InQuire's History of Canterbury Episode IV: Punishments, the Plague and the Poet

Welcome to episode four of InQuire’s History of Canterbury. Previously, we showed how the dramatic death of Archbishop Becket in 1170 changed Canterbury’s history forever and turned it into a European religious centre. This episode explores the rest of Canterbury’s medieval story and how invasion, disease and arrogant kings almost destroyed it.

This episode begins, like most, with the death of another archbishop, Hubert Walter, in 1205. King John (of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame) wanted his friend and supporter, John Bishop of Norwich as a replacement -where have we seen this before? But as strong-willed as John was, he met his match in Pope Innocent III, a man who saw the papacy as a universal religious monarchy (imagine a medieval Emperor Palpatine) and who wasn’t prepared to be instructed by the insignificant king of an insignificant country on a rock. Innocent refused John’s candidate and instead chose his old schoolmate, Stephen Langton, in 1207. But John refused to accept this and allow Langton into England. So, exercising the unlimited power of the medieval church, Innocent placed England under interdict (meaning church services, burials and religious assistance were now banned) and excommunicated John, theoretically dethroning him, in 1209. In return, John fired all of Canterbury’s monks (here since St Augustine in 597) and took their property and gold; disastrous for the city in a time when the local monastery was the closest thing to welfare relief, providing food banks and hospitals.

Left to right: King John of England; Pope Innocent III; Archbishop Stephen Langton. Images: Wikimedia

This religious-political ping-pong match continued until 1213, when John, under mounting pressure from nobles and peasants unable to save their souls, gave in to Innocent. He welcomed Langton to Canterbury, and even leased all of England to Innocent for 300 marks (£666) a year; what a bargain! But John, and Canterbury, couldn’t relax for long. In 1215, after defeats in France, John’s barons turned and declared war on him. Whilst the English were bickering, the French took advantage and invaded England, led by Prince Louis. Like all invasions before, Canterbury was one of the first to go under; Louis captured the castle and took the town as part of France. Meanwhile, Archbishop Langton (who sided with the barons against John), helped draft Magna Carta, the first recorded bill of people’s rights, stating not even the king was above the law, which John was forced to sign, ending the war. But this was not enough to get rid of the French, it was only when John died in 1216 and the barons switched from Louis to John’s son Henry III, that they were forced out of Canterbury, the fourth and final major invasion of our city.

By 1348 Canterbury was one of the richest cities in England and the tenth largest with 10,000 inhabitants. But over the next forty years, this chart-topping status would be ruined, beginning with the deadliest invasion of England, the Black Death. The Bubonic Plague arrived in Canterbury in 1348, infecting the population with diarrhoea, vomiting, blackened fingers and bleeding from the bum; like some deadly version of fresher’s flu. In a matter of decades the population of Canterbury dropped by 70% to only 3,000 (more freshers arrived at UKC in September). Alongside this, Canterbury was constantly home to soldiers travelling to France during the Hundred Years War, including King Henry V and Edward, The Black Prince (who has a very posh tomb in the cathedral).

The head of Archbishop Simon Sudbury. Image: St Gregory’s Church, Sudbury

In 1381, the peasants of Kent, led by Wat Tyler, revolted against Richard II over taxes, serfdom and the French war. The Archbishop, Simon Sudbury, was also Chancellor at the time and was targeted by the peasants. They attacked Canterbury Castle and sacked the Archbishop’s Palace, and to make it a proper job they executed Sudbury. When Victorians opened his tomb in the cathedral, instead of his head they found a cannonball; his head is instead displayed in Sudbury church, North London. So badly did Canterbury suffer over these years that the walls were soon derelict and unusable; consequently, the walls and gates we know today were built, including the famous Westgate (but they had to wait another 600 years for the Wetherspoons).

Westgate in Canterbury. Image: Wikicommons

But amongst all this disaster, something ground-breaking was created. Between 1387 and 1400, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. Inspired by the thousands of pilgrims still visiting Saint Thomas Becket’s tomb every day, Chaucer wrote about twenty-three people, including a knight, cook and a five-times widow, all trying to tell the best story whilst on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Not only is it funny (it actually is, rude words and everything), but it was a landmark in English language. Going back to Roman times, writing in England had always been in Latin or French, English was the language of poor people. But Chaucer and Canterbury changed that; Canterbury Tales introduced English as a legitimate accepted language of literature, Chaucer is even known today as the ‘Father of English Literature’. So if you’re an English student at Kent, make sure to say thanks to his statue outside Patisserie Valerie.

Towards the end of the Medieval period, whilst its population was still low, Canterbury began to advance again. In 1448, Canterbury was granted its royal charter, giving it recognised city status, a mayor and sheriff; these offices still exist today and it’s quite funny in 2019 to see a parking space for the ‘Canterbury Sheriff’. But the last hurrah goes to Canterbury Cathedral. In 1504, the final stone of the bell tower was laid, meaning, after four cathedrals burned to a crisp and 400 years of stone reconstruction, the bloody thing was finally finished!

So, as Henry VIII came to the throne, Canterbury had come full circle. From religious medieval wonder, to hotbed of invasion and disease, back to wonder of architecture and literature, you cannot deny Canterbury had a rough ride in the Late Medieval period. But with the Tudors in power, you can guess that Canterbury wasn’t quite out of the woods yet.