|the iconic heart of the city|
By Carole Barclay
Canterbury, the historic capital of Kent, has attracted visitors for over 1,000 years. In the past it was the focus for the cult of St Thomas, the archbishop cut down in his own cathedral in 1170 for crossing the king once too often. Tourists now follow the footsteps of pilgrims in the majestic cathedral that is the hub of the Church of England and wander around the ancient streets that are still surrounded by a massive city wall that goes back to Roman days.
Many years ago the Anglican church was dubbed the Conservative party at prayer, so it’s not surprising to find the city’s hallowed streets used to project ‘traditional values’ and the myth of ‘old England’ that the ruling class use to justify their exploitation and oppression. But that was all shaken at last year’s general election when Labour defeated the Tories, who had held the seat in its current and earlier forms for 160 years, to elect Canterbury’s first ever Labour and female MP.
But throughout history the people of Canterbury have stood up for themselves, and beneath the city streets there’s a record of a violent and sometimes revolutionary past. When Wat Tyler led the Kentish rebels during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 his army was welcomed by the people of Canterbury, who help them to sack the castle and the archbishop’s palace.
Thomas Becket may have been a martyr for his church but he was not the only Archbishop of Canterbury to meet a violent end. Aelfheah was killed by Viking raiders in 1012 for refusing to pay a ransom. Archbishop Sudbury, the architect of the hated Poll Tax, was beheaded by an enraged mob in London during the Peasants Revolt and Archbishop Laud, a royalist lackey, was executed for treason by the Parliamentary authorities in 1645 during the Civil War.
The civil war ended with the execution of Charles Stuart in 1649 and the proclamation of the Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was commonly known.
The end of the monarchy also meant the end of the Church of England, which was abolished and outlawed by the republican government led by Oliver Cromwell. In Canterbury Puritans ransacked the cathedral to purge it of ‘popish’ symbols. The hard-line faction on the city council even wanted the cathedral demolished. Wiser counsel prevailed however, and the building was put to good use to provide much needed accommodation for the local militia during the Commonwealth era.
The restoration of the monarchy that came soon after Cromwell’s death paved the way for the re-establishment of the Anglican church as the official Church of England and now the cathedral welcomes nearly a million visitors per year to marvel at the imposing edifice that is a tribute to the skill of medieval craftsmen.
Nowadays Canterbury is a centre of learning, with a large student population centred around the city’s three universities and other higher education institutions. The performing arts are well-served by the theatre named after Christopher Marlowe, the city’s favourite son, and the Gulbenkian arts complex on the campus of the University of Kent.
But it’s the medieval sites that most tourists come to see. The cathedral is a must, despite the high admission charge, and a walk around the ramparts encompasses a massive Roman burial mound and the ruins of Canterbury castle. The shattered remnants of St Augustine’s priory, dissolved in 1538 when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, and the medieval buildings and churches that can be found throughout the old city are well worth visiting, along with the Roman and other local museums that trace the city’s history down the ages.