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.