Canterbury: The Church of England's capital

Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury Cathedral was established in AD597

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The history of Canterbury's religious significance began with the Romans; in fact it owes some of its great religious notability to simple geography.

Once Roman soldiers had passed through the fortified entrance to Britain at Dover, Canterbury was their next significant stop.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral
  • It was established in 597AD by St Augustine, who had been sent to Canterbury as a missionary by Pope Gregory the Great
  • It has attracted flocks of pilgrims since Thomas Becket was murdered in the Cathedral in 1170
  • The Cathedral's library was destroyed by enemy action during WWII
  • A number of famous historical figures are buried in Canterbury Cathedral, including Thomas Becket and Henry IV
  • The cathedral, as well as St Augustine's Abbey and St Martin's Church, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and attracts over one million visitors per year.

Located just a little further up the old Roman road - now the A2 - it was the nearest settlement from which to set up a regional government.

The Romans developed Canterbury from an existing ancient town on the River Stour; they built temples, baths, an amphitheatre, a protective wall and outlying forts. The city's Roman museum contains many artefacts from this development.

There is evidence of a group of Romano-British Christians worshipping in the ancient city. In fact, Canterbury's church of St Martin's might even date from this time, making it the site of Christian worship in England to have been in longest continuous use.

Once the Romans left, Northern Europe went through a period of upheaval and reconstruction.

Amid all of this, Kent, ruled from Canterbury, was just one of several small kingdoms in the British Isles awaiting a new system of government.

It had passed under the control of the Anglo-Saxons, and as the memory of the Romans waned, became increasingly autonomous.

Then, late in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great appointed the Benedictine monk Augustine to lead a mission from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

Augustine was to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

A Christian kingdom

He arrived in 597AD, and began the work of persuading the Kentish King Ethelbert of the merits of the Roman religion.

Canterbury high street The cobbled streets of Canterbury today

Ethelbert was receptive; he had married the Christian Frankish Princess Bertha, who worshipped in the church of St Martin's, just outside the city walls. So Augustine was allowed to establish a Benedictine abbey close to the church.

Once Ethelbert himself had converted, he granted Augustine permission to build Canterbury Cathedral - the first monument of English church establishment.

Kent became the first officially Christian kingdom in the British Isles: Augustine was the first Primate of an English Church, and Ethelbert the first king of Christian England.

As Christianity spread westwards from the secure foothold in Canterbury, cathedrals were soon established in Rochester and London.

Augustine obtained sanction from the Pope to maintain existing British church practices; an important precedent for the idea of the independence of the English Church.

England quickly became a relatively safe centre for Christianity, itself sending the missions, which successfully converted Germany.

The monks brought with them a powerful technology: writing. For a time, Canterbury became perhaps the greatest centre for the production of manuscripts in Northern Europe.

• Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

  • The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories in verses written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a 14th Century poet born in London
  • The tales follow the journey of a group of 31 pilgrims (including Chaucer himself) from Southwark to Canterbury, where they were going to visit St Thomas Becket's shrine
  • Each pilgrim is prompted to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two stories on the way back, as a way to entertain the group during the long journey. The prize for the best story was a free supper
  • Chaucer completed only 24 stories.

One Victorian scholar and churchman, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, wrote: "St. Augustine's Abbey was… the mother school, the mother university of England, the seat of letters and study, at a time when Cambridge was a desolate fen, and Oxford a tangled forest in a wide waste of waters."

The abbey also served as the burial ground for the Kings of Kent, and the first Archbishops of Canterbury. An important establishment in its own right, it drew monks from places as far distant as Syria.

Following the Norman Conquest, William I himself had the cathedral rebuilt. There is even some evidence to suggest that the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of William's defeat of the Saxon armies in 1066, was sewn by seamstresses in Canterbury.

The Normans brought with them their own monks to serve as archbishops: amongst them was St Anselm, an important medieval theologian whose theory of the sacrificial death of Christ still influences Christian thought.

Murder and pilgrimage

Then came a brutal turning point in Canterbury's history; Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral in 1170.

Becket was not the holy martyr of legend; he had done much to provoke the Plantagenet King Henry II; but Henry did penance for his death. The Church instructed Henry II to pay for 200 knights to defend Jerusalem.

And after Becket's death, reports spread of miraculous wonders associated with invoking his name.

The cult of Becket was established and Canterbury became one of the great pilgrim destinations in Europe, and the pilgrims brought their wealth with them.

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It is possible to see signs of almost every stage of English history within the cathedral walls ”

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The cathedral expanded, and numerous churches and taverns were built in the city to accommodate the visitors, immortalised in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Burial near Becket's shrine was thought particularly holy, and the cathedral still contains the tombs of King Henry IV and Edward, the Black Prince.

When the Dutch scholar Erasmus visited the cathedral with Sir Thomas More, he noted his impressions of the incredible value of this bejewelled shrine.

It had become apparent that ecclesiastical institutions were wealthy enough to compete with the monarch, and Henry VIII consolidated his power by destroying the Abbey and Becket's shrine.

Thomas More was executed, and his skull buried in St Dunstan's church in the city.

Once again Canterbury was to play a significant role in the emergence of a new English church - the birth of English Protestantism.

The English language gained a new authority in the life of the nation when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer translated the Litany from Latin in his palace at Bekesbourne, a few miles south-east of the city.

This was the beginning of the process of putting Church services into the vernacular language, and the first step in the writing of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Civil War of the mid-17th Century saw Cromwell's troops attempt to make the cathedral fit Puritan ideas of church decoration, vandalising many of the monuments inside.

Later, the Victorians did much work restoring the cathedral in line with their own tastes, and some of the most interesting features today are the tombs of great English church leaders.

Canterbury Cathedral The cathedral was the first monument of English church establishment

It is possible to see signs of almost every stage of English history within the cathedral walls - from the most ancient to the contemporary.

And Canterbury maintains its position as the religious capital of England.

Even though it was in existence before the English kingdom was even created, at every stage since it has played an important role in the story of what it means to be English.

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