A journey through medieval Canterbury

Canterbury has a unique history thanks to its proximity to mainland Europe and its religious importance in England. Here we take you on a journey through medieval Canterbury.

Early medieval Canterbury (410-1066 CE) 

Historians say the medieval period in Britain started with the departure of the Romans. Archaeological evidence suggests that this departure led to a very difficult period for civic society: markets disappeared, farms closed down, and there was significant destruction of property. Canterbury itself was almost abandoned for about 100 years.  

The arrival of the German ‘Jutish’ people from the early 500s led to a period of stability, and by the early 600s Canterbury had re-established itself as an important urban centre.  

Unfortunately, this also made it attractive to those who wanted to ransack the city, and Canterbury was one of targets of the many Viking raids from the end of the 700s and for the next four centuries. This phase of destruction influenced the city leaders’ decision to yield when the Norman French army arrived at its gates in 1066.  

Floor mosaic which would have been inside a Roman house and is now preserved within the Canterbury Roman Museum

Diversity 

Early Canterbury was a very multicultural community. The Anglo-Saxon culture arose from the mixed population of which about 80% were Briton-Roman and 20% Germanic. Over the centuries there followed waves of immigration with economic influence from Scandinavia and France, as well as cultural and religious influences from across the Christian world. During this period, trade with mainland Europe led to economic development and important political alliances.  

Religion 

Early medieval Canterbury was largely pagan, and although early Christianity did not survive the Roman departure, Canterbury’s close relationship with mainland Europe made it a priority for Vatican expansionism.  

In 580 the local pagan King Ethelbert married the French Christian Princess Bertha. This marriage enabled Vatican emissaries to convert Britain to Christianity by using Canterbury as a base from which they could work. It is for this reason that Canterbury became the centre of the Christian church in England and this religious status also benefited the city economically and politically.

St Martin's Church is the first church founded in England and was the private chapel of Princess Bertha

Late medieval Canterbury (1066-1538 CE) 

During this period Canterbury became the focus of a continuing battle for political power and one of Europe’s most important religious destinations. 

Power  

The archbishops of Canterbury were an important figure in the struggle for power between kings and the Catholic church; they were wealthy landowners, held important political positions, and would be the person who crowned a new king during the coronation ceremony. However, the archbishops also reported directly to the Pope which meant that they had to appear loyal to both the king and the Pope.   

An interesting example of this balancing act is the story of the unfortunate Archbishop Sudbury in the late 14th century, who first became important thanks to his relationship with the Pope, then became an advisor to the king, and then became both Archbishop and Chancellor of England before being killed by the poorer people of Kent because he had introduced a new tax.   

Plague 

No medieval history is complete without mentioning the Black Death. While the English suffered several infections over the years, the most famous epidemic occurred in 1348. At the time Canterbury was an important travel destination and the plague had a devastating impact. By the 15th century Canterbury’s population had fallen from about 10,000 to 3,000.   

Pilgrims 

Thomas Becket is one of the most well-known Canterbury archbishops. He was appointed archbishop because he was the king’s friend even though he had never had a religious post.  Thomas was eventually murdered by associates of the king because he supported the Pope and, doing so, went against the king’s wishes.  

Thomas Becket was murdered inside Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral was the most shocking political event of the era and it had profound consequences for Canterbury as a city. After Thomas’ death he was quickly canonised, and Canterbury soon became Europe’s third busiest pilgrimage destination, which boosted the local economy. This increased visibility meant Canterbury became a focus for new political, religious and administrative life. 

The end of medieval Canterbury is marked by the separation of England from the Catholic Church in Rome and the establishment of the Church of England headed by Henry VIII. The result of this was an economic recession that lasted several decades. 

The Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr was founded to provide overnight accommodation to poor pilgrims arriving in Canterbury

Visiting Canterbury Today 

Canterbury has a fascinating history and you can still see so much of it when you visit the city.  

Interesting examples of other surviving medieval buildings include:

Glossary: 

Proximity: near 

Traditionally: part of a long-established tradition 

Evidence: facts or information available 

Civic: relating to a city or town 

Abandoned: having been left  

Ransack: stealing and causing damage 

Influences: to have an effect on something 

Loyal: giving support 

Black Death: plague 

Devastating: destructive and damaging 

Murdered: killed 

Pilgrimage: to go to a place of religious significance 

Canonised: to be made a saint


This blog has been written at level C2. Practise your reading skills and learn more about Canterbury by looking at the blogs below:


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