Canterbury a Religious Capital

Canterbury: A Religious Capital

There is evidence of a group of Romano-British Christians worshipping in the ancient city. In fact, Canterbury's church of St Martin's might even date from this time, making it the site of Christian worship in England to have been in longest continuous use.

Once the Romans left, Northern Europe went through a period of upheaval and reconstruction.

St Augustine

St Augustine arrived in 597AD, and began the work of persuading the Kentish King Ethelbert of the merits of the Roman religion. Ethelbert was receptive; he had married the Christian Frankish Princess Bertha, who worshipped in the church of St Martin's, just outside the city walls. So Augustine was allowed to establish a Benedictine abbey close to the church.

Once Ethelbert himself had converted, he granted Augustine permission to build Canterbury Cathedral - the first monument of English church establishment.

Kent became the first officially Christian kingdom in the British Isles: Augustine was the first Primate of an English Church, and Ethelbert the first king of Christian England. As Christianity spread westwards from the secure foothold in Canterbury, cathedrals were soon established in Rochester and London.

Augustine obtained sanction from the Pope to maintain existing British church practices; an important precedent for the idea of the independence of the English Church.

An Ancient Centre of Learning and Research

One Victorian scholar and churchman, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, wrote: "St. Augustine's Abbey was… the mother school, the mother university of England, the seat of letters and study, at a time when Cambridge was a desolate fen, and Oxford a tangled forest in a wide waste of waters."

The abbey also served as the burial ground for the Kings of Kent, and the first Archbishops of Canterbury. An important establishment in its own right, the abbey drew monks from places as far distant as Syria.

Murder and pilgrimage

Then came a brutal turning point in Canterbury's history; Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. After Becket's death, reports spread of miraculous wonders associated with invoking his name.

The cult of Becket was established and Canterbury became one of the great pilgrim destinations in Europe, and the pilgrims brought their wealth with them. The cathedral expanded, and numerous churches and taverns were built in the city to accommodate the visitors, immortalised in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Burial near Becket's shrine was thought particularly holy, and the cathedral still contains the tombs of King Henry IV and Edward, the Black Prince.

A City at the Heart of England

The English language gained a new authority in the life of the nation when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer translated the Litany from Latin in his palace at Bekesbourne, a few miles south-east of the city. This was the beginning of the process of putting Church services into the vernacular language, and the first step in the writing of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Civil War of the mid-17th Century saw Cromwell's troops attempt to make the cathedral fit Puritan ideas of church decoration, vandalising many of the monuments inside. Later, the Victorians did much work restoring the cathedral in line with their own tastes, and some of the most interesting features today are the tombs of great English church leaders.

It is possible to see signs of almost every stage of English history within the cathedral walls - from the most ancient to the contemporary. Today Canterbury maintains its position as the religious capital of England.

Even though it was in existence before the English kingdom was even created, at every stage since it has played an important role in the story of what it means to be English.

The above is adapted from a BBC article by Dr Ralph Norman.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site

The importance of St Martin’s Church, St Augustine’s Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral is now recognised by UNESCO designating the combination of these sites as a World Heritage Site. Our campus is right amongst these ancient buildings, places that have inspired generations of people to develop themselves both spiritually and through education.


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Last edited: 13/12/2018 20:49:00