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A Short History of Canterbury

From the Time Team visit to the Big Dig in Canterbury, Channel 4, 3 July 2001

Iron Age

Canterbury has been a site of human occupation for at least two thousand years, and probably a great deal longer. Before the Romans occupied Britain after the invasion under Emperor Claudius in AD 43, the area was controlled by the Cantiaci, an Iron Age Belgic tribe which established its capital around a crossing of the River Stour from about 30 BC (the name 'Kent' is a derivation of Cantiaci, a Latin version of the original Celtic 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 which date 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' invasion. They knew the Cantiaci capital as Durovernum Cantiacorum, 'the walled town of the Cantiaci by the alder marsh'.

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, containing many sizeable public buildings and private dwellings. Later on in the Roman occupation period - around AD 270 - the combination of Saxon raiders and increasing conflict within the Roman empire itself led to the construction of a defensive wall around the city.

Durovernum Cantiacorum
Roman Durovernum Cantiacorum still survived like this into the early fifth century, but by the end of the century it had changed radically (see the Kent page for an illustration)

Dark age

The period following the end of Roman rule in Britain has sometimes been referred to as the 'Dark Ages' because we know so little about what happened. Today scholars prefer to term it the early medieval period.

In Canterbury, we know more than in most of the country - but even that is very limited. Here, the end of Roman occupation seems not to have marked the end of occupation of the Roman town. Life would have been changing noticeably though in the period leading up to, and after, the expulsion of Roman administration in AD 409 (see The End of Roman Britain via sidebar link, right).

A layer of 'dark earth' which has been 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 (generally as the Roman economy collapsed in stages and society narrowed). 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 Germanic raiders after the end of Romans influence in 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 sixth century onwards. It was the main residence of King Ethelbert from around AD 590.

Saxon Canterbury
Saxon settlements nestle amongst the ruins of Roman Canterbury in this sketch by Time Team's Victor Ambrus (click or tap on image to view full sized)

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 forty 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 which he founded (although St Martin's Church survives - see sidebar link).


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 twenty 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 which 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 entered Britain from Europe and killed half of Canterbury's population of around ten thousand; Wat Tyler's capture of the city (and the later beheading of Archbishop Sudbury) in 1381; and the granting of a city charter in 1448. With a population estimated at just three thousand in 1500, however, it was still no bigger than in Roman times.

Huguenot refugees

From the late sixteenth 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 five thousand in 1600, some two thousand were Huguenots.

Civil war

Canterbury was a city of divided loyalties during the English 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.

The recent past

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 Canterbury to Whitstable line (with trains pulled by Robert Stephenson's Invicta) in 1830, when the city's population reached 14,000.

Canterbury's Railways
Canterbury's railways have waxed and waned since the first passenger-carrying railway in the south of England was opened between there and Whitstable in 1830, and this scene shows the now-lost branch from Canterbury West towards Whitstable

Badly hit by German bombing raids during the Second World War, Canterbury almost suffered a second Blitz with a redevelopment scheme which 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.



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