Note the outline of the great medieval archiepiscopal palace
This week I have returned to the Middle Ages, not least because it is the Becket Lecture tomorrow evening, beginning at 6pm, wine from 5.30. The lecture will be in Old Sessions, Canterbury, and will be delivered by Dr Rachel Koopmans, an expert on the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral, and she will be focusing on the modern, as well as the medieval stained glass windows, showing miracle narratives of St Thomas, as collected by the early shrine keepers William and Benedict. I am sure this will be a truly fascinating talk with some beautiful slides, but unfortunately as readers of the blog may remember from last week I teach until 6pm at the University of Kent and thus will miss her lecture – flying is not an option.
Consequently I thought I would draw your attention to another medieval lecture that took place in Canterbury this week. I have just returned from a Friends of Canterbury Archaeological Trust [FCAT] lecture, also held at Christ Church. The speaker was Dr John Williams, the recently retired KCC County Archaeologist who now lives in Canterbury. As a result he has been researching thirteenth-century Canterbury to provide a comparison to his earlier detailed and extensive study of medieval Northampton, which he undertook while working for the Northampton Development Corporation (Northampton being one of the third generation ‘new towns’).
Apart for his local residence, the other reason he was drawn to study Canterbury for this period is his interdisciplinary interests, because in many ways the thirteenth century can be seen as the watershed from predominantly archaeological evidence to the beginnings of the much greater production (and survival) of documentary sources – something that Michael Clanchy highlighted in his ground-breaking book From Memory to Written Record. Dr Williams has to some degree followed in William Urry’s footsteps and has been exploring the rich archival sources for Canterbury and several of its ecclesiastical institutions in the Canterbury Cathedral archives, notably those records that belonged to Christ Church Priory. Indeed, Dr Koopmans is another researcher who has spent, and will again be spending a considerable time in the archives this term, and, as it happens, they were at adjacent desks when I visited Jackie Davidson, one of the archivists there yesterday. This is hardly surprising because the medieval archives are exceptionally good, helped in part by the number of church establishments, but the civic archive is also extremely rich.
However, because John Williams had used The National Archives extensively when he was researching Northampton, he knows the archives at Kew very well and thus has been able to locate such materials as thirteenth-century Canterbury bailiffs’ accounts that have allowed him to open up new areas of enquiry. As he stressed this evening, the lecture should be seen as work in progress. Nevertheless, he was able to give his audience some fascinating material and ideas about the two towns and why they had developed very differently: Northampton having started as a relatively small town in the national rankings, risen steeply to a position of only being surpassed by London, and then dropping back to a more moderate kind of place; whereas Canterbury had stayed among the ‘great towns’ throughout the Middle Ages, but within the lower half or thereabouts.
There is not space in the blog to do justice to the wide-ranging topics Dr Williams covered, so I’ll select just a couple to give you a flavour of his rich talk. And although I will mention Northampton, the main thrust will be on Canterbury. Thinking about urban space, it was interesting to learn that by the thirteenth century Northampton had expanded considerably from a much smaller area than Canterbury to cover about 100 hectares, whereas in comparison Canterbury had been and remained about 48 hectares. Yet comparing Canterbury’s 22 churches, albeit some like St Helen’s were very short-lived, Northampton only had ten. Such an apparent discrepancy between town size and number of parish churches can be seen elsewhere and the reasons behind these differences remains a fascinating question. As John noted, a large number of Canterbury’s churches were along the highway between Westgate and Newingate (St George’s Gate), which was also one of the few thoroughfares that the civic authorities petitioned Edward IV about in 1478 when they sought a paving charter.
Even though there were several religious houses in and around Northampton, including two Cluniac establishments, one for men the other for women, and an Augustinian abbey, where the town did have the edge over Canterbury was in terms of the friaries there. Just as Canterbury had houses of Franciscans, Dominicans, and, from the early fourteenth century, Austin friars, Northampton had these and also a Carmelite house. Nonetheless, with Canterbury’s hospitals, as well as its two great Benedictine houses, a Benedictine nunnery at St Sepulchre’s and the Augustinian canons at St Gregory’s from the twelfth century, the total number of religious in Canterbury must have well exceeded those in Northampton. Such institutional stability may have greatly contributed to the city’s national position, as also may the presence of the internationally important shrine of St Thomas, which presumably greatly aided the local economy through the need to supply accommodation, food, drink, horse hire and other commodities to the many pilgrims and travellers.
Yet, as the extensive history of conflicts among the various ‘parties’ in Canterbury may suggest, the dominance of the Church in the city spatially, and thus in terms of jurisdiction, may have played a part in the limited autonomy the city had achieved by the thirteenth century. Whereas Northampton had acquired responsibility for the fee farm by the end of the twelfth century and a mayoralty in 1215, Canterbury only gained control of the fee farm in 1234 and the two elected bailiffs, as royal officials, remained the senior civic officers until Canterbury was able to gain its first mayor following the acquisition of a royal charter in 1448. Also interesting, Northampton had a custumal in the late twelfth century but Canterbury did not, nor has John Williams found any reference to the customs of Canterbury in the thirteenth-century Eyre Rolls he has studied, unlike Northampton where such references are to be found.
Thus, as I hope you can see, his audience was treated to a fascinating exploration of two very different urban communities. I know some members of the audience tonight will be back again tomorrow to learn more about Canterbury’s past, and John Williams will be taking his analysis to Northampton, as part of the celebration to mark the location of what almost became England’s third university in the High Middle Ages. For if Henry III had not suppressed the embryonic university at Northampton in 1264, we would be talking about Oxford, Cambridge AND Northampton, Canterbury being in this respect a long way behind.