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City of Canterbury

St Martin of Tours Canterbury, the oldest church in England
St Martin's Church

 Canterbury Cathedral

St Peter and St Paul and St Augustine's Abbey Cantebury
St Augustine's Abbey

Canterbury's World Heritage status was granted by UNESCO in 1988 to acknowledge the role played by St Martin's Church, Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine's Abbey in establishing the Anglican church. St Martin's is recognised as England's oldest church having an unbroken history of Christian worship for more than 1,430 years.

England in 597 AD was predominantly non Christian and Pope Gregory I [later St Gregory the Great] sent a mission headed by Prior Augustine [later St Augustine of Canterbury] from St Andrews Monastery in Rome to rectify this. There was already a small foothold of Christianity in Kent as Bertha the Queen of Kent was a Christian. Her marriage contract, written about 580 AD, allowed her to worship in her own religion and bring her personal Chaplain, Bishop Liudhard from Paris. She was also to have a place of worship and she was given St Martin's Church. 

Ethelbert invited the mission to Canterbury and gave land outside his city to build an Abbey and land close to his palace for a Cathedral; each establishment having a monastery attached to it. That cathedral, the first in Britain, lies under the nave of the current Norman building; reputedly on the site of a disused Roman Temple. Archaeologists have found Roman remains including statues of Roman gods beneath the cathedral but it is debateable if this was a temple or a house.  Augustine was enthroned in this cathedral as the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 600 AD.

In this era England was tribal, each tribe having their own ruling house and king and there was no such title as King of England.  English tribal leaders elected from amongst their number a Bretwalda; who was the senior king over all of the English tribes. In 597 AD Ethelbert of Kent was Bretwalda and he worshiped Norse gods but if he could be converted to Christianity it would assure the success of Augustine's mission.  At first Ethelbert declined baptism but he did allow the mission to preach, convert and baptise his subjects. However, we do know that King Ethelbert was eventually converted to Christianity as Queen Bertha received a letter  from Pope Gregory in Rome in 601 AD congratulating her on her husband's baptism.

Ethelbert and Bertha were canonised for their part in establishing Christianity in England. Several of their descendants were also greatly involved with the early English Christian church and were also canonised. Possibly making them one of the most 'saintly' of families in the British Isles!

Tricia Baxter, Webmaster

David Wood BA (hons.), Branch Chairman

Page updated:  18 July 2013