge of the North Downs to Canterbury (and beyond).
From this point on, it is known as Canterbury Road.
Boughton would appear to have been founded in the Medieval period, and a number of buildings from this time still stand on The Street.
Broughton Church (St Peter and St Paul) dates to the thirteenth century.
Boughton Hill to the east commands fine views towards Canterbury.
Harbledown would also appear to have been founded in the Medieval period.
The hospital of St Nicholas was originally built in the eleventh century, around 1084, by Archbishop Lanfranc, as a leper hospital. In the later Middle Ages, it became an important stopping-off point for pilgrims on their way to St Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, as it housed a purported relic of the saint, in the form of a slipper he had worn. The site is now occupied by Victorian alms-houses.
The parish church of St Michael and All Angels was originally built in the twelfth century, around 1160, and extended in the thirteenth.
The church of St Dunstan, immediately outside the city walls of Canterbury, dates back to the eleventh century.
Canterbury would appear to have been founded in pre-Roman times, by the Celtic Cantiaci. In Roman times it was known as Durovernum Cantiacorum, and was evidently sufficiently large and important to have had its own amphitheatre, built in the first century, city walls, built in the third century (as a defence against Saxon raids), and places of Christian worship, built in the fourth century (the Roman Empire became Christianised under the Emperorship of Constantine in 312). In Saxon/Jutish times it became known as Cantwarabyrig, and was the power base of the Kings of Kent, including, in the late sixth to early seventh centuries, Ethelbert. Ethelbert was the first of the Kentish Kings to be converted to Christianity, by Augustine, the emissary of Pope Gregory the Great, in 597. It was he who built the first Cathedral and Abbey here (see below).
It was the first Norman King, William I who began work on the Castle, in around 1070, and his successor Henry I who completed it, between 1100-35.
The West Gate was built by the Master Mason Henry Yevele in 1380 (i.e., at the same time that the Cathedral was rebuilt: see below). Yevele was the Master Mason to three successive kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, between c. 1360-1400, during which time he either built or rebuilt large parts of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (including Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower) in London
The first Canterbury Cathedral was built by Ethelbert in 602. It was sacked by the Vikings in 1011, during the course of a raid that cost 8000 Saxon lives, and then destroyed by fire in 1067. A new Cathedral was built for Lanfranc between 1070-77, although aside from the crypt little of this building survives. The quire was rebuilt between 1175-84. The nave was rebuilt between 1377-1405, in the Perpendicular Gothic style, the Great Cloister between 1397-1414, and the south-west and Bell Henry towers in 1424-59 and 1498 respectively (Lanfranc’s old north-west tower was replaced by a new one, mirroring that to the south-west, in 1832-40). The nave is strongly reminiscent of that of Southwark Cathedral, built at around the same time, following a fire in 1390.
Canterbury Cathedral first became a place of pilgrimage after the murder – by the Vikings – of the then Archbishop, Alfege, in 1012, becoming even more important as such after the murder of then then Archbishop, Thomas Becket in 1170. The shrine to St Thomas, as he became, was despoiled on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538, and there was further iconoclasm by the Puritans in 1642-48 (i.e., during the Civil War).
Other Places of Interest in Canterbury
Eastbridge Pilgrims’ Hospital on the High Street was originally founded, to provide hospitality to pilgrims, in 1190.
The Greyfriars Chapel, the only surviving part of the former Franciscan Friary, in Greyfriars Gardens, dates to 1267.
Canterbury Abbey was originally built – just outside the city walls to the east – by Ethelbert in the seventh century, i.e., at the same time as the Cathedral. It was rededicated to St Augustine by Archbishop Dunstan in the tenth century (having previously been dedicated to SS Peter and Paul). It was damaged by an earthquake in 1382, and repaired, only to be dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. Though now largely in ruins, it remains an impressive site. It is also an important one, being the burial place of Augustine, Ethelbert and a number of other Saxon Kings and Bishops (including Mellitus, who founded St Paul’s in London).
St Martin’s – also just outside the city walls to the east – has a claim to being the oldest surviving church in the English-speaking world. According to the Venerable Bede, it was originally founded in late Roman times. It was then refounded by the Kentish King Ethelbert’s Queen, Bertha of Kent in Saxon times, in around 580 (i.e., before the main Christianisation of the Saxons under Ethelbert in 597). And extended in the later Middle Ages.