It’s the 1600s. After a chaotic Tudor century, the Scottish Stuart family are now in control. Canterbury was as multicultural as it is now, with over a third of the population made up of French and Dutch Protestant refugees. Given that its monastery had been destroyed and its economy nearly ruined after pilgrimages to Becket’s tomb had stopped, it’s a miracle the city was still around. But if Tudor rule had been a rollercoaster for Canterbury, it was a ride on the teacups compared to the Nemesis Inferno that it endured under the Stuarts.
But first, something for our American students (because they hate to be left out). In 1620, Robert Cushman, a Canterbury grocer, arranged for the lease of the ship The Mayflower right here in Canterbury to take him and 102 other Puritans across the Atlantic to start a new society in America. For those who aren’t drilled in American history like our Transatlantic cousins, The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock on 27 November 1620 is seen as the beginning of white American civilicolonisation. Under William Bradford, those first settlers established Plymouth Colony, a Puritan ‘utopia’ far away from the snooty bishops and aristocrats of England. So without that Canterbury grocer, today’s America may never have been born; there’s something to tell ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ when you go home for summer ‘vacation’.
The Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620
Back in Canterbury, the city received a royal visit in 1625. The new king, Charles I, stayed here whilst waiting for his new wife, Henrietta Maria (daughter of the King of France), to arrive at Dover. Though they hadn’t even met yet, Charles and Henrietta were already married; they were wed by proxy in Paris Cathedral, with Charles’s mate standing in for him, sounds weird but it was a common thing back then. On 13 June they finally met at Dover and spent their first night together in St Augustine’s Palace in Canterbury. But it was hardly wedded bliss for Charles. He naturally wanted to get busy with his new wife, but Henrietta (who was only fifteen) refused to without her nanny staying in the room. Eager to get rid of this cock-blocking French crone, Charles had a huge argument with the nanny and commanded her to leave the room; this, of course, didn’t go down well with Henrietta. It’s rumoured that the morning after Charles complained it had been rather a frosty night for the royal couple. But things would only get frostier for Charles…
Archbishop William Laud. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
No episode of InQuire’s History of Canterbury is complete without mentioning an Archbishop; from 1633, this was William Laud (pronounced ‘Lord’). Considering Canterbury had been the centre of the Protestant reformation under Archbishop Cranmer and a particular hotspot for Puritans, its new archbishop was a bit old fashioned. Laud and Charles launched a huge reform of the church, restoring certain ‘catholic’ traditions like railing off altars or kneeling at communion. Whilst this sounds pretty petty to us now, for people back then this threatened a turn to the dreaded days of Popes and Catholic superstition, making Charles and Laud VERY unpopular; especially with the Puritans who were increasing, not only in Canterbury and England but, crucially, Parliament.
Such religious worries, alongside heavy taxation and disastrous foreign wars, eventually lead to the English Civil War in 1642, which divided the country between Charles and his Royalists on one side and Puritan Parliament and their Parliamentarians on the other. This would eventually lead to Charles having his dead lopped off in 1649, but not before Archbishop Laud was arrested in 1641, imprisoned in the Tower of London for four years, and finally executed in 1645. No, this wasn’t being butchered to death by Vikings, decapitated by peasants or murdered by knights as his predecessors were, but it still seems a bit harsh for a man who liked candles and fancy clothes.
With the Puritan Parliament now in charge, cathedrals, religious images and stained glass in churches were banned. Puritans saw these as idolatry, with people worshipping statues and painted glass instead of God and saw Bishops (and their cathedrals) unnecessary for Christian worship. Bad news for a great gilded monstrosity like Canterbury Cathedral with the largest collection of medieval stained glass in northern Europe. But, amazingly, it wasn’t destroyed (FOR ONCE!), mainly because they didn’t have the money to pay for its demolition (they had cowboy builders in Stuart times too). But the cathedral was still permanently damaged. Led by Rev. Richard Culmer, between 1642-44 the puritan New Model Army ‘cleansed’ the cathedral; nearly all the medieval stained glass (some over 400 years old) was smashed, statues were removed, and tombs vandalised (chipping off noses was a popular occurrence, God knows why). All around the cathedral today we can still see the damage, most of the windows contain clear glass, numerous Archbishops lie nose-less and empty holes show where statues once stood.
Archbishop John Morton’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral with his nose chipped off and surrounding angels decapitated. Image courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral.
But whilst the citizens of Canterbury stood by whilst this happened, there were some things they refused to give up. In 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, meaning people had to stay at work, shops had to remain open and mince pies were banned, whilst churches, and more importantly pubs, were closed. Whether it was the loss of a holiday or not being able to have the traditional Christmas pint down the local, Canterbury’s residents were having none of it; but whilst today they’d take to their Facebook page, that Christmas day they took to the streets in the ‘Plum Pudding Riots’. The riots saw markets raided, open shops vandalised, and Christmas puddings lobbed all over the place. One pudding was so hard that when it hit the city sheriff, summoned to stop the riot, it broke his head open. The trial of the rioters the year after caused a mass Kent revolt against Parliament, one of many local outbursts across the country that led to the English Civil War: Round Two in 1648. Ten thousand Kent Royalists led by the Earl of Norwich met the Parliament army at the Battle of Maidstone on 1 June. They lost. Parliament forces marched on Canterbury and, after a small but commendable siege, the city was forced to surrender. All this for a Christmas Day pint after church!
Contemporary illustration of the Canterbury Plum Pudding Riots. Image courtesy of the British Library.
But the boredom of Puritan rule didn’t last long. In 1660, Charles II, ‘the king who brought back partying’, was welcomed back to England and restore the monarchy. He spent his first night in England after eleven years of exile across Europe in St Augustine’s Palace in Canterbury and created his new government and regime in the same room his mum and dad had first met thirty-five years before.
After a vandalised cathedral, an executed archbishop, a parliamentary siege and fatal pudding projectiles, the next two hundred years see things die down a bit for Canterbury. As such, our next (and final) episode will skip to the twentieth century. Except, that is, for 25 July 1765, when for two shillings (£8 today) you could see a ‘celebrated German boy aged 8’ play the piano at Canterbury town hall; the little boy’s name… Mozart.