April 22, 2015


Stephen Nichols


There is perhaps no city more charming than Canterbury, England. The ancient cathedral city has played a prominent role in church history. So let’s go on a field trip to Canterbury.

When the Romans arrived in the middle of the first century AD, they found an already thriving village. They set about doing what the Romans did: they built a little city of Rome. It was built on the high ground along the River Stour. They built a forum, they built temples to their gods, and they even built a theater. This little Roman city lasted until the collapse of the Roman Empire around the 410s.

Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Roman army simply left. This left the town in a bit of disrepair. But, about a century and a half later came Augustine. This is not the Augustine of Hippo, author of The Confessions and The City of God, but the other one, the Benedictine monk and missionary. While there were small bands of Christians in England before Augustine arrived, he was able to organize them.

Augustine was sent as a missionary to the Kingdom of Kent in modern-day southeast England, where Canterbury is located. Æthelberht was king of Kent; while he was a pagan, his wife, Bertha, was a Christian. She gave significant support to Augustine and brought him to the attention of her husband. Æthelberht was later baptized by Augustine and gave Augustine significant land and resources. On the land that Æthelberht gave him, Augustine built a monastery and also began work on what would become Canterbury Cathedral. Augustine was the first archbishop of Canterbury. By 597, the monastery was thriving, and it was also essentially a university.

Much later, in 1066, Duke William II of Normandy, known as William the Conqueror, led the Norman invasion of England. Along with William came Lanfranc, who had been the abbot at the monastery at Bec and whom William installed as the archbishop of Canterbury. When Lanfranc died, he was succeeded by Anselm of Canterbury. He left us some wonderful works. He wrote the Proslogion, in which we have the ontological argument for the existence of God, and Cur Deus Homo, which addressed Christ’s identity as the God-man. He began to focus the church’s attention on the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

After Anselm, another famous archbishop was Thomas Becket. Becket was at odds with King Henry II, and in order to bring peace to the land, Becket put himself into self-imposed exile and left Canterbury. Later, Becket came back to Canterbury; as a result, Henry dispatched four knights to find him. The knights murdered him at the cathedral.

In the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous Canterbury Tales. By this time, Canterbury was a prominent pilgrimage site, thanks to the shrine to Thomas Becket. In the prologue, Chaucer speaks of pilgrims’ making their journey during the springtime, and Chaucer then tells us:

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimages, And palmers to go seeking out strange strands, To distant shrines well known in sundry lands. And specially from every shire’s end Of England they to Canterbury wend.