2016 December: The Antiquities of Canterbury

The Antiquities of Canterbury (1640)


The Antiquities of this Church, upon my first searches into them, appear’d to me so very remarkable, as they seem’d worthy to be enquir’d into with all diligence and exactness; which I will endeavour now to do, as far as I am able.

Nicholas Battely, Cantuaria Sacra (London, 1703), preface.


…He that is well vers’d in the knowledge of things past, may probably foresee what will happen in time to come…

William Somner, The Antiquities of Canterbury (London, 1640), preface.


Illustration of the town of Canterbury in Worth’s copy of Somner’s Antiquities. Notice Canterbury Cathedral’s tower in the center.


The Preservation of the Past


In 1640, an antiquary scholar named William Somner (bap. 1598, d. 1669) published the first edition of a book entitled The Antiquities of Canterbury. This book contains descriptions of Canterbury and the original documents in its possession. With this work, Somner hoped not only to provide a history of one cathedral, but also to demonstrate the important role the Church played in the development of English civilization.


Indeed, in the book’s preface, Somner emphasizes that Canterbury Cathedral was not solely a structure of worship. It symbolized a city that is one of the oldest in England and most famous around the world. In addition, Canterbury housed a monastic school. Somner claims that, thanks to this learning establishment, Canterbury became important not only for religion, but also for “humanitatem,” or humanity, culture, and civilization.


Somner suggests that understanding these roles of Canterbury is essential for gaining knowledge of the overall history of England. He argues that remembering and understanding this past is essential for developing a prosperous future. Therefore, this book attempts to illustrate not only the antiquities of one town, but use these descriptions as examples of the type of influence the Church had in English history.


A Personal Connection


Somner’s decision to write about Canterbury was not random. Somner was baptized at St. Margaret’s Church in Canterbury and spent his childhood in the town. He therefore had great knowledge of and an emotional attachment to Canterbury. After working as a clerk to his father, he was appointed registrar of the ecclesiastical courts of Canterbury by Archbishop William Laud. Thanks to Laud’s patronage, he gained access to many of Canterbury Cathedral’s records. By combining information from these records with his personal knowledge of his hometown, Somner gathered enough material to publish The Antiquities of Canterbury.


Somner and Archbishop Laud


Frontispiece portrait of Archbishop William Laud from Worth’s copy of his The History of the Troubles and Tryals of … William Laud (London, 1695).

As previously mentioned, Somner received patronage from William Laud (1573-1645), archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645 and religious advisor to King Charles I. Somner pays tribute to his patron by dedicating The Antiquities of Canterbury to him and by writing in a style that reflects Laud’s beliefs. This dedication may be a form of both thanks and flattery.


Somner’s support of his patron would not have been popular amongst most Englishmen. Laud was a highly controversial figure in the seventeenth century. He believed that the Church of England was inseparable from the state. Therefore, the government had the right to punish religious non-comformists. Known for his love of ceremony, he authorized “visitations” by his vicar-general Sir Nathaniel Brent to dioceses throughout England between 1634 and 1637. He hoped that this monitoring would enforce conformity in the conduct of services, thereby restoring discipline and order to the Church of England. These efforts to enforce uniformity of worship contradicted Puritan belief and caused many to accuse Laud of secretly wishing to restore Roman Catholicism. Thanks to these visits, along with new laws reflecting Laudian views, popular hatred of Laud escalated, leading to mass demonstrations, petitions, and leaflets. In December of 1640, Laud was formally accused of high treason. He was beheaded in 1645.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, few people saw Laud as a martyr. However, popular opinion of Laud may be changing as historians reconsider the motives behind his actions. During Laud’s day, Englishmen who were not strict conformists to the Church of England viewed him as an oppressive royalist with no sympathy for innocent Puritans. However, modern historians may note that the Puritans would often provoke Laud and other members of the Church of England by violently interrupting services or breaking into churches to steal surplices. Laud may have been at least somewhat justified in his distrust of these other denominations.


Is Somner’s dedication of The Antiquities of Canterbury to Laud a sign of his support for an oppressive leader? Or merely a token of gratitude to someone who stood up for the Church of England in trying times? Historians today must decide for themselves.


The Contents of the Book


Somner includes a variety of information in The Antiquities of Canterbury. To begin with, he provides a description of the town of Canterbury. He details aspects of the city such as its gates, mills, and hospitals. A city map illustrates most major features.


Map of Canterbury feature in the first few pages of The Antiquities of Canterbury. The map’s key includes items such as roads, wells, mills, and sites of worship. The map also includes a scale.


Somner also gives a brief history of the groups of friars once present within Canterbury and the controversies between groups. These details show that the Church did not face challenges and conflicts only from the exterior, but also from its own leaders and members.


The book then presents readers with a description of Canterbury Cathedral, the focus of the work. Somner uses information from church records to describe the cathedral’s foundation, construction, and history. He writes of numerous fires and attacks on the building. He also details the interior structure of the cathedral, including information such as wall inscriptions and the placement of tombs.


One important tomb that Somner mentions is that of Thomas Becket (c.1120-1170). Becket, a chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury, is famous for his resolve to stand up for the Catholic Church in its disputes with King Henry II. After returning to England from exile in 1170, Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who believed they were doing a service to the King. Somner describes this murder in The Antiquities of Canterbury as “barbarous.” Becket was subsequently made a saint in 1173. His shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became an important site of pilgrimage, as referenced in Geoffrey Chauncer’s The Canterbury Tales, originally published in 1478, which describes a group of travelers on this pilgrimage. In the sixteenth century, supporters of Henry VIII, hoping to weaken Catholicism, destroyed Becket’s shrine. Somner describes this event, as well as the general loss of reverence for saints, as tragic, a view that aligns with that of Laud.


Somner lists and briefly describes all of the benefactors of the cathedral, such as archbishops, priors, and archdeacons. He also lists many of the parish churches, though he states that he does not feel the need to discuss all of them as, “I conceive (and am verily persuaded) none of them (except St. Martin’s) do much, if at all, exceed the fame in Age.” In other words, none of them have as long or noteworthy a history as Canterbury Cathedral.


Somner also relays information about the ecclesiastical government of the city. He states that the city was originally subject to the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and is now under the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon. Somner makes a surprising conclusion by writing that he does not deny the “antiquity” of “Ecclesiecdici,” or church lawyers, but that they “came not, I conceive, to that perfection of Authority” until the involvement of civil law. By questioning the supreme authority of the ecclesiastical court, Somner may have offended his patron, Laud, who believed that the laws of the Church took priority.


Finally, Somner lists all of the lands returned to the cathedral under the reign of Edward VI, which lasted from 1547 until 1553. These lands had been confiscated from the Catholic Church under the rule of Henry VIII, which took place from 1509 to 1547. Once Canterbury’s religious leaders left Catholicism to join the Church of England and Edward VI took the throne, Canterbury Cathedral received its former landholdings. These landholdings are fairly extensive, demonstrating the cathedral’s wealth.


Somner then includes an appendix with transcripts of original documents in the possession of Canterbury Cathedral. The Antiquities of Canterbury was the first book to contain this type of appendix.


A Second Edition: Cantuaria Sacra (1703)


Title page of Worth’s copy of Cantuaria Sacra.


Within the same year as the publication of The Antiquities of Canterbury (1640), Canterbury fell into a period of religious turmoil. England was approaching its Civil War (1642-1651), a series of armed conflicts between Parliamentarians and Royalists. Since the Church of England generally supported the Royalists, cathedrals such as the one in Canterbury became common sites for protest. As Nicholas Batteley, the editor of the second edition of The Antiquities of Canterbury, describes, “The venerable Deans and Canons were turned out of their Stalls, the beautiful and new Brass were torn off from the ancient Monuments; and whatsoever there was of beauty or decency in the Holy Place, was despoiled by the outrages of Sacrilege and Prophaneness.”


During this time of turmoil, leaders of the cathedral hid all copies of The Antiquities of Canterbury. Somner, seeing that Canterbury might soon lose the cathedral and its original documents, began work on a second edition to his book, which would contain more thorough descriptions and more original documents. However, he died in 1669, prior to the completion of this edition.


Nicholas Batteley, an antiquary and priest, continued Somner’s work on a second edition. Batteley’s brother, John, was an archbishop who held various positions at Canterbury. John’s connections to Canterbury sparked Nicholas’ interest in the city and Canterbury Cathedral. In 1690 or 1691, Nicholas stayed with his brother in Canterbury for an extended period. During this time, he gained free access to the cathedral archives. He used the original documents from these archives to edit and add to Somner’s second edition, which he published in 1703. This second edition is known as Cantuaria Sacra.


Batteley claims that he did not make major alterations to Somner’s writing. It is true that he did not alter the work that Somner had completed on the second volume. However, he does add to Somner’s information with extensive notes in the margin of the book. He also presents a substantial amount of his own writings. In fact, Batteley’s written section of Cantuaria Sacra appears at least as long as Somner’s original copy. In addition, Batteley includes an appendix with many more original documents. He also inserts numerous drawings not present in Somner’s original edition.


Illustration of Canterbury Cathedral’s altar, facing page 25.


Batteley dedicates a large section of his work to descriptions and drawings of tombs located within the cathedral. One noteworthy tomb that he describes is that of Edward, Prince of Wales, commonly known as the Black Prince (1330-1376). Edward was a successful military leader who achieved notable victories against the French in the Hundred Years War. Modern historians believe that the reference to “black” came from the black armor he wore in the Battle of Crécy. Citizens of Canterbury would have been proud to have their cathedral house the tomb of this important military leader.


Tomb of Edward, the Black Prince, facing page 32.


The Edward Worth Library contains a copy of both Somner’s original 1640 edition and Batteley’s 1703 Cantuaria Sacra. The 1640 edition contains many notes by John Worth (1648-1688), Edward’s father and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.


Front page of Edward Worth’s copy of Somner’s 1640 edition. Notice the signature of his father John Worth in the lower right corner.


Chartham News


One interesting item included in The Antiquities of Canterbury that does not directly relate to the religious history of Canterbury is a short piece of writing by Somner entitled “Chartham News.” This piece describes the finding of “some Strange Bones, there lately digged up, in some Grounds of Mr. John Somner’s of Canterbury.” Somner relays that, as one of Canterbury’s citizens attempted to dig a well in 1668, he encountered “a parcel of strange and monstruous Bones, some whole, some broken, together with four Teeth, perfect and found, but in a manner petrified, and turned into Stone.”


Illustration of the fossilized teeth, facing page 192.


Today, these bones are immediately recognizable as fossils. However, Somner did not completely understand where the bones came from, stating that, although miracles no longer occur, things that are “uncouth and strange,” such as the discovery of these bones, happen on a daily basis. He provides several theories about the origin of the bones, such as that they came from a “river-horse” or “Hippopotamus,” which could have come inland via a river or varying sea levels.


Batteley also provides a reflection on this “Chartham News.” He claims that, as no footsteps from a large animal exist on the roads to Canterbury, Somner may be correct that the animal traveled by water. Batteley also describes similar findings of bones that occurred at the time.


Scholars may wonder why Somner and Batteley include the “Chartham News” in The Antiquities of Canterbury. Perhaps Somner wanted this piece to receive publication and believed that the best way to achieve this goal would be to include it in his major work. He may have also seen the finding of the bones as an interesting part of the town of Canterbury’s history.


A Glimpse of English History


In short, The Antiquities of Canterbury details the history, architecture, and original documents of Canterbury Cathedral. Published in two editions by two antiquaries, it is the most thorough history of Canterbury Cathedral in existence. This work not only shows the history of one cathedral, but also reveals important elements of English religious history and the importance of the Church in the development of English civilization.




British Broadcasting Corporation. “Thomas Becket (c.1120 – 1170).” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/becket_thomas.shtml.


British Civil Wars Project. “Archbishop William Laud, 1573-1645.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://bcw-project.org/biography/archbishop-william-laud.


Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past. “William Laud, Archbishop and Martyr.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/76.html.


Canterbury Cathedral. “Cathedral History.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/conservation/history/.


Encyclopædia Britannica. “William Laud.” Accessed July 21, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Laud.


English Monarchs. “Edward, the Black Prince.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/black_prince.htm.


Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project. “Edward, Prince of Wales.” Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/blackprince.htm.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed July 21, 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com/.


Pegge, Samuel. Anonymiana; or, Ten centuries of observations on various authors and subjects, by a late divine. Edited by J. Nichols. (London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley: 1818). Accessed July 21, 2016. https://books.google.ie/books?id=5fMIAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.


Text by Ms. Nicole Fleming, second year student, Brown University, USA.


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