Canterbury is the major foundational site of Christianity in England. Bede records the arrival there of Augustine and his missionaries in 597. They were welcomed by the king of Kent, Ethelbert, and encouraged by his Christian wife, Bertha, to establish their headquarters in the city. It became the home of two major Benedictine monasteries, those of Christ Church and St Augustine. They housed significant libraries and became renowned for the excellence of the manuscripts they produced.
The murder of Thomas Becket within the cathedral in 1170 created a pilgrimage cult of international repute. En route between London and the continent, the city continued to be a key locale for political as well as ecclesiastical developments between 1348 and 1420.
The plague of 1349 deprived Canterbury of the scholar-archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, appointed to the see just one year before and buried in the cathedral. In 1376 the city witnessed the obsequies of a national hero when the Black Prince, heir to the throne, was buried near the shrine of St Thomas. His son, as Richard II, paid his respects to the tomb while on a pilgrimage to Canterbury in 1395. The death of Richard’s deposer, Henry IV, occasioned another royal burial in 1413: the tomb of the Lancastrian, who was devoted to the cult of Becket, also lies close to the site of the saint’s shrine, strategically positioned opposite the tomb of the Plantagenet Black Prince. The city was also a centre of events that had a more general impact on the local and national populations. Disaffected townsmen took an active role in the rebellion of 1381. Canterbury and the cult of Becket became a focus of Lollard hostility, much as Canterbury under its successive archbishops became a centre for the suppression of heresy. In 1420 celebrants of the fifth jubilee of Becket’s martyrdom who made the pilgrimage to Canterbury were offered a papal plenary indulgence. The same year saw celebrations to mark the Treaty of Troyes which, following the English victory at Agincourt, seemed to herald a peaceful end to the Hundred Years War.
Whatever else it may be, Canterbury is a city created by storytelling. The narratives of miracle and martyrdom that circulated in the aftermath of Becket’s death put the city on the pilgrimage map. Subsequently, clerics and others continued to invest Canterbury with literary and linguistic importance and to find in it a source of ingenuity and inventiveness. The sole surviving text of the Agenbite of Inwit, c.1340, is by Michael of Northgate, in Canterbury. The 1370 Convocation of Canterbury introduced English into the proceedings for the first time. Froissart visited the city seeking the patronage of Richard II, at a time when William Thorne was writing his chronicle of St Augustine’s abbey (c.1397). Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gave the city a cachet it had not enjoyed before, inspiring a monk of Canterbury to describe the arrival of Chaucer’s pilgrims in Canterbury in his Prologue to the Tale of Beryn, and John Lydgate to attempt an account of the return trip in his Siege of Thebes (both c.1420). The latter texts celebrate hospitality, but Margery Kempe’s reception in the city was marked by hostility from the monks, one of whom appears to have been reworking Thomas Hoccleve’s Male Regle.