UNESCO World Heritage Site #260: Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church

UNESCO World Heritage Site #260: Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church
UNESCO World Heritage Site #260: Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church

From the World Heritage inscription:

Canterbury, in Kent, has been the seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England for almost five centuries. St Martin’s Church, St Augustine’s Abbey and the cathedral are directly and tangibly associated with the history of the introduction of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The influence of the Benedictine abbey of St Augustine was decisive throughout the high Middle Ages in England. The influence of this monastic centre and its scriptorium extended far beyond the boundaries of Kent and Northumbria. Christ Church Cathedral, especially the east sections, is a unique artistic creation. The beauty of its architecture is enhanced by a set of exceptional stained glass windows which constitute the richest collection in the United Kingdom.

Within the urban perimeter of Canterbury, three distinct cultural properties are on the World Heritage List: the modest St Martin’s Church; the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey; and the superb Christ Church Cathedral, a breathtaking mixture of Romanesque and Perpendicular Gothic, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. These three monuments are milestones in the religious history of the regions of Great Britain before the Reformation.

St Martin’s Church, to the east, located outside the walls of Roman Durovernum, existed in 597 when the monk Augustine was sent from Rome by Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to the Saxon kingdom of Kent. The church was built for the most part before the 8th century. It undoubtedly includes a Roman structure from the 4th century. Of the church located within the city walls, which St Augustine made his cathedral (probably at the very spot where Christ Church now stands) nothing has been conserved. However, ruins of the abbey are still visible, halfway between St Martin’s Church and the cathedral. The abbey was dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. In 978 the primitive institution, veritable cradle of Benedictine monasticism in England, was restored following the Scandinavian invasions. The abbey buildings virtually disappeared in their entirety following the dissolution of the Community by Henry VIII in 1538. The Royal Palace that stood in their place was located against the northern side aisle of the nave. It included the gutter wall and a few old portions, but this structure, too, has disappeared.

I’m guessing that most people in the western world have at least heard of Canterbury Cathedral. It was the subject of one of the most well known works of middle english: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It was the site of the assassination of Thomas Beckett, who was later sainted. It was the location where St. Augustine established the first cathedral in England and it was also a key location in the English Reformation.

I had been to London probably a dozen times and never bothered to take the hour long train trip to Canterbury. I finally got around to visiting, and I am glad I did. Not only is the cathedral worth visiting for its history and architecture, but the town of Canterbury itself is one of the nicest towns in England which I’ve visited. Despite how well known the cathedral is, I never got the impression that the town was touristy.

There are regular trains which run to Canterbury from Paddington and Victoria Stations in London. The trip is approximately 60-90 minutes.