Canterbury: Ancient history of the city

Pages 81-90

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1800.

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Ancient history of the city

THAT THERE were cities or towns in Britain, Cæsar acknowledges in great measure, in his commentaires, by comparing the frequency of their buildings to those of the Gauls, who, it is known, had at that time many towns (fn. 1) throughout their country; (fn. 2) and although they might not be such as our writers feign and describe to have been built with strong walls, towers, and gates, yet they were at least such as they might conveniently dwell together within, defend themselves from the incursions of the enemy, and carry on their traffic with advantage; and such as these Cæsar acknowledges to have found here. (fn. 3)

THE FIRST MENTION we have of this city, by name, is in Ptolemy's Geography of Britain, who lived in the reigns of the Roman emperors, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, and wrote it in the Greek language. He says, in the most eastern part of Britain, are the Cantri, and among them these towns, [poleis Londinion, Darouenon, Routepiai], that is, Londinium, Daruenum, and Rutupiæ. The second of which is certainly meant for this city of Canterbury. (fn. 4) Antoninus, in his Itinerary of Britain, writes it, Durovernum, and places it as one of the Roman stations or forts, (fn. 5) situated on one of their grand military roads, from the furthest part of Britain, through London hither, (fn. 6) and so on north-eastward, ad Portum Ritupis, or Richborough, xii miles. From this station of Durovernum likewise ran two other military roads, the greatest parts of which are still visible; the one eastward from Ridingate over Barham Downs, ad Portum Dubris, or Dover, xvi miles, still called the Watling-street road; and the other from Worthgate, south-south-eastward, over the road, called Stone-street way, ad Portum Lemanis, or Limne, xvi miles. (fn. 7) In Peutinger's Table, written about the time of Theodosius the Great, it is called by the same name, and the mark of a considerable town, as Canterbury was in those times, is set to this station; and this is all the geographical notice taken of this city, in the time of the Romans.

It has been the opinion of some, that after the deseat of the Britons, on their encounter with the Romans, the very morning after Cæsar's arrival on his second expedition into this country, Durovernum or Canterbury, was taken (and might possibly be kept till Cæsar's return) by the 7th legion. It might afterwards be converted into a station, as they treated several other towns of the Britons, as Camulodunum, Verulamium, Isurium, and others of the capital ones, of the several states. (fn. 8)

THE SAXONS accustomed themselves to take their chief residence, or villa regia, on the spot where these Roman stations had once been; in consequence of which, this place, as has been already observed, was esteemed by them the head, or chief city of the kingdom of Kent, and the king's residence, villa regia; hence it is stiled by Bede, the chief city of king Ethelbert, and by another writer, the head of the empire; and although that monarch about the year 596, quitted his residence in it in favor to St. Augustine, and it remained no longer a royal residence, yet it still retained its consequence of being the chief city of the kingdom of Kent, and became soon afterwards, in preference of all others, the metropolitical city of Britain, to which, and its two superb monasteries, munisicently endowed, and held in high reputation for their riches as well as sanctity, it in great measure owed the whole of its future eminence and prosperity. But these circumstances, at the same time, made it the continued object of rapine and plunder, on every foreign invasion and domestic war; besides which, from the more than ordinary quantity of timber in the several buildings, and the closeness with which they were throughout the whole built together, it was continually subject to the calamity of fires.

Being situated at no great distance from the two islands of Thanet and Shepey, the usual places of landing, as well as the usual winter abode of those merciless pirates, the Danes, this city twice felt the misfortune of so near a neighbourhood to them; for in the year 851 they landed with a great army from 350 ships, and wasted it, Ceolnoth being then archbishop; (fn. 9) and again in 1009, in the time of autumn, another army of the Danes, innumerable, came to Sandwich, and thence to Canterbury, which they had taken immediately, had not the citizens, by giving a large sum, in time, obtained their peace, which having done, these plunderers immediately departed and sailed for the Isle of Wight; (fn. 10) but in the year 1011, when these banditti having over-run and wasted all Kent again, laid siege to it, and having entirely surrounded it, provisions in it falling short, and great part of the city being burnt, they took it by assault, on the 20th day, when rushing impetuously over every part of it, they set fire to the remainder of the town, and the church and priory of the Holy Trinity, having first plundered them of all their valuables, the abbey of St. Augustine being alone left standing, and then massacred the inhabitants without distinction of age, religion, or sex; for having decimated them, out of the number of near 8000, there remained alive only four monks, and scarce eight hundred of the inferior class of people. But the archbishop Alphege, (whom they afterwards murdered at Greenwich), Godwin, bishop of Rochester, Leofryne, abbess of St. Mildred, and Alfward, the king's bailiff, with others both monks and clergy, men as well as women, they carried away prisoners with them. A horrid spectacle, says the antient historian in his relation of this event, to the beholder; the face of an antient and most beautiful city all brought to ashes; the dead bodies of the citizens, who had been either murdered by the sword, cast into the fire, hung up, or thrown headlong from the walls, strewed thick about the streets and roads, dying both soil and river black with blood; to which might be added, the weeping and howling of the captive women and of children, led away with the venerable archbishop in fetters, (fn. 11)

Lambarde, whose account is somewhat different, (fn. 12) says, that there were left alive here, of the monks four, and of the lay-people 4800; by which it appears, that this city and the adjoining country (the people of which had probably fled hither for succour) was at that time very populous, having to lose on this account 43,200 persons; on which account there were some, who affirmed it had then more store of buildings than London itself; and indeed it seems that they must have been very rich here, for but two years before they had, by the advice of Siricius, then archbishop, bought their peace with the Danes, at the enormous price of 30,000 pounds in ready money. (fn. 13) Besides these misfortunes, various have been the times in which this place has suffered by the calamity of fires. The first of which that I find noticed, is by the author of the additions to the Chronicle of Asserus Menevensis, who SAYS, that about the year 754 it was much wasted by fire. In the year 776 it is said to have been burnt down; (fn. 14) again in the year 918, Ælfleda, the mighty lady of Mercia, besieging and burning the city itself, spoiled, killed and drove out the Danes, who then possessed it; in revenge for which they afterwards, about the reign of king Ethelred, anno 1011, besieged and burnt the city, (fn. 15) as has been mentioned above; and yet, notwithstanding these misfortunes, Stow says, that at the time of the conquest, it exceeded London in its buildings. (fn. 16)

In the time of archbishop Lanfranc, who came to the see in 1070, the church, then dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was consumed by fire, as was almost the whole of the city in king Henry II.'s reign, anno 1161. (fn. 17) Not long after which, in the year 1174, a dreadful fire broke out here, the rapidity of which was increased by an amazing great storm of wind, by which great part of this city, with most of the churches was destroyed, and at last the church of the Holy Trinity itself was wholly burnt down. (fn. 18) Again in 1180, another fire happened, by which the city was much damaged; (fn. 19) and in the year 1247, St. Mildred's church, with great part of the city, was again destroyed by fire; (fn. 20) notwithstanding all which calamities, through favor of the several kings of this realm, particularly in having by the statute of the 27th year of king Edward III. the staple of wool appointed at it, (fn. 21) and by the patronage of the several archbishops, (fn. 22) being in general their most frequented residence; the advantages arising to it from the number of religious houses in it, especially its cathedral, from the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in it, which from its reputation of sanctity, brought hither multitudes of pilgrims and devotees of all ranks, with whom the town was almost daily crowded; the frequent meetings of kings, princes, and noble personages here, as well of our own as of foreign countries, and from its being the great thoroughfare to the continent, it still recovered from time to time from its misfortunes, with still further improvements. The beauty of its situation certainly contributed not a little to this. William of Malmsbury, who wrote in the reign of king Stephen, accordingly describes it as a city, which, though of moderate size, was yet famous for its good situation, the richness of the neighbouring soil, the entireness of the walls inclosing it, although it had so often experienced the mischances of war, its convenience of water and wood, and its abundance of fish, by reason of its nearness to the sea. (fn. 23)

Besides the magnificent foundations of the priory of the Holy Trinity, or Christ-church, and of St. Augustine, here were five priories, nine hospitals, and other smaller endowments, such as chantries, and the like; all which will be further mentioned in their proper places.

Till king Edward IV.'s reign, this city seems to have remained unpaved; but the bad state, it was then in, was such, that it was become a nuisance, not only to all those who reforted hither, but to the inhabitants themselves; which obliged the mayor and commonalty of it to petition the king, for power to pave the principal streets of it; in consequence of which, an act of parliament passed in the 17th year of of that reign (fn. 24) to give them a power and authority to do it, at the expence of the inhabitants residing in them. (fn. 25)

LELAND, who wrote in king Henry VIII.'s reign, gives this description of the city, in his Itinerary, as it remained in his time.

"The town of Cantorbyri," says he, "ys waulled, and hath v gates, thus named, Westgate, Northgate, Burgate, now cawlled Mihelsgate, St. George's gate, Rider's gate; the which John Broker, mayr of the town, did so diminisch, that now cartes cannot for lownes passe thorough yt. Worthegate, the which leadeth to a streate cawlled Stone Street, and so to Billirca, now Curtopstreat. In the towne be xiiii paroche chyrches, and the cathedral chyrch of blak monkes. Without the walles ther be iii paroche chyrches. The monastery of S. Augustine, blak monkes: S. Gregories, blak chanons: Monasterium S. Sepulchri, ubi olim Templarii, postea sacreæ virgines, The hospital of S. John, of men and women of the fundation of the bishops of Canterbury. The hospital of S.Laurence, for women alone of the fundation of the abbates of S.Augustine. An hospital within the town on Kinge's bridge, for poore pylgrems and way faring men. Zenodochium Pauperum sacerdotum. Zenodochiolum quoque minorum intra muros fundatoribus urbanis. Cænobia fratrum intra urbem videlicet dominicanorum, Augustinensium Franciscanorum.

And a little further,

"for the most part of the towne stondeth on the farther side of the river Sture, the which by a probable conjecture, I suppose, was cawlled in the Britans tyme, Avona. For the Romayn cawlled Canterbury, Duravernum corruptely. For of Dor and Avona, we shuld rather say, Doravona, or Doravonum. The river yn one place runneth thorough the cite walle, the which is made there with ii or iii ar- ches for the curse of the streme. Canterburyys v myles from the fe flast north agaynst Heron.

Lanfrance and Sudbury, the which was hedded by Fakke Strawe, were great repayrers of the cite. Sudbury builded the Westgate, and made new and reparied to gither fro thens to the north gate, and wolde have done lykewise abowt al the town, yf he had lyved. The mayr of the town and aldermen, ons a yere cum solemply to his tumbe, to pray for his sowle, yn memory of his good deade. The most auncyent building of the towne appereth yn the castel, and at Ryder's gate, wher appere long Briton brikes, with out the town at St. Pancrace's chapel, and at St.Martine's, appere also Briton brikes. Ther hath bene sum strong fortres by the castel, wher as now the eminent dungen hill risith. Many yeres sins men soute for treasor, at a place cauled the Dungen, wher Barnhales house is now, and ther yn digging, thei found a corse colsed yn leade.

"The water of Stur breketh a lytle above Cantorbiri, into ii armes, of the one cummeth be West gate, and the other thorough the cyte, under S. Thomas hospitale, and meteth agayne yn the botom; beneth the cyte, a this side . . . . . ford, being half a . . . . (fn. 26)

THUS FAR LELAND—who makes no mention of any appearance of decay or poverty in this city, in his time; and indeed I have been induced to belive from every historian I have met with, that, till the suppression of its religious foundations, (fn. 27) and the removal of Becket's shrine from hence, Canterbury continued in wealth and prosperity; and I know of but one authority to the contrary, which perhaps might have been exaggerated to forward the purpose of it: this is the preamble to the act of parliament, passed in the 6th year of the above reign, (fn. 28) for the improvement of the river Stour, and rendering it navigable up to the city; in which it is recited, that this city was one of the antient cities of the realm, and that through it there had been, and then was great recourse of ambassadors and other strangers from the parts of beyond the sea; where likewise the bodies of the holy confessor, and bishop St. Austin, the apostle of England, and also many other holy saints had been honourably humate and shrined; (fn. 29) was then of late in great ruin and decay, and the in habitants thereof impoverished, and many great mansions in it desolate; which ruin, decay and desolation, could not of like be reformed, or amended, unless the said should be so rendered navigable as above-mentioned.


  • 1. The words arbs and oppidum, were promiscuously used by Cæsar, Cicero, Varro, and the most approved authors.
  • 2. Cæsar de Bello Gallico, lib. v and vii.
  • 3. See Battely's Antiq. Rutup. p. 77.
  • 4. This is a convincing proof how much those conjecturers dream, who place the city of Rutupiæ at Canteburry.
  • 5. Richard of Cirencester mentions it as a stipendiary town.
  • 6. The Watling-street way is said to have gone from Dover by the west of London to St. Albans, and thence having crossed the Fosse in a crooked line through Shropshire, by Wraken hill unto Cardigan, by the sea side. See Burton on Anton. p. 95.
  • 7. See Antoninus, iter ii, iii, and iv.
  • 8. Dr. Horsley is of opinion, that Cæsar's first march on his 2d expedition in the very night after his landing, was about 12 miles in quest of the enemy, who retiring to a river, ventured there to engage with the Romans, but were defeated. He thinks it probable, that as this river could by no means be the Thames, for that was too distant and great, and Cæsar called it by its name when he spoke of it; he thinks therefore, that the fight must have been on the banks of the river Stour, to the north of Durovernum, or Canterbury, towards Sturry and Fordwich, where, within a mile of it, strong lines of fortification, thrown up for a considerable length, are still visible. See Britannia Romana, p. 14.
  • 9. Simon Dunelm, col, 120.
  • 10. Brompton, col. 887.
  • 11. Henry Hunt, lib. vi. R. Hoveden, p. 431; Matth. Westminister, and Flor. Wigorn. See Simon Dunelm, col. 168; Chron. Brompton, 888; Gervas, col. 1649. Chron. Thorn, col. 1781, all of whom tell the story of this calamity so much in the same words, that they seem to have copied it from one another. See Osbern's account of it in the life of archbishop Odo, much more copious, inserted hereafter.
  • 12. Lambarde's Perambulation, p. 317.
  • 13. Gervas, of Canterbury, col. 1290.
  • 14. Leland's Col. vol. ii. p. 278, ex chron. Mart. Scotti.
  • 15. Lambarde, ibid.
  • 16. Survey, B. iii. p. 215.
  • 17. Matth. Paris, p. 82.
  • 18. Hen. Hunt, lib. vi. Chron. Brompton, col. 1100.
  • 19. Eleventh Cal. June, Gerv. col. 1457.
  • 20. Leland's Col. vol. i. p. 266.
  • 21. The Commons prayed the king that the staple might be appointed at Worcester, Nottingham, Hull, St. Buttolphs, Stamford, Lynn, Ipswich, and Canterbury; but the king answered, "At Canterbury only one, to be in the honor of St. Thomas." Cotton, p. 82.
  • 22. Camden says, Brit. p. 239, that by the bounty of its prelates, especially archbishop Sudbury, it did not only recruit, but on a sudden grew up to such splendor, as even for the beauty of its private buildings to be equal to any city in Britain; but for the magnificence of its churches, and their number to exceed the best of them. In that reign, viz. of king Richard II. the men of this city seem to have become of good ability, for in the 10th year of it, they contributed to the king's necessities 50l. and again in the 21st year of it, the bailiffs and good men of the city, lent the king 100 marcs. See Rym. Fœd. vol. vii. p. 544, vol. viii. p. 9.
  • 23. W. Malmsbury, Prolog. ad Lib. Im. de Gest Pontisicat, Angliæ.
  • 24. See Cotton's Records, p. 703. In the chest of the chamber of this city is an exemplification, made anno 18 Edward IV. under the great seal, of this act.
  • 25. This petition sets forth, that the city was one of the eldest cities of this realm, and was most in sight of all strangers of the parts beyond the sea, resorting into the realm, and departing out of it; and because of the glorious saints, that there lay shrined, was greatly named throughout Christiandome; to which city was also great repair of much of the people of the realme. as well of estates, as other, in way of pilgrimage, to visit those saints; and it was so, that the same city was oftentimes full, fowle, noyous and uneasie to all the inhabitants of it, as to all other persons resortin thereunto, whereof ofterntimes was spoken much disworship in divers places, as well beyond the sea, as on this side the sea, which could not be remedied in any wise; but if the city might be paved, to which the most part of the inhabitants of the city, having burgesses houses, or tenements in it, were willing and agreeble, so that there might be authority had, to compel others of the like sort to do the same. Please it therefore your wisdoms, the premises considered, and that as the mayor and commonaltie had no lands or tenements, or other yearly revenues in common, of which they might make or sustain any such payment, to pray the king that he, by the advice and assent of the lords spiritual and temporal in parliament assembled, &c. Part of this act is printed from a fragment of it in Batt. Somn. append. No. xxvi.
  • 26. Itin. vol. vii. appendix, p. 144.
  • 27. Lambarde, p. 319, 321.
  • 28. Stat. 6 Henry VIII. ch. 17. This being a private act, is not printed in the statute books. See Batt. Somn. p. 21.
  • 29. It is remarkable that the mention of St. Thomas Becket, the favorite and tutelar saint of this place, is wholly omitted, and St. Austin is mentioned in preference to him, contrary to the custom of that time.