A History of Canterbury

By Tim Lambert

Early Canterbury

Canterbury started as an Iron Age settlement. It was an important centre for the local Celtic tribe, the Cantiaci in the first century AD. In 43 AD the Romans invaded Britain. Late in the 1st century, they took over the Celtic settlement and rebuilt it. The Romans called the new town Durovernum Cantiacorum. They laid out the new streets in a grid pattern and built public buildings in stone.

In the center of Roman Canterbury was the Forum, an open space lined by shops and the basilica a kind of town hall. The Forum acted as the marketplace. In Roman Canterbury there were temples. There were also public baths. In Roman times going to the baths was not just a way to keep clean it was also a way to socialize. It was the Roman equivalent of going to the pub.

In Roman Canterbury, rich people built houses of stone with mosaic floors. However poor people lived in wood and plaster huts. In the early 3rd century a wall was built around Canterbury. The town flourished for 300 years but in the 4th century, Roman civilization declined.

Medieval Canterbury

After the Romans left Britain in 407 AD town life broke down and Canterbury was probably abandoned. There may have been a few farmers living inside the walls and growing crops or raising animals but Canterbury ceased to be a town.

Then in 597 AD, the Pope sent Augustine with some monks to convert the Saxons. The king of Kent, Ethelbert, was married to a Christian woman which made the task easier.

In 598 Augustine and his monks built an abbey outside the walls of the old Roman town. In 602 he rededicated a deserted Roman church in Canterbury. In 603 Canterbury was chosen to be the seat of the first archbishop.

Once it was chosen to be his seat the town began to revive. It now had new importance. Craftsmen came to live in Canterbury. Among them were leather workers. Leather was used to make all kinds of things including gloves, shoes, saddles, and bottles. Furthermore, wool was woven in Canterbury.

By 630 there was a mint in Canterbury and silver coins were made there. Goods were brought to Canterbury by water to Fordwich. Goods came from the town of Ipswich and northern France.

By the 9th century, Canterbury had grown into a busy little town. It would seem very small to us but settlements were tiny in those days. By the standards of the time, Canterbury was a large town.

However, Canterbury suffered severely when the Danes began raiding England. Because it was close to the eastern shore of England Canterbury was a natural target. It was raided twice, in 842 and 851. Both times many people were killed.

In 1011 the Danes returned and laid siege to Canterbury. They captured it after 20 days. They burned the cathedral and most of the houses in Canterbury. They also killed the archbishop.

When William invaded England in 1066 Canterbury surrendered without a fight. Canterbury Cathedral burned in 1067. After 1070 Normans built a new one to replace it. This new cathedral burned in 1174. The cathedral was rebuilt again after 1175.

The Normans also built a wooden castle in Canterbury. In the 12th century, it was replaced by a stone castle. n Eastbridge Hospital was built in 1190 as a shelter for poor pilgrims. In the early 14th century, the Hospital of Saints Nicholas and Saint Katherine was built for poor people. There was also a leper hostel in Canterbury dedicated to St Nicholas.

In Medieval Canterbury, the main industries were wool and leather. Wool was England’s main export and leather was used to make shoes, gloves, saddles, and bottles.

Another important industry in Canterbury was providing for the needs of pilgrims. Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170 and afterward, many pilgrims came to visit his shrine.

Renaissance Canterbury

The Old Weavers House was erected in 1507. Christchurch Cathedral Gateway was built in 1517. Henry VIII closed the abbey and the 3 friaries in Canterbury. He also put an end to the cult of Thomas Becket. Despite the loss of pilgrims, Canterbury remained a large and important town with a population of perhaps 5,000 people in 1600.

Henry’s daughter Mary tried to undo her father and brothers’ reforms and restore the old Catholic religion. She resorted to burning Protestants and many were martyred in Canterbury.

In the late 16th century weavers from what is now Belgium came to Canterbury fleeing from religious persecution. The first arrived in 1567. Many more followed and they boosted the population of Canterbury.

Meanwhile, Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury in February 1564. However, he was stabbed in Deptford in 1593.

Jesus Hospital (an almshouse) was built in 1599.

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes said that Canterbury was a flourishing town. She described it as a noble city with handsome and neat buildings. Most of them were made of brick. n In the 18th century Canterbury dwindled to being a quiet market town although it did have a leather industry and a paper-making industry.

In 1787 an act of parliament formed a body of men with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Canterbury.

In the 1780s the gates of Canterbury (except Westgate) were demolished because they impeded the flow of traffic. Dane John Gardens were laid out in 1790. Also in 1790, a hospital opened in Canterbury.

Modern Canterbury

The railway reached Canterbury in 1830 and an art school opened in 1867.

However, during the 19th century, Canterbury remained a quiet market town. Its old importance was completely gone as the new industrial towns of the north and midlands mushroomed.

During the 20th Century Canterbury continued to grow slowly. Westgate Museum opened in 1906. Then during the Second World War 115 people were killed in Canterbury by German bombs. The worst raid was in 1942. During it, 48 people were killed and part of the town center was destroyed.

Canterbury Roman Museum was founded in 1961. Canterbury University was built in 1962 and a by-pass was built in 1982. Marlowe Arcade opened in 1985.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral

Whitefriars Shopping Centre in Canterbury was completed in 2005. Today Canterbury is a flourishing town. In 2023 the population of Canterbury was 55,000.

A Timeline of Canterbury

1st Century AD The Romans take over an Iron Age settlement and build a town at Canterbury

407 The Romans leave Britain and afterward, Canterbury is probably abandoned

603 Canterbury is chosen to be the seat of the first archbishop

630 Canterbury is a flourishing little town with its own mint

851 Canterbury is raided by the Danes

1011 The Danes burn most of Canterbury

1067 Canterbury Cathedral burns down and has to be rebuilt

1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket is murdered

1174 Canterbury Cathedral burns down again and has to be rebuilt again

1190 Eastbridge Hospital is built as a shelter for pilgrims

1380 Canterbury flourishes because of the wool industry

1507 The Old Weavers House is built

1564 Christopher Marlowe is born in Canterbury

1567 Weavers from what is now Belgium arrive in Canterbury

1599 Jesus Hospital is built

1750 Canterbury has dwindled to being a quiet market town

1787 A body of men is formed to pave, clean, and light the streets of Canterbury

1790 Dane John Gardens are laid out. A hospital opens in Cathedral

1830 The railway reaches Canterbury

1867 An art school opens. Canterbury remains a quiet market town. The Industrial Revolution passes it by.

1906 Westgate Museum opens. Canterbury slowly grows larger.

Second World War In Canterbury 115 people are killed by bombs.

1962 Canterbury University is built

1982 Canterbury bypass is built

1985 Marlowe Arcade opens

1994 The Roman Museum opens

1997 Canterbury Castle opens to the public

2005 Whitefriars Shopping Centre is completed