In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory I dispatched a small group of monks led by St Augustine to bring back Christianity to southern England. King Ethelbert of Kent was easily converted and donated land to set up a monastery. Renowned for its teachings, the abbey enjoyed renewed activity in the late Saxon period but the greatest change came when the Normans rebuilt the church in Romanesque style and remodelled the monks’ quarters.
The abbey flourished under Benedictine rule until the Dissolution when it was surrendered to the Crown in 1538. Treasures were scattered, and buildings converted into a palace where Henry VIII would greet his new queen, Anne of Cleves, or rest on his travels. Some 940 years of monastic life had come to an end. Two centuries later, a brewery and public house took over parts of the palace and a farmhouse stood among the Saxon ruins. Restoration began in the mid-1840s when the site was bought by AJ Beresford Hope.
See the medieval gates on Monastery Street before heading for the modern entrance where a museum displays the story of the abbey and local artefacts. Beyond it, audio-tours guide you through a vast open site scattered with Norman and Saxon remains. Flanked by the ruined Ethelbert Tower, the nave north wall is the most stunning vestige of the Norman church, topped with red bricks dating from when it served as the palace wall. Imagine the size of the nave ahead of you – once lined with 11 bays, the choir and presbytery – almost as large as Canterbury Cathedral. At the far end, steps lead down to the Norman crypt where in the chapel of St Mary and the Angels you can see traces of wall painting and decorative tiles.
Markings on the lawn show the plan of the original churches buried below. The Anglo-Saxon monastery had four chapels and churches, most important of which are St Peter and St Paul’s, whose only visible signs are burial sites and St Gregory’s Porticus wall. But two Anglo-Saxon buildings are relatively well preserved: the chapel of St Pancras, saved from demolition by its more remote location, where St Augustine may have said his first Canterbury Mass; and the Rotunda, designed around 1050 to link St Mary’s chapel to the main church. Abbot Wulfric probably never finished the central tower but below the Norman choir, the 11th‑century crypt has been excavated.
Little remains of the cloister or domestic quarters, though you may spot an alcove for storing books or the marble remains of a washing place.
Before you leave, be sure to see the graves of the Saxon kings. These were moved from their original sites by Norman builders and marked by modern tombs, as were the graves of the early abbots such as St Augustine. Close to the north wall is a standing stone which may have been used as a cross by St Augustine.
Don’t miss: The medieval stone carving in the left corner of the ruined St Anne’s chapel.
St Augustine’s Abbey
Longport, Canterbury, Kent
Open 1 Apr–30 Jun Wed–Sun 10am–5pm;
1 Jul–31 Aug daily 10am–6pm;
1 Sep–31 Mar Sat & Sun 11am–5pm (or dusk if earlier).
Adults £4.20, concs £3.40, children £2.10
Canterbury tourist information: 01227 378100