InQuire's History of Canterbury Volume I: Roman Canterbury

By far the most civilised of British Tribes

Welcome to InQuire’s brand new ‘History of Canterbury’ series, where, over seven episodes, we’ll look back at our city’s history from its Iron Age beginnings and its time as a Roman Garrison, through its place as a prime destination for medieval pilgrims and all the way to the Blitz of Canterbury in the Second World War. In this first episode, we explore Canterbury’s humble beginnings and daily life in the Roman period.

Canterbury began, as most British cities do, with a few small homes and a couple of cows and pigs. It was first recorded in the Iron Ages as the main settlement of Cantium, the Celtic kingdom of the Cantiaci tribe, which stretched across most of modern-day Kent; eagle-eyed amongst you will recognise the similarities between ‘Cantium’ and ‘Kent’ I hope. As a useful crossing to the river Stour, which was much larger in the Iron Ages than the trickling stream in Westgate Gardens it is today, the Oppidum (Celtic settlement) had a good strategic advantage and was thus protected by three ditches. Inside these ditches would have surrounded a couple of farms and houses.

So, in the beginning, Canterbury was much like any other Celtic settlement and not that special.

It was with the arrival of the Romans that Canterbury’s story starts to get interesting. Julius Caesar himself arrived at the settlement on his second Roman expedition to Britannia in 54 BC. Landing in Walmer, near Dover, Caesar progressed to Canterbury (though it didn’t actually have a name yet) as a way to cross the Stour to get into the inner British kingdoms. Though he may have thought differently if he took a look today, Caesar stated that those living in Cantium (Kent) were ‘by far the most civilised’ of the British tribes in his journal of the invasion; evidently there was no Club Chemistry in the Iron Ages Canterbury. But whatever he felt of Britain and Cantium, Caesar didn’t stay very long or do that much, returning to Gaul (France) later in the year.

But the Romans soon came back for more. Emperor Claudius, unlike his adoptive great-grandfather, decided to invade and conquer Britannia properly in 43 AD. It was during this invasion that Canterbury was given the name Durovernum Cantiacorum, meaning ‘stronghold of the Cantiaci’. Already a military stronghold, a good crossing of the Stour and a good connection between Londinium (London) and Dubris (Dover), Cantiacorum became a vital strategic holding during the invasion. Watling Street, which allowed troops to travel from Dover to London, ran through it and a section can still be seen today in Westgate Gardens. Cantiacorum remained under military occupation until the demilitarisation of Britain after the invasion’s conclusion in 70 AD, becoming an administrative and financial centre for Roman Kent.

If you were to live in or visit Cantiacorum for the day in the second century, you could do much the same things as we do in Canterbury today. Like popping down today’s market today, you could look for a bargain in the forum, though you’d likely be eating fried mouse from a vendor rather than some jollof rice from Île Afrique; instead of touring the cathedral, you could take a trip to the basilica and temple for the afternoon, though it probably didn’t charge as much. You could take in a show at Cantiacorum’s own Marlowe Theatre, constructed in 80 AD, take a wash in the lavish public baths and stay in a Roman Travelodge or Premier Inn. You could even take a stroll along the city walls, first constructed in the third century, if you were really that bored. In terms of jobs, instead of a Saturday shift at Tesco or a supervisor position at Alberry’s, you’d likely be employed in the city’s booming brick, tile and pottery industries. So, life in Roman Canterbury seemed pretty nifty and modern by even today’s standards, though that’s not saying much.

But this cosmopolitan way of life didn’t last. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the early 400s AD, the Romans promptly abandoned both Britain and Cantiacorum in 410 AD. Without the investment and population the Romans provided, the city soon fell into decay; it was all but abandoned, except for a few farmers, for nearly 100 years. It was only with the invasion of the German tribes like the Jutes, Angles and Saxons (who later mingled and created the Anglo-Saxons) that the city became inhabited again, mostly by refugees and settlers who enjoyed Kent’s fertile lands. Over time, the city once again became a proper settlement, though not as impressive as it’s Roman predecessor, and was given the Old English name that is easily recognisable today, ‘stronghold of the Kentish men’… Cantwareburh.

Next in our History of Canterbury series, we tell the story of St Augustine of Canterbury and life here under the Normans.

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