In 597AD St Augustine was sent from Rome to Britain by Pope Gregory. His mission was the re conversion of Saxon Britain to Christianity, a religion which had been largely lost since the end of the Roman period. St Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet. He then crossed to the mainland and set up his first church in Canterbury. King Ethelbert of Kent was under pressure from his Frankish wife, already a Christian, to cooperate with the missionary. He granted St Augustine some land outside the city walls of Canterbury where an abbey was built. The remains of this first abbey still exist as excavated foundations. Many other buildings were erected on this site over the years. A number of Saxon churches were built, and these were later modified by the Normans.
Crumbling remains of the Norman cathedral
Then came the Reformation, when Henry VIII converted Britain from a Catholic to a Protestant country, to allow his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Demolition work on the site of St Augustine's Abbey started in 1538 and continued for fifteen years. A little used palace was built in place of the religious buildings. Today a visitor can see remains of the Tudor palace, the churches that preceded it, and foundations of St Augustine's first abbey. The towers of the Norman cathedral sit as stumps on the grass, their stony cement visibly crumbling. They reminded me of sand castles on a rainy day. Looking at those crumbling heaps of stone, which once supported soaring columns, it is worth recalling how exactly Christianity endured in its Middle Eastern homeland, and how it came to establish itself in an old town in Kent. You could say that religions depend for their strength not so much on impressive physical monuments, but on something as insubstantial as their ideas. The ideas of Christianity have a resilience built into them by a unique circular logic. The original saga on which the religion is based, began in Eden, moved through the stories of Cain and Abel, and Noah, the family of Abraham, the founding of King David's empire, and the building of the Jerusalem temple by Solomon. This highpoint was followed by divisions. Soon after Solomon's death ten tribes, in the approximate area of what is now Isreal, declared their independence from Jerusalem, a split which created Israel in the north and Judea in the south. Invasions by foreign powers then decimated the divided kingdoms, and in normal circumstances that would have been the end of the religion. Usually a defeat for a people leads to defeat and disappearance of their gods. But in this case, using circular logic, defeat was seen as God manipulating enemies to punish the people of Israel and Judea for their wrong doing. A defeat for the people who worship this God is actually a victory for the God himself, and proof of his existence in keeping an eye on the bigger picture. It was difficult to defeat an idea like this, since defeat was only a form of confirmation. The Biblical history experts Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman suggest this is one of the basic reasons for Christianity's longevity as a religion. An idea was found that could outlast any attack on the biggest and most impressive of cathedrals. As the leader of the People's Front of Judea says in Life of Brian: "Let us not be downhearted. One total catastrophe like this is just the beginning."
Foundations of St Augustine's first abbey
Using the force of their idea the people of Judea held together in the face of physically stronger enemies. After conquest by Alexander the Great in 322BC Judea became a province, first in the Egyptian, and then in the Syrian empire. By the time the second temple was destroyed in 70AD the Bible had become a source of solidarity and identity for many communities. The Bible was now being used by communities other than those for which it was first written. The religion of a small hill top community in the Middle East was even adopted in a cold group of islands far to the north. This happened first under the Romans, and was then given renewed impetus by St Augustine. The basic idea remained the same. Defeats needn't be defeats. In Exodus Pharaoh is made to doubt God's existence, only so that God is able to produce ever more spectacular proofs of his existence. Without Pharaoh's opposition all those persuasive plagues of locusts would not have been necessary or possible. Opposition and defeat can be turned around. The force of this idea, almost maddening in its circularity, spread out from its base in the Middle East and in AD597 arrived in Canterbury.
Address: St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Kent CT1 1TF
Opening Times: Opening hours for English Heritage properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
Open for education groups by request.
Directions: St Augustine's Abbey is just off the A28, Broad Street in Canterbury. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on St Augustine's Abbey.
Access: The site is mostly flat grass, which can be soft in wet weather. There are steps down into some of the excavated areas. Access into the museum and shop are good.
telephone: 01227 767345