From the Time Team visit to the Big Dig in
Canterbury, Channel 4, 3 July 2001
Canterbury has been the site of human occupation for at least 2,000 years,
and probably a great deal longer. Before the Romans
occupied Britain, when the emperor Claudius invaded in AD 43, the area was
controlled by the Cantiaci,
an Iron Age tribe who established their capital around a crossing of the
River Stour from about 30 BC. (The name of the county of Kent is a derivation
of Cantiaci, a Roman name which translates as 'people of the corner [of
Britain]'.) A number of clay quarries, boundary ditches, round houses and
gravel-paved streets have been found dating from this period, when a
thriving settlement spread over a wide area on both sides of the Stour.
The Romans established a military base at Canterbury soon after Claudius's
invasion. They knew the Cantiaci capital as Durovernum Cantiacorum – 'the
walled town of the Cantiaci by the alder marsh'. Then, around AD 110-120,
they built a new civitas, or provincial centre, on top of the remains of the
old settlement. Their new town, laid out in the regular Roman street pattern
with the usual Roman public buildings, soon flourished. Located on the main
route from the south-east coast to London, it became the principal trading
and administrative centre for the area. Roman Canterbury was prosperous and
contained many sizeable public buildings and private dwellings. Later during
the Roman occupation, around AD 270, the combination of Saxon raiders and
increasing conflicts within the Roman empire itself led to the construction
of a defensive wall around in the city.
The period following the end of Roman rule in Britain is sometimes known as
the 'Dark Ages' because we know so little about what happened. In
Canterbury, we know more than in most of the country – but even that is
very limited. Here, the end of the Roman occupation seems not to have marked
the end of occupation of the Roman town. Life would have been very different
to what it was before the Romans' departure, however. A layer of 'dark
earth', found immediately above the Roman remains on sites throughout the
city, points to a period during which the local inhabitants reverted to a
rural, agrarian lifestyle. The main Roman buildings and road system fell
into disuse, but there still seems to have been a sizeable settlement here.
Kent was one of the first areas to be settled by Anglo-Saxon raiders after
the Romans left Britain. More precisely, it was settled by the Jutes, who
established the kingdom of Kent
soon after their arrival on these shores. Canterbury, known then as
Cantwara-burh, or 'the fortified town of the Men of Kent', became the
capital of the new kingdom from the 6th century onwards. It was the main
residence of King Ethelbert from around AD 590.
In AD 597, the arrival of St Augustine in England, on a mission to
convert its inhabitants to Christianity, marked the beginning of
Canterbury's role as the centre of the Christian church here. Arriving with
just 40 priests, Augustine was made bishop of the new English church; by
Christmas more than 10,000 people had been baptised. Augustine's base, at St
Martin's church, is now considered to be England's earliest Christian
church; it was destroyed in 1091 and the relics of St Augustine moved to the
abbey that he founded.
From AD 835-855, Kent suffered a series of attacks by Danish (Viking)
raiders. Canterbury, by this time, was firmly established as the centre of
the English church and had grown wealthy and well-populated. This wealth was
a great attraction to raiders, however, and in 842 and again in 851 there
was 'great slaughter' as the Danes ransacked the city. A further wave of
Viking attacks followed in AD 991-1012, culminating in 1011 when the
attackers demanded that Archbishop Alphege surrender the cathedral
treasures. The city, under siege, held out for 20 days. Then the archbishop,
king's reeve and other important persons were captured; the cathedral and
most of the city was burned; and the population (estimated at 8,000) was
killed, ransomed or enslaved.
Remembering the devastation wreaked upon their city by the Danes, the people
of Canterbury refused to fight against William during the Norman Conquest in
1066. This saved the city from further destruction, although not from a fire
that destroyed the cathedral in 1067. It was rebuilt – in stone – by the
Normans in 1077, and again, following another fire, in 1174. Canterbury
became one of Europe's most important pilgrimage centres after the murder of
Thomas Becket in the cathedral in 1170. St Augustine's abbey was virtually
levelled following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s,
and Becket's shrine was dismantled – with it went what was by then an
enormous pilgrimage industry.
Other key events in Canterbury's history during this period include a
devastating outbreak of plague in 1348, when the Black Death killed half the
population of around 10,000; Wat Tyler's capture of the city (and later
beheading of Archbishop Sudbury) in 1381; and the granting of a city charter
in 1448. With a population estimated at just 3,000 in 1500, however, it was
still no bigger than in Roman times.
From the late 16th century, Canterbury played host to thousands of Huguenot
(Protestant) refugees fleeing persecution in France
and the Low Countries.
Skilled weavers and other craftsmen, the newcomers made an important
contribution to the city's economy. It is estimated that, out of a
population of around 5,000 in 1600, some 2,000 were Huguenots.
Canterbury was a city of divided loyalties during the Civil War, but when
Christmas Day church services were banned in 1647, riots broke out and the
populace declared itself for 'God, King Charles and Kent'. Canterbury
surrendered to the Parliamentary forces in 1648, but Charles II was back in
1660, processing from the abbey to the cathedral in celebration of the
restoration of the monarchy.
In around 1787, all the city gates except Westgate (the city jail) were
demolished to make way for the new coach traffic. The railways arrived with
the opening of the Whitstable-Canterbury line (with trains pulled by Robert
Stephenson's Invicta) in 1830, when the city population reached 14,000.
Badly hit by German bombing raids during the Second World War, Canterbury
almost suffered a second Blitz with a redevelopment scheme that would have
obliterated much of the area within the city walls. Fierce local opposition
saw off that plan, though not other, smaller redevelopment schemes, some of
which are themselves now being redeveloped again as part of the site covered
by the 'Big Dig' excavations.