InQuire's History of Canterbury Episode V: Reformation, Refugees and the Tudor Rollercoaster

It’s the 1500s. After centuries of disease, invasion and several burnt cathedrals, Canterbury is back as a top-ranking English city; populous, rich and still a prime location for pilgrims from all over Europe. At the centre of all this was the cathedral (still in one piece after five minutes), its adjoining monastery and St. Augustine’s Abbey. These provided jobs, benefit payments and food banks to the people of Canterbury. Seems idyllic, yes? Well, as always with Canterbury, it doesn’t last, because everyone’s favourite dysfunctional family besides the Kardashians are in charge now… the Tudors.

Canterbury’s Tudor rollercoaster ride begins with renowned feminist and connoisseur of feathered hats, King Henry VIII. Bored of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for not giving him a son and with his crown jewels thirsty for Anne Boleyn, Henry asked Pope Clement VII for a divorce in 1527. When Clement (a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V) said no, Henry did what all Brits do when Europe doesn’t cooperate and left. Breaking from Rome and the Pope, Henry establishes his own Church of England (with him in charge of course) in 1533, with Canterbury (long England’s holiest city) and its cathedral at its centre. But if you think this revamped holy status meant Canterbury was left alone, think again.

Not satisfied with being in charge of his church, cash-strapped Henry wanted all its money too. For this he turned to the hundreds of rich monasteries across England, most of them still loyal to the Pope. From 1536, Henry and his ministers, first among them Thomas Cromwell, started closing them down and taking their possessions, like some brutal version of Cash in the Attic. This was really bad news for St Augustine’s Abbey, the 14th richest in England. In 1538, nearly 1000 years after St Augustine built it and after centuries of helping Canterbury’s people, Henry’s forces raided the place and completely levelled it, turning what was left into a palace for Henry. Canterbury Cathedral (FOR ONCE!) was left mostly untouched, though the adjoining abbey was dissolved, its monks expelled, and the buildings turned into the King’s School (named after Henry) that still exists. The same could not be said for St. Thomas Becket’s tomb.

As the reason why millions of pilgrims had visited Canterbury for over 300 years, Becket’s tomb was practically collapsing under all the gold and jewels that countless princes and lords had offered for a miracle. And Henry wanted it all. Worse, Becket’s legacy as a man who put religion and the pope before his king and was in turn made a saint was somewhat problematic to Henry, who was expecting people to do the exact opposite. As such, Henry put Becket on trial for treason in 1538. Naturally, the man who had been dead for 358 years didn’t turn up to his trial, meaning he was found guilty and all the gold and jewels from his tomb given to Henry. For good measure, Henry had the tomb itself demolished and Beckets body thrown away -we still don’t know where it is. With this, the pilgrimages and pilgrims that had made Canterbury so rich for centuries stopped; all that remains of this integral part of Canterbury’s past is a candle where Becket’s tomb once stood. Cheers Harry!

Candle where Becket’s tomb once stood in Canterbury Cathedral

But whilst Canterbury saw the destruction the English Reformation brought, it also witnessed its innovations and creations. The religious voice behind the Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533, translated and drafted the 1549 Book of Common Prayer right here in Canterbury. This was the ‘how-to’ guide for the new church on services, baptisms, weddings etc., and is still the root of some Protestant faiths worldwide today. But whilst his Prayer Book survived, Cranmer didn’t. When Henry’s catholic daughter, Mary, became queen, she set about restoring Catholicism. Bad news for Protestant Cranmer, who was put on trial in 1553 and burned at the stake in 1556. Stabbed by Vikings, having your head cut open, being burned, it’s a risky business being Archbishop of Canterbury.

But even as the heart of England’s new church, all this religious to-ing and fro-ing meant Canterbury was full of a pick-and-mix of Christians; from stubborn Catholics to pesky boring Puritans. By 1573, Archbishop Matthew Parker was at his wits’ end; it was time to call in the big boss herself, Tudor England’s biggest and scariest diva, Queen Elizabeth I. Arriving in September, Elizabeth stayed in Canterbury (specifically the palace daddy made out of St Augustine’s Abbey) for three days. Whether it was her regal status, her famous swearing, or the sight of that wart-ridden face under an inch of makeup, Elizabeth soon brought about reasonable conformity from the Puritans and Catholics; either that or she frightened them off. To say thanks, Parker and the people of Canterbury threw Elizabeth a big birthday bash for her 40th on 7 September; with Parker buying a crate-load of booze for the party. Elizabeth developed a soft spot for Canterbury and she frequently returned.

Elizabeth I on procession; likely how she looked when she entered Canterbury. Image: Alamy

As it had for centuries, Canterbury’s close position to the coast made it a prime target for immigrants and refugees. Religious persecution and war in Europe led to many Protestant Europeans settling here. By 1600, 2 in 5 were French or Dutch refugees. Newly arrived craftsmen introduced silk-weaving to the city; soon Canterbury was an important silk-producing city in England. The revenue created from this industry made up for years of hardship after the end of pilgrimages. Who said immigration was a bad thing?

Already Chaucer’s birthplace, Canterbury continued generating writers in 1564, when influential playwright Christopher Marlowe was born. Educated at the King’s School, Marlowe was the closest to ‘woke’ Tudor England got. Not only gay and an anti-terrorist spy, Marlowe wrote such famous plays like ‘Dr Faustus’. So renowned was Marlowe that he even convinced that other bane of A-Level students and friend, Shakespeare, to supposedly visit and perform here in 1603. Unfortunately, Marlowe never lived to see this. Such a bohemian lifestyle (more suited to a 60s rockstar) got him into a lot of trouble and he was stabbed in the eye outside a pub in Deptford, aged just 29. Absolute Lad! But whilst Augustine got an abbey and Becket a cathedral, Canterbury commemorated this famous son with the architectural 'eye-sore' that is the Marlowe Theatre.

Canterbury had a right whirlwind ride under the Tudors, including a destroyed abbey, a burnt Archbishop and several thousand refugees. But this is just a starter compared to what it goes through in the next century.

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