One of England's most venerable cities, CANTERBURY offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. As the site of the assassination of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in the twelfth century, the cathedral has long been a hugely important place of pilgrimage. Today the cathedral and walled town centre remain the focus for leisure-motivated pilgrims from across the globe. Though surprisingly small, Canterbury ranks as England's second most visited city, with some two and a half million tourists arriving each year.
The city that began as a Belgic settlement was known as Durovernum to the Romans and renamed Cantwarabyrig by the Saxons. In 597 the Saxon King Ethelbert welcomed Augustine, despatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity; one of the two Benedictine monasteries founded by Augustine – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become England's first cathedral. At the turn of the first millennium Canterbury suffered repeated sackings by the Danes, and Christ Church was eventually destroyed by fire a year before the Norman invasion. A struggle for power later developed between the archbishops, the abbots from the nearby Benedictine abbey and King Henry II, culminating in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, a martyrdom that established this as one of Christendom's greatest shrines. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the fourteenth century, portrays the unexpectedly festive nature of pilgrimages to Becket's tomb, which was later plundered and destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII.