Canterbury has it all: a wonderful cathedral that is a UNESCO site, a pedestrian-friendly town centre, roots that go back to pre-Roman times and loads to see and do. It is also the principal ecclesiastical centre of England. This guide to Canterbury will come in handy to plan your visit.
Things to do in Canterbury
A potted history
Canterbury is located in Kent, in the south east of England. After the invasion of 43 AD, the Romans founded the town of Durovernum Cantiacorum on the site of an earlier settlement. The Roman wall, some of which still stands, was erected in 200 AD and rebuilt in the Middle Ages.
In the late 6th century, Canterbury was the capital of the kingdom of Kent under King Ethelbert I. He welcomed St. Augustine of Canterbury’s Christianising mission, probably under the influence of his queen, who was a Christian.
The cathedral, originally established by St. Augustine, attracted many pilgrims in the Middle Ages, who came to see St. Thomas Beckett’s shrine. Thus, catering to the needs of pilgrims became Canterbury’s main source of income.
With the 16th-century Reformation, the cult of Beckett was suppressed. The town’s economy languished until Huguenot and Walloon refugees revived Canterbury’s economy thanks to the weaving trade.
During the Second World War, Canterbury sustained extensive damage from air raids. However, the cathedral suffered little in comparison. Canterbury became a college town with the creation of the University of Kent at Canterbury and Canterbury Christ Church College.
The Canterbury Tales
The town of Canterbury is immortalised in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s a long poem written in Middle English in the 14th century. The poem follows the journey of 31 pilgrims and Chaucer from Southwark to Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury.
Each pilgrim tells a tale to entertain everyone during the long walk. The characters in the stories represent a cross-section of medieval society, from knights to carpenters. The Canterbury Tales provide a fascinating insight into the life of 14th-century England.
The work is said to have popularised the use of the vernacular English as opposed to the Norman French spoken by the elites. It has become one of the major literary works in English.
Canterbury Cathedral, UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1988, the UNESCO declared Canterbury Cathedral, St. Martin’s Church and St. Augustine’s Abbey as World Heritage Sites. Together, these buildings “reflect milestones in the history of Christianity in Britain,” according to the UNESCO website.
They also reflect Canterbury’s role as the seat of the Church of England, “the development of Anglo-Saxon building in mortared brick and stone, and the flowering of the Romanesque and Gothic styles.”
Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine as a missionary to England in 597 AD. King Ethelbert gave him the church of St. Martin’s.
Augustine, consecrated bishop in France, built a cathedral, which he called Christ Church.
In 1070-77, the Norman bishop Lanfranc rebuilt the cathedral, which the Saxons had enlarged and rebuilt, due a to a big fire. Each century brought changes and additions to the cathedral. However, parts of the Quire and some stained glass windows are from the 12th century. Also, a staircase and parts of the North Wall date from 1070.
Thomas Beckett was King Henry II’s chancellor between 1154 and 1162. The quarrel between the king and Beckett begun when the latter was elected Archbishop of Canterbury. The king wanted to control the church and Beckett refused to obey.
Beckett’s attitude exasperated the king. He is said to have uttered a fatal phrase that resulted in Beckett’s bloody murder at the cathedral. Incidentally, a play by T.S. Elliott, Murder in the Cathedral, reconstructs Beckett’s martyrdom.
As miracles were believed to have taken place, Canterbury became one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in medieval Europe. People came to see the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Trinity Chapel, who had been canonised. The influx of pilgrims brought wealth to the town.
By 1498, the Cathedral, with the addition of the cloister vaulting, the Pulpitum Screen and the Bell Harry tower, was largely completed as we see it today. However, Beckett’s shrine was destroyed in 1538 by the order of King Henry VIII.
Canterbury Cathedral suffered extensive damage, and was successively restored, after two major historical events: under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth of England (17th century) and the bombings during World War II.
The Martyrdom: the place where Beckett was slain is marked with the Altar of the Sword’s Point.
Tomb of Edward, the Black Prince: the eldest son of King Edward III was one of England’s best military leaders, known for the victory at the battle of Crécy. He died in 1376.
St. Augustine’s Chair: it dates back to the 13th century and is the ceremonial enthronement chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Quire: rebuilt after 1174, the Quire is England’s first Gothic building.
The Tomb of King Henry IV and Joan of Navarre: Henry came to the throne in 1399 and reigned until 1413. Joan was his second wife.
The 12th- and 13th-century stained glass windows known as the Miracle Windows.
The Norman Crypt, the oldest part of the cathedral.
Things to do in Canterbury
The Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr, or Eastbridge for short, was founded in the 12th century to cater to the pilgrims. It isn’t a hospital in the modern sense, but, rather, a place of hospitality.
Nowadays, a part of it is still an almshouse. The oldest bits (Undecroft, the Greyfriars chapel and Franciscan garden) are open to the public. ****due to the COVID pandemic, they will remain closed until Easter 2021. Click here for updates.****
St. Augustine’s Abbey
St. Augustine’s Abbey is part of the Canterbury World Heritage Site. The remains of the abbey are outside the walls of the city, of which the Great Abbey Gate still stands.
A museum displays Roman and Saxon objects excavated from the site. St. Augustine’s Abbey was the place of burial for Anglo-Saxon kings, as well as the site of the rebirth of Christianity in the south of England after the departure of the Romans.
The Buttermarket is an area right outside the cathedral and the Christ Church Gate. In the past, bulls were tied to a stake here overnight, as it was close to the shambles (slaughter area of the city). By 1664, there was a market hall here called Buttermarket. The decayed structure was demolished in 1888.
Buttermaket is mainly a pedestrian area dotted with monuments, like the Christopher Marlowe’s memorial and the war memorial.
Christchurch Gate is the main entrance to the cathedral and dates from the early 16th century. It’s thought that the gate was built in honour of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s elder brother. Restoration of the gate took place after the damage inflicted by Puritans in 1643.
The Westgate Towers date from 1380, built as part of England’s defences against a French invasion during the Hundred Years’ War. When the threat of invasion disappeared, Westgate functioned as the city jail until the late 19th century. After a brief stint as an archive, it became a museum. However, it also played an important defensive role during both world wars.
The Kent Museum of Freemasonry
If you’re into freemasonry and secret societies, you may want to give this museum a whirl (when it reopens after Covid). The Kent Museum of Freemasonry’s collection includes regalia, objects and books about all Masonic orders.
Canterbury Festival – Kent’s International Arts Festival
This annual arts festival takes place in October and is the biggest festival in the region. See here for more info.
The Goods Shed Farmers’ Market, Food Hall and Restaurant
The restaurant serves a seasonal menu with local ingredients sourced from the market. In the market, you’ll find fresh fruit and veg, local meats and fish, as well as artisan cheeses. Fine wines, charcuterie, coffee and pastries and cocktails are also on offer at The Good Shed.