I have a confession. I never took World History. Not in high school, not in 14 years of college (slow learner). But it’s never too late to learn. So I’m taking this travel opportunity to fix my ignorance, at least about England. I can travel from BCE through WWII right here in Canterbury, at so many historical venues. One of the biggest surprises has been the cost of this education. Living in Hawai‘i, I’m used to thinking of tourist venues as expensive. But Canterbury offers most sites for very little, some even free.
Let’s start with the Romans. (Visit the Canterbury Roman Museum for £8 or £12 in combination with the Canterbury Heritage Museum.)
Just coming in the door, you find out how deep they have to excavate to find Roman ruins. German bombing during WWII exposed some including a roman villa showing tiled floors and the under-floor heating system for the bath. (I loved the play area where you can dress up in togas and soldier helmets.)
The big guy, Julius Caesar, invaded England in 55 BCE (unsuccessfully) and 54 BCE (successfully, fording the Stour River and then the Thames) but he didn’t stay. Eleven years later, Claudius ordered another invasion and began the long Roman rule of England that lasted until about 400 CE, when the Roman Empire dissolved at the hands of the Germanic tribes that invaded it. Meanwhile, the Romans had a big presence in Canterbury.
I more or less remembered all that from Latin Class. Ms. Iris Gallez taught us Roman history and mythology along with “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” They were great road builders, and one of their roads came through Canterbury from Dover on the way to Londonium.
In every large city they built public baths, temples, forum (is it fora when plural?), and markets. The large theatre is now buried beneath The Three Tuns, a 15th century pub, and the public baths are under Waterstone’s Bookstore and on view in the basement.
What I didn’t recall was how proficient the Romans were in making bricks, and in using, if not making, glass.
The Roman Museum has great exhibits, including a silver horde buried about the time the Romans left Britain and mock-ups of a market, a home dining room and a kitchen.
While the Romans brought Christianity with them to Britain, it mostly died out when they left. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons. (Visit St. Augustine’s Abbey for £5.80; includes audio tour.) Luckily for Augustine, King Ethelbert had married a Frankish Christian Princess, making his job much easier. The King had allowed Bertha to continue to practice her religion in a Christian Church restored from Roman times, St. Martin. Under his wife’s influence, the King converted, and, of course, so did masses of his people.
He gave Augustine land to build a church inside the city (the Cathedral) and a Benedictine monastery outside the city walls, which became St. Augustine’s Abbey. The form of this abbey has changed over the years; the early wooden church gave way to two stone and one brick church (reused roman bricks).
After the Normans arrived in 1066, the Norman bishops tore down all three of the old churches and built a grand Norman style church many times bigger than the old churches, in fact, about the size of the present Canterbury Cathedral. In addition, other buildings were added or remodeled such as a library, refectory, dorms, infirmary, and everything else you’d need to take care of a community of monks.
When Henry VIII’s Reformation came along, the monks were kicked out, the library and its 2000 manuscripts were destroyed, buildings including the grand Norman church were pulled down and the materials sold, and others were remodeled for the crown’s use, including an apartment for Catherine of Cleves, one of Henry’s wives. It wasn’t until 1844 that a rich landowner saw the deplorable state of the abbey, bought it, and saved it from further ruin.
The Canterbury Castle is also a Norman invasion story, covered in Back when street names meant something. Canterbury, UK. It’s free and unsupervised. I still say it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The Canterbury Cathedral dominates the city. Ordinarily the entrance fee is £12. But if you plan to attend a church service, it’s free; just be sure to make a donation. My favorite service is Evensong, where I can hear a first-rate choir. This cathedral is the home of the head archbishop of the Anglican Church. Originally a Catholic Cathedral, it was a pilgrimage site for centuries after four of King Charles’s men accidentally murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. Well, the murder was on purpose, but they thought they were doing the King’s bidding. Oops. The pilgrimages mostly stopped after the Reformation, when it changed to Anglican.
The Cathedral’s history is intertwined with all of the other stories of the city. St. Augustine built the first structure in 597. After the Norman invasion, the Norman bishops tore it down and build a grand Gothic structure, which was enlarged to accept the huge number of pilgrims coming to St. Thomas’ shrine. When the French-speaking Walloons and Huguenots arrived in 15 and 1600s they were allowed to use the crypt of the Cathedral for French services, a practice that continues to this day.
Eastbridge Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr (£2). But while the pilgrims still flowed here every day, they needed a place to stay. Rich people usually had horses and could stay in the many inns along the road. As they got close to Canterbury, they’d urge their horse on in order to arrive before West Gate was closed for the night. That “Canterbury gallop” contracted to our modern word canter.
But the poor couldn’t afford an inn. So they turned to East- bridge Hospital (meaning hospitality). It could accommodate 12 pilgrims a night. They slept in the undercroft, ate a meal on the floor above, and went to chapel above that, overlooking the High Street. They were allowed one night’s stay for free (later 4 pence), but if they got sick, the monks nursed them back to health for however long it took.
The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury was four days walk, and pilgrims often traveled in groups for protection during the arduous journey. Perhaps they would tell each other stories to keep the group amused and occupied along the way. This is the essence of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Now here’s my second confession. I never read this milestone work, until now. But it seemed sacrilegious to me to spend weeks in Canterbury without having read Chaucer, and me being a writer. He was the father of English literature, doing the radical thing of writing in English!
I suggest you read at least the tales of the knight, the miller, the wife of Bath, the pardoner and the nun’s priest, if you intent to go to the venue Canterbury Tales (£9.75 with audio and guide). Otherwise you won’t appreciate the work they did to present these five stories.
Finally, there’s the Canterbury Heritage Museum (£8 or £12 with the Roman Museum.) The building was originally a residence for poor, sick and old priests, built in 1200. It has exhibits covering the 15th through the 20th centuries. Two things stood out. I especially appreciated learning about Canterbury’s gifted Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright and a contemporary of Shakespeare. He was murdered at 29.
The other exhibit that affected me deeply was about the Canterbury home front during WWII. It helped me put myself in the shoes of the courageous citizens of that time. I saw a typical week’s rations for an adult, a paltry amount that many today could eat in one sitting. No wonder the Victory Garden was so important.
Volunteer fire wardens, many of whom were women, watched neighborhoods from roof tops to locate where night bombs had started fires. They communicated the location to fire trucks to put out the blazes, but would also attempt to put the fire out before it could become a large blaze. Apparently, from these roof locations, they could grab unexploded bombs and dropped them off the sides of the buildings before they could start roof fires. This was a tedious, all night job.
For people with yards, their Anderson shelter became their refuge during air raid strikes; the British government distributed 3.6 million of them. At 6 ft high x 4.5 ft wide x 6.5 ft long, they were designed hold six people. Buried to a depth of 4 ft, then covered with at least 15 inches of dirt, they saved many lives during the war. But they were cold and damp in the winter, and may people did not have a yard. The solution was a Morrison shelter installed in your flat. It had a table top and legs, and, underneath, a steel structure with a wire surround to prevent occupants from falling debris. People often put a mattress inside and slept there.
So there you have it, bits of English history from Roman times to WWII, learned in Canterbury. But I also read Edward Rutherford’s London. It’s a novel that follows several fictitious London families through British history from Julius Caesar to WWII. Each family represents a different culture: Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Dane/Viking, Huguenot, Flemish, and Welsh. This book finally helped me connect the flow of history through time. It’s an extremely entertaining read. So you don’t need to come to Canterbury, just go to a used book store and get hooked on this novel! It’s armchair time-travel at its best.
Whew, I feel better for learning a bit of English history, and no exam! Now, what other culture do I need to go study?
For other essays on this trip to England see:
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