The Lifestyle Magazine of Kent, Surrey & Sussex

The history of the Canterbury on your doorstep

The history of the Canterbury on your doorstep


As Canterbury Christ Church University confirms dates for its latest celebration of the city’s Medieval culture, our at-a-glance guide to key dates in its eventful history makes essential reading for students new to the city, visitors dropping by or locals cluing up for that quiz night.

With a dynamic heritage that has seen its cathedral gain World Heritage status, Canterbury’s remarkable history has made it one of our nation’s most fascinating cities.
From the remnants of its Roman past, through to the Norman, Medieval and Tudor buildings that are a part of its fabric, there are a host of reasons that have contributed to its standing as a place of great cultural significance.
First settled by the Celts, it gradually became their capital, and has remained particularly noteworthy down the ages.
Today, the city stands as a thriving business community, tourist destination and centre for education that boasts several highly-rated universities.
Casting an eye on its history, Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh, of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Canterbury Christ Church University, explained that with the city being the hub in a communications wheel between London and the Channel ports, the area has remained key to our history.
“The city’s exceptionally grand Roman buildings proclaimed its wealth and prestige, but in the following centuries it was even more significant, perhaps reaching a peak in 1220 when the young Henry lll witnessed the Translation of Becket’s relics to the magnificent new shrine in Canterbury Cathedral,” Sheila said, adding: “While over 600 years earlier, St Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, the city thereafter home to some of the greatest monasteries in England. However, things were not always peaceful, as Canterbury witnessed danger from Viking raids to revolting peasants, and the execution of its mayor (1471) at the Buttermarket.
“Yet, like some far larger cities, Canterbury in the late Middle Ages was a county in its own right, a privilege it retained until modern times. This status marked the value late medieval kings placed on Canterbury.”

A journey through time…

Pre Roman history

• Long before the Roman invasion of the 1st century that saw the city become a strategically important base, Canterbury had been a favoured site for its native population.
• It has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and was ruled by the Cantiaci tribe of Celts, who recognised the strategic value of its prime location.
• Roman emperor Julius Caesar is said to have remarked following an expedition to Britain that ‘the Cantiaci’ were the most civilised inhabitants of the island, and were considered similar to their French neighbours.

Roman past

• The arrival of the conquering Romans in AD43 had a major impact upon the local population. But what did they ever do for us then? Well, pretty much everything.
• Upon capturing the Cantiaci’s headquarters, they set about rebuilding the vicinity and developed its hilltop fortifications, naming it Durovernum Cantiacorum in reference to its Celtic connections. The city required full military occupation until the British revolt of British tribes led by Boudica was put down around AD 61.
• The Romans went on to build the city’s fine walls in the 3rd century, and a wide range of evidence of their occupation can be seen in the city’s Roman Museum.
• The invading forces brought a host of innovations including theatre, reworked street patterns, as well as a classic forum and baths. However, following the disintegration of Rome’s fragmented empire in the early 5th century, Canterbury was abandoned by its Italian masters.

Post Roman period

• Following the departure of Roman forces, perhaps the most significant period for the city was Pope Gregory the Great’s decision to send Augustine to Britain to convert the country to Christianity. The mission was a success, with Canterbury chosen as the location for the country’s religious centre, with Augustine becoming the first Archbishop in 597.
• The area’s growing wealth was reflected in striking its own coins and became a wealthy trading centre – targeted by Danish raiders in the 9th and 10th centuries, before the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066, who quickly installed a new wooden castle, later rebuilt in stone – that still partially stands to this day.
• The early Saxon cathedral founded by Augustine, was rebuilt in the French Norman style under Archbishop Lanfranc on its present site following a major fire in 1070, and added to over the centuries.

Medieval city

• For a glimpse into Canterbury’s Medieval life, a visit to the Canterbury Tales attraction offers a very accurate picture of the sights and sounds of the city during the Middle Ages.
• Sadly, there were many challenges for the area, as its population fell dramatically following the Black Death in 1348, from 10,000 to 3,000, taking a significant time to recover. However, it was granted a city charter in 1448, which brought with it roles including High Sheriff.
• By the 17th century, its population was boosted by immigration by French-speaking protestant Huguenots, escaping persecution during conflict occurring in the 16th century in the Spanish controlled Netherlands region. The diversity this has leant the city can still be felt today, with Canterbury being popular with French and Dutch visitors.

Georgian & Victorian city

• As the city’s history entered into the 18th and 19th centuries, there were a number of key developments as it expanded into the new industrial age. Gone were its gates (with the exception of Westgate) as the age of coach travel arrived.
• Steam power was next to emerge, with the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway in 1830, which is believed to be the first passenger service of its kind in the world.
• As the area’s population grew further and key wheat and hop trades continued to enjoy strong fortunes, its population increased to around 24,000 by 1900.
• Among the key buildings to emerge during the period was the city’s prison that had opened in
1808, and is now due to be redeveloped for use by the neighbouring facilities at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Canterbury today

• Following the Second World War that saw more than 10,000 bombs drop on the city and nearly 800 homes destroyed, plans were eventually put into place to rebuild areas that had been badly damaged. This included the creation of its ring road outside the city walls, and the city’s facilities expanded considerably with the development of the University of Kent and Christ Church College that paved the way for its reputation as a centre for excellence in education.
• Its contribution to the arts has been no less impressive, with the Canterbury Festival attracting visitors from around the world, for this most eclectic of events.
• Entering into the 21st century, the creation of the Whitefriars shopping centre, multi-million revamp of The Marlowe theatre (named after famed Canterbury playwright Christopher Marlowe), and major plans for a multi-screen cinema, housing and retail plans in the city centre have ensured that with its existing strong base of independent businesses, its future appears exceeding bright.

• For those interested in the Middle Ages, the Medieval Canterbury Weekend 2018 is now taking bookings. Visit


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