St. Augustine's Abbey Canterbury, England

The ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey on the outskirts of Canterbury include the grave of the saint and a substantial crypt. The visitor center displays Early Christian artifacts found at the site.

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St. Augustine's Abbey
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St. Augustine's Abbey
51.278199° N, 1.087915° E  (map)

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St. Augustine's Abbey
01227 767345


Canterbury is a smallish town but it is the spiritual capital of England, for two reasons. First, it was the headquarters and burial place of St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory to convert the English from paganism in 597. A monastery and cathedral were established there, and many important archbishops and abbots were buried there.

Second, it was the site of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. He had fallen out with King Henry II after Thomas refused to re-admit bishops he had earlier excommunicated. According to the famous story, one day Henry shouted in frustration, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" Four of his men took this as a command, and went immediately to Canterbury. They found Thomas praying in his cathedral and murdered him on the spot.

Miracles were reported around Thomas' tomb almost immediately, and he was officially canonized a saint within a few years. For the rest of the Middle Ages, his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral was the most important pilgrimage destination in Britain. Geoffrey Chaucer's *Canterbury Tales*, written in the 14th century, is about a mix of pilgrims telling each other stories to pass the time on their pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.

Canterbury actually turned out to be larger and better than we expected. Inside the city walls is a maze of medieval streets with many old buildings, but also an astonishing array of modern shops and great restaurants.

A Canterbury street

Unfortunately, the weather was very grey and very cold. There were occasional gusts of wind that chilled us to the bone despite our warm hats and coats! So most of our pictures are not great, but it was still very cool to see these places after hearing so much about them in my classes.

In the last post I mentioned that the afternoon we arrived in Canterbury we visited a pilgrim's hospice. It was pretty cool, so I wanted to include a few pictures this time. It was built within 10 years of Thomas Becket's martyrdom by a wealthy merchant, to provide shelter and simple meals to poor pilgrims for free. It is right off a main street, cost only £1 for admission, and was tended by two nice elderly men excited to tell you all about it.

The pilgrims slept on mats in this lower level.

And they ate in this room on the upper level.

This fresco of Jesus on the wall is from the 13th century - pretty cool!

The pilgrim's chapel, with a replica of the fresco above

We had a late lunch that day at a Mexican restaurant, wahoo! It was just across the river from the city walls and had a French name for some reason (Cafe des Amis du Mexique).

It was quite delicious. David had an unusual seafood tostada, in which even the salmon was deep fried, and I had nachos.

The next day (Sunday), our full day in Canterbury, it took just a few hours to visit the city's three main sights - St. Augustine's Abbey, St. Martin's Church, and Canterbury Cathedral. Together these make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of their historical and religious importance.

We started at St. Augustine's Abbey, which is outside the city walls not far from the cathedral. It has a nice (heated!) museum/visitor centre and a largeish grassy site of abbey ruins. The ruins weren't terribly impressive or atmospheric in themselves, but there was enough left to get an idea of what the great abbey once looked like. (Like all English monasteries, it was destroyed by King Henry VIII at the Reformation.)

Museum and visitor centre, with good background info and lots of artifacts dug up from the site

Some pieces of the abbey

Plan of how the abbey once looked

Ruins of the abbey church outside

Ruins of a crypt below the east end of the church

Site of St Augustine's grave

A short walk further outside the city brought us to St. Martin's Church, which holds the title of the oldest church in active use in England. It was founded even before St Augustine arrived, and he used it as a place of worship before his abbey was built. It has been expanded over the years, of course, and has Saxon and Norman bits.

Entrance to the churchyard, which was actually the highlight - a leafy, hilly jumble of old tombstones.

St Martin's Church

Sadly it was locked, but they did post three different phone numbers of people who could let you in. I called each of them in sequence. The first one was a lady who said her husband was about to come home and she needed to fix his lunch. The second one was a lady who said unfortunately she was in the middle of making a Christmas pudding and her hands were all sticky. And the last one was the vicar, who didn't answer at all. Oh, well!

We headed back into town, where we picked up coffees from Starbucks right outside the cathedral gate...


...and had a delicious snack at EAT, one of our favorite casual restaurants. I had a little plastic cup with Greek yogurt, Grape-Nuts, banana and honey. YUM.

Thus fortified, we headed back to the cathedral. This was the last of the "great cathedrals" in England on my to-visit list, and one that David was really looking forward to as well. It was as impressive as advertised. It's about half-Gothic (the west end and nave) and half-Norman (the east end), and very large. And it was pretty cool to admire the same view and climb the same worn stairs that so many pilgrims have over the centuries.

West front

Side view


Detail of the exterior, with wonderful Norman arches and carved capitals

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Details of capitals

Soaring Gothic nave

Choir, looking east to the ambulatory pictured below

Pilgrim stairs, worn down from centuries of feet

At the top of the stairs is this ambulatory, where pilgrims processed around the tomb and shrine of St. Thomas Becket.

All that's left of his shrine today is a candle marking the spot. It was also destroyed at the Reformation.

There were many interesting details throughout the interior, including this fresco hidden in a side chapel.

Some beautifully carved capitals in the same chapel

But the most exciting detail was the copious amounts of medieval stained glass everywhere you look. The west window was filled with portraits of the prophets, and the east end had entire narratives of the lives of St. Thomas Becket and other saints. Taking turns with the heavy zoom lens, I think we managed to photograph every single one! But here's just a sample.

Prophets, including Adam digging in the Garden of Eden in the center. A helpful guide told me that the Adam window is the oldest in the cathedral, dating from 1192. The rest are from around 1200 or so.

Daniel and friends being crowned by angels

Portrait of St. Thomas Becket in the ambulatory near his shrine

Our Canterbury tour complete, we then headed back into the city centre for a well-deserved late lunch/early dinner at Wagamama, our beloved noodle restaurant.

My adai udon, which is a lot like Pad Thai and so very delicious.

Alrighty, we are about to check out and attempt to drive through London to our next hotel. It is another very cold and grey day so we will probably be seeing some museums! More soon hopefully!

Further Resources

  1. Official Website of St. Augustine's Abbey. Historic England. Official source.