InQuire’s History of Canterbury Episode II: The Monk, the Viking and the Burning Cathedrals

Welcome to episode two of InQuire’s ‘History of Canterbury’. Previously, we explored Canterbury’s Iron-Age beginnings, its prospering under the Romans, and its decline after they left. Now we look at Canterbury over 150 years later, exploring its turbulent yet legendary rise in the early medieval period and the origins of its religious importance.

The Kingdoms of South Britain in the Sixth Century. Image: Wikicommons

It’s 597; Canterbury is the capital of the Jute kingdom of Kent, the richest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, ruled over by Pagan King Æthelbert (get used to names like this, there’s loads coming) and Queen Bertha. Whilst nowhere near its Roman glory, Canterbury is reasonably metropolitan, with Æthelbert’s wooden castle surrounded by settlements of nearly 1,000 people. But this quiet isolation will soon be over, because the Romans are back -kind of.

St Augustine of Canterbury. Credit: Canterbury Cathedral

The collapse of Rome’s Western Empire over a century before had also meant the collapse of western Christianity. In Rome, Pope Gregory the Great obviously decided this was long enough, dispatching missionaries all over Europe, including a local monk, Augustine, to lead a mission to restore Christianity to Britain’s pagan kingdoms. Augustine, accompanied by around forty monks, landed at Ebbsfleet in the spring, targeting Kent as base camp for Operation Re-Christianise. Assisted by Queen Bertha, already a Christian as daughter of the King of France, Augustine persuaded Æthelbert to allow his mission to settle and preach in Canterbury, even baptising the king himself in June. Since Æthelbert was now Christian, Augustine had to go about converting all his subjects, thousands of them the following Christmas Day alone, making Canterbury the capital of the first Christian kingdom in England.

With Canterbury as HQ for Operation Re-Christianise (becoming an Archbishopric in 601) Augustine, as the first Archbishop, set about making it look worthy of such a heavenly status. He founded a Benedictine abbey (strangely enough now called St Augustine’s Abbey), which you can see today if you like walking in a field of ruins for a tenner; he rebuilt an old Roman church, naming it Christ Church, the foundations of today’s great cathedral; and even founded a school that would eventually become that haven of teenage snobbery, The King’s School, in 597, making it the oldest existing school in the world. This divine episode of DIY SOS led to a revival of Canterbury. Farms serving the new monasteries meant the markets returned, church poor relief meant the population grew again, whilst trades in pottery, textiles and leather developed. Canterbury was now well on the way to reliving its Roman glory, the capital of a rich Christian kingdom equipped with a monastery and booming economy. Obviously, the keys to the city or a golden handshake was not enough to thank Augustine and following his death in 604 he was made a saint, alongside Æthelbert and Bertha, the first in a mile-long list of Canterbury’s holy.

Ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. Credit: Canterbury Archaeology Society

But fast-forward 200 years and things get a bit Game of Thrones-y for Canterbury. Centuries of growth, including the construction of a proper cathedral, meant the city was rich pickings; something not unnoticed by everyone’s favourite Scandinavian invaders besides ABBA, the Vikings. Twice, in 842 and 851, the Vikings raided Canterbury, stealing riches, burning buildings (including the cathedral) and killing hundreds, though some modern Canterbury residents would just call this ‘Fresher’s Week’. But it was in the early eleventh-century that the real damage was done. Sounding like a character from Middle Earth, Thorkell the Tall, leading a huge Viking army, landed in Sandwich in 1009 and headed for Canterbury. It was only with 3,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld (a popular pay-off literally meaning ‘Danish tax’) that Thorkell turned tail. Whether on wenches or booze, Thorkell soon spent the money and returned to besiege Canterbury in September 1011. The Siege of Canterbury remarkably lasted three weeks as the city held out against thousands of Vikings; it was only thanks to a traitor that the invaders broke through the defences and decimated the city on a far worse scale than before. The cathedral was burned (again) and Archbishop Alphenge taken prisoner. Refusing to be ransomed, Alphenge was murdered and later made a saint, another star on Canterbury’s growing ‘Walk of Saints’.

Stained glass showing the Siege of Canterbury. Image: Canterbury Cathedral

Having faced more invasions than Justin Bieber’s private life, Canterbury knew better than to stop the forces of William the Conqueror when he arrived in 1066, especially since most local lords were killed at the Battle of Hastings. Like the Romans, William realised the strategic importance of Canterbury for his own invasion of thousands of Frenchmen and Normans -what would Nigel Farage think? He restored the old roman wall, much of it still standing, and constructed a wooden castle (later rebuilt in stone) just off present-day Dane John Gardens. It was positioned there for its strategic position on a hill overlooking Canterbury, rather than its modern-day handy proximity to Aldi, and would’ve housed the city garrison. Finally, of course, the cathedral didn’t disappoint and burned down (again!) a year later in 1067, and was rebuilt (in less-flammable stone this time) by Archbishop Lanfranc (who, you guessed it, was also made a saint) in the Norman style, which can still be seen in the cathedral’s underground crypt.

Ruins of Canterbury Castle. Image: Canterbury Archaeology Society

So, by 1100, after 500 years of invasion, reconstruction and several burnt cathedrals, Canterbury is a thriving medieval city, with many features we know today including a cathedral, a wall and a castle. All it’s missing is thousands of tourists crowding its streets, and in the next episode we’ll see how Canterbury didn’t have to wait long for them to come in their droves.

Featured Posts


Share your thoughts