Detail from An Historical Map of Canterbury from Roman Times to 1907. Available from bookshops and online outlets. £9.99
Twenty Centuries at Canterbury: The Historic Towns Atlas and Map, and an Online Portal to the archaeology of the City
An atlas, a map, and an online portal to explore!
In partnership with the Historic Towns Trust and Canterbury Christ Church University, C·A·T are building new ways to understand and investigate the story of Canterbury since its beginnings twenty centuries ago.
The first milestone, An Historical Map of Canterbury from Roman Times to 1907, is already published and available in the shops and online. All proceeds from sales of the map, after printing costs, will fund further work on the new Canterbury Historical Atlas, and with it the Twenty Centuries at Canterbury online facility.
If you'd like to help us with the project please go to our Patreon page to make a monthly contribution. Even a small amount will make a difference!
You can read more about the story of Canterbury on this page (see below), but why not visit the online portal right now?
Canterbury through the centuries…
The archaeology of the late Iron-Age forerunner of Roman Canterbury centres on three curving and aligned ditches with staggered entrances. These perhaps formed part a large enclosure on the south-east side of the flood plain of the River Stour, the southern corner of which with was located where Rose Square is today. Associated with the enclosures were roundhouses and other structures, pits, wells, and evidence of bronze working; there were also cremation burials. Other known Iron-Age sites around the city include buildings and a richly furnished cremation burial in Palace Street. There was a second focus of buildings, a field system, cremation burials and inhumations in St Dunstan’s. To the south-east of the site of Canterbury Castle, an inhumation burial was probably covered by a large burial mound, one of several that characterised this area well into the Roman period.
While there is evidence of organic town development in the first decades of Roman occupation (c.AD 50–c.90), the end of the century may have seen the planned building of something like a religious ‘resort’. Very similar to establishments are known in Roman Gaul (modern France and Belgium, which had been incorporated into the Roman Empire nearly a century before the Roman invasion of southern Britain). It might even have been entrepreneurial, immigrant Roman Gauls who established a shrine or shrines beside the Stour. Such resorts were typically equipped with a theatre and public baths at an early stage. Certainly, local people were involved in this development; the native peoples (now known as Romano-British) were already beginning to create their own particular brand of ‘Roman-ness’.
The first major change to the town took place in the early second century, c.AD 110, with the establishment of a new street pattern. The main streets were laid out at regular intervals, probably using the Rutupiae road as a base line, with a street between baths and theatre, and another street linking with the main road from Dubris (Dover), which was becoming an increasingly important port. Roman Canterbury perhaps only now boasted a forum and basilica and the status of a civitas capital — the administrative centre of various British groups, collectively known as Cantiaci by the Romans. During the second century, the early cemetery at Rosemary Lane, was superseded, and ribbon development spread along the main roads out of the town. Within the town, new cross-streets were built at right-angles to the new axis. The road north-east towards Regulbium (Reculver) may also at this time have been laid out on a more perpendicular alignment to meet the Rutupiae road.
At the beginning of the third century, Durovernum Cantiacorum was graced with an imposing new theatre in classical style, adding to the monumental appearance of the temple precinct. Perhaps only then was the temple rebuilt, also in the classical style. It’s possible that a residential ‘north-east quarter’ of the town only developed at around the same time in the area of the later cathedral. This seems, in fact, to have been the area that was to become the Anglo-Saxon inner ‘burh’ and medieval priory and cathedral church precinct. It also, perhaps, had a more typically Roman layout of streets on a grid pattern. Two Roman-period streets beneath the cathedral are known from archaeological evidence. Other evidence might point to further lost Roman streets in this quarter: for example, the boundary of the Anglo-Saxon ‘bertha’ demarcating the Liberty of Christ Church, and the medieval street lost to Archbishop Lanfranc’s take-over of land for his new palace (between The Borough and Orange Street). Another Roman street is known at St Radigund Street, and this, and (probably) all those within what became the cathedral precinct, met with a street aligned north-west to south-east which may have marked the north-east side of the town proper and informed later development.
In the late third century , the town was extensively remodelled and reshaped by an enclosing wall, rampart and ditch, producing the bounded shape familiar today. The Roman walls became the medieval walls shown on the map. The new boundary actually had the effect of cutting off not only a ‘north-west quarter’ in the St Dunstan’s area but also earlier ribbon development along other major roads leading away from the gates. Later cemeteries developed closer to the new perimeter wall, in areas by then considered to be outside the town.
The earliest vestiges of Anglo-Saxon Canterbury date from the 6th century. In 597, the Benedictine monk Augustus arrived, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert Kent’s king Æthelberht to Christianity. After his conversion and the granting of land in the city for the founding of an abbey and cathedral, Canterbury became the centre of the archiepiscopate. Canterbury has remained the centre of the English church ever since. In Cantwaraburh (‘the fortified town of the Kent people’). the main focus of settlement was on the east side of the Roman town. This townscape— both ecclesiastical and royal — lay both within and without the old Roman walls.
Within were the first cathedral (St Saviour Christ Church) and its early precinct, and possibly a royal residence. It is likely that this area was the ‘inner burh’. To the east of the walls was a new settlement which stretched as far as Æthelberht’s queen, Bertha’s, oratory of St Martin. This area was the site of a new abbey, known as St Augustine’s since its rededication in 978 by Archbishop Dunstan. Other churches within its precinct included a royal and archiepiscopal mausoleum (St Peter and St Paul), a chapel built as part of royal penance (St Mary), and a chapel dedicated to St Pancras. Also built during this period was a baptistery at the east end of St Saviour, completing a line of churches extending from St Saviour to St Martin. Following the sacking of Canterbury by Vikings in 1011, and the kidnapping and martyring of archbishop Ælfheah, converted king Cnut built a shrine to him, probably in the cathedral. The relics of local saint Mildred of Minster-in-Thanet were moved to St Augustine’s Abbey and monks established a new church dedicated to her in the town.
The mid-to-late Anglo-Saxon town was focussed on an axis of roads from Worthgate to the cathedral (Wistraet), and the road from Ridingate (Ealden Straet), and also from the Westgate to a gap in the old wall later filled by Newingate. A wagon market (Wincheap) outside Worthgate, and a cattlemarket outside Newingate (Rithercheap), likely date to this time. There was a further mid Anglo-Saxon industrial focus to the north of St Augustine’s. Administratively, Canterbury was divided into areas called ‘berthas’, whose boundaries would inform later medieval secular ward boundaries and liberties of Christ Church and St Augustine’s.
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle was built, still evident today in the looming form of the Dane John Mound. A new royal castle occupied a site adjacent to Worthgate by the early 12th century, but was only sporadically occupied, being mainly used from the early 13th century onwards as a centre of royal government and administration. The first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1005/10–89), ensured that the ecclesiastical topography of the town changed considerably. A new cathedral and cloister was built, with an adjoining palace that required the moving of the boundary of the precinct westwards to today’s Palace Street. Outside Northgate, St John’s Hospital and a community of priests (becoming St Gregory’s Priory in 1133, a house of Austin Canons) occupied a peripheral zone, later joined by a hospice (a place of rest and shelter for pilgrims and travellers) for the monks of St Radigund’s Abbey, Dover. The old inner burh, through lay gifts of land and property, became increasingly the province of the monks of Christ Church.
The 12th century saw expansion along new commercial roads created south of Burgate Street, linking with what was to become the High Street which has remained a shopping centre ever since. Moneyers (individuals permitted to mint money) located near the old inner burh while Christians, Jews and moneyers lived side by side in the area of the King’s Bridge and Mill on the River Stour, where the Royal Exchange was situated. Outside the walls in the area of St Dunstan’s was the Archbishop’s great manor of Estursete. To the east of the city walls, St Augustine’s Abbey prospered and continued to compete with other foundations to acquire land. The murder in the Cathedral of Archbishop Thomas Becket, on 29th December 1170, and the translation of his remains to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel on 7th July 1220, marked a key change in the fortunes of the city which became a centre for pilgrimage. The gifts of pilgrims and income from ecclesiastical estates were channelled by archbishops, abbots and priors into the cathedral and abbeys, embellishing their respective buildings and precincts.
There were now more parish churches within the walled area — some built over or beside the city gates. Other foundations included Eastbridge, Poor Priests’, and Maynard & Cotton’s Hospitals. In addition, there were new foundations by Franciscan (‘Grey’) (1224) and Dominican (‘Black’) (1236) friars on the banks of the Stour. The Augustinian Whitefriars settled (c.1320) within the wall on the other side of the town centre, near St George’s Gate. During the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), the city walls and gates were rebuilt, proclaiming the importance and prosperity of the city.
Post-medieval and modern
The Dissolution of the 1530s saw the closure of the city’s priory, nunnery and three friaries, and St Augustine’s Abbey; its church was levelled, and some of its buildings became a palace for Henry VIII. Income from pilgrims was cut off. By the 17th century Canterbury was the home of refugee Huguenots who introduced silk-weaving to the city. The castle was in a state of disrepair in the 18th century and most parts of it were demolished. In the late 18th century all the city gates except for Westgate were demolished to ease traffic flow. But in 1830, the world’s first passenger railway, the Canterbury & Whitstable, opened and the 19th century saw the establishment of a large military presence. Small industries also set up. This is the Canterbury represented by the 1907 Ordnance Survey which forms the background to the recently published Historical Map of Canterbury from Roman Times to 1907: barracks along Military Road, a tannery, railways, gasworks, and ribbon and infill housing development. Much was to change with destructive bombing during the Second World War when more than 1000 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged; post-War development and road building have further changed the townscape.