One of England’s most venerable cities, CANTERBURY offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. Its compact centre, partly ringed by ancient walls, is virtually car-free, but this doesn’t stop the High Street seizing up all too frequently with the milling crowds.
The city that began as a Belgic settlement was known as Durovernum to the Romans, who established a garrison and supply base here, and renamed Cantwarabyrig by the Saxons. In 597 the Saxon King Ethelbert welcomed Augustine, despatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity; one of the two Benedictine monasteries founded by Augustine – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become England’s first cathedral.
At the turn of the first millennium Canterbury suffered repeated sackings by the Danes, and Christ Church was eventually destroyed by fire a year before the Norman invasion. A struggle for power later developed between the archbishops, the abbots from the nearby Benedictine abbey and King Henry II, culminating in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, a martyrdom that established this as one of Christendom’s greatest shrines. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the fourteenth century, portrays the unexpectedly festive nature of pilgrimages to Becket’s tomb, which was later plundered and destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII.
In 1830 a pioneering passenger railway service linked Canterbury to the sea and prosperity grew until the city suffered extensive German bombing on June 1, 1942, in one of the notorious Baedeker Raids – the Nazi plan to destroy Britain’s most treasured historic sites as described in the eponymous German travel guides.Read More
The cathedralMother Church of the Church of England and seat of the Primate of All England – the Archbishop of Canterbury – Canterbury Cathedral fills the northeast quadrant of the city with a sense of authority, even if architecturally it’s not the country’s most impressive. A cathedral has stood here since 602, but in 1070 the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc, levelled the original Saxon structure to build a new cathedral. Over successive centuries the masterpiece was heavily modified, and with the puritanical lines of the Perpendicular style gaining ascendancy in late medieval times, the cathedral now derives its distinctiveness from the thrust of the 235ft-high Bell Harry Tower, completed in 1505.
The precincts are entered through the superbly ornate early sixteenth-century Christ Church Gate, where Burgate and St Margaret’s Street meet. This junction, the city’s medieval core, is known as the Butter Market, where religious relics were once sold to pilgrims hoping to prevent an eternity in damnation. Once through the gatehouse, you can enjoy one of the best views of the cathedral, foreshortened and crowned with soaring towers and pinnacles.
In the magnificent interior, look for the tomb of Henry IV and his wife, Joan of Navarre, and for the gilded effigy of Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, all of them in the Trinity Chapel behind the main altar. Also here, until demolished in 1538, was the shrine of Thomas à Becket; the actual spot where he died, known as “The Martyrdom”, is marked in the northwest transept by the Altar of the Sword’s Point, where a jagged sculpture of the assassins’ weapons is suspended on the wall. Steps from here descend to the low, Romanesque arches of the crypt, one of the few remaining relics of the Norman cathedral and considered the finest such structure in the country, with some amazingly well-preserved carvings on the capitals of the columns. Back upstairs, look out for the vivid medieval stained glass, notably in the Trinity Chapel, where the life and miraculous works of Thomas à Becket are depicted. Look out too for an animal-skin-clad Adam delving in the west window and Jonah and the whale in the Corona (the eastern end of the cathedral, beyond the Trinity Chapel). The thirteenth-century white marble St Augustine’s Chair, on which all archbishops of Canterbury are enthroned, is located in the choir at the top of the steps beyond the high altar.
On the cathedral’s north flank are the fan-vaulted colonnades of the Great Cloister, from where you enter the Chapter House, with its intricate web of fourteenth-century tracery supporting the roof and a wall of stained glass.