Literary Connections in and around Canterbury

Canterbury has been home to poets and playwrights and an inspiration to the writers of English literature through the centuries.

Christopher Marlowe was born and educated in Canterbury and the family home of Richard Lovelace, one of England's most romantic poets stands on the banks of the Stour. Rupert Bear was conceived in Canterbury and one of James Bond's adventures created nearby. Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims are known throughout the world and Dickens chose the city as a setting for one of his most popular books.

The Cathedral, the ancient houses and medieval streets, the countryside and even the good fishing to be found on the River Stour have encouraged writers of poetry and prose.

From Chaucer to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there is a wide range of literary connections to be found in and around Canterbury.


the Geoffrey Chaucer statue located in Canterbury high street

Geoffrey Chaucer 1335 - 1400

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have stood the test of more than 600 years and are known throughout the world. The pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales followed the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury to worship and make penance at the tomb of the murdered Archbishop, Thomas Becket. Although there is no documented evidence that Chaucer ever came on pilgrimage to Canterbury, he must have known the city well through his many journeys from London to the Continent, as a King's Messenger and minor Ambassador. As an important member of the powerful Duke of Lancaster's household, Chaucer would have almost certainly have attended the funeral of the Duke's brother, the Black Prince, whose magnificent tomb is in the Cathedral. Chaucer's pilgrims are brought vividly to life in the Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction, in St Margaret's Street.

Christopher Marlowe 1564 - 1593

The playwright Christopher Marlowe was born in a house in St George's Street, Canterbury in 1564 and was christened in St George's Church. Sadly, both the house where he was born and the church were destroyed during the Second World War and only the handsome tower of the church still stands in St George's Street. The son of a shoemaker, Christopher Marlowe gained a scholarship to King's School Canterbury and, as the age of seventeen, a further scholarship took him to Cambridge. While he was a student at the university he was recruited to serve Queen Elizabeth I as a Government Agent.

During his time at Cambridge, Marlowe began writing the poetry and plays which have kept his name in the forefront of English literature for more than four hundred years. His most famous works are Tamburlaine the Great, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Marlowe was the most popular playwright of his day and is acknowledged as the 'Father of English drama'.

Join Kent Libraries and Archives and Explore Kent on an exciting walk around Canterbury celebrating Marlowe - Marlowe's Canterbury Walk

Izaak Walton 1593 - 1683

Izaak Walton's definitive book on fishing 'The Compleat Angler' describes the Fordwich Trout found in the River Stour. Fordwich, which lays claim to being the smallest town in the country, stands on the banks of the Stour just outside Canterbury is still popular with fishermen. Izaak Walton was a haberdasher working in London, but his enthusiasm for angling often brought him to the Canterbury area. On one of his visits he met Rachel Floud, a descendent of Archbishop Cranmer who annulled the first marriage of Henry VIII, making it possible for the King to marry Anne Boleyn. Izaak and Rachel were married in the ancient church of St Mildred's, in the city of Canterbury in 1676.

William Somner 1606 - 1669 

The earliest history of Canterbury 'Antiquities of Canterbury', written by William Somner in 1640, has proved to be one of the most enduring histories of the many written about the city. William Somner was born at 5 Castle Street and went to King's School. His father was the registrar of the consistory court of the cathedral, dealing with ecclesial business and legal matters. William Somner was a Royalist, but unfortunately his book, published as the Civil War began, proved a great help to the Cromwellian forces who succeeded in entering the city; later he was imprisoned in Deal for his anti-parliamentary activities. Somner presented Charles II with a copy of the 'Antiquities of Canterbury', when the re-instated king arrived at Dover in 1660.

Richard Lovelace 1618 - 1658

'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage'. These lines are, perhaps, among some of the most quoted lines of poetry. The familiar quotation comes from the poem To Althea from Prison, by the seventeenth century poet Richard Lovelace. He was a member of an old Kentish family, long associated with Canterbury. His great grandfather represented the city in to Elizabethan parliaments and is buried in the Cathedral. The family owned Greyfriars, a beautiful late thirteenth century building which spans the river Stour in the centre of the city. Richard Lovelace often stayed in Canterbury with his cousin Francis, who became the second Governor of New York in 1663.

Daniel Defoe 1661 - 1731

The author of, among other works, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe was also acknowledged as a fine preacher. He came to Canterbury in 1724 to preach at Blackfriars, which was then an Anabaptist Church.

Jonathan Swift 1667 - 1745

The satirist and author of 'Gullivers Travels', Jonathan Swift has connections with Canterbury through his great grandfather and great great grandfather who were both Rectors of St Andrew's Church. This tiny medieval church, which stood near the entrance to Mercery Lane, was demolished in 1763. The churchyard, where Swift's ancestors were buried, lies under the Parade. 

Like his great grandfather and great great grandfather before,Swift entered the church and, in 1713, became Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

Thomas Gray 1716 - 1771

The poet Thomas Gray stayed near Canterbury in 1766 and was struck by the beauty of the road from Barham Down to the city. Gray's 'Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard', the evocative poem which creates such a sense of the English country scene, is traditionally thought to refer to Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire. There is a school of thought, however, which puts the true setting in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Thanington and that the immortal opening line - 'The curfew tolls the knell of parting day' - is a reference to the distant sound of the Cathedral bells across the field.

Jane Austen 1775 - 1817

Jane Austen was a frequent visitor to the Canterbury district. Her brother Edward was adopted by Mr and Mrs Thomas Knight of Godmersham House, a few miles from Canterbury and Jane Austen's letters refer to the house. After the death of Mr Knight, Jane's brother took over the estate and Mrs Knight moved to a house in the Whitefriars area of Canterbury, where Jane continued to visit her. A further connection came with the marriage of Edward Austen to the daughter of the family who owned Goodnestone Park, about eight miles from Canterbury. Jane Austen was always a welcome visitor to the house. 

Richard Harris Barham 1788 - 1845

Author of the 'Ingoldsby Legends', which include 'The Jackdaw of Rheims' the city with which Canterbury is twinned, Richard Harris Barham was born at number 61 Burgate. The original house was, unfortunately, destroyed in the last war. Barham's family came from Barham, a village six miles south of Canterbury in the beautiful Elham Valley. Richard Harris Barham became Vicar of Warehorne and Snargate in the Romney Marshes.

John Keats 1795 - 1821

The poet is known to have visited Canterbury to experience the medieval atmosphere of the city and recapture an elusive inspiration, when he was going through a particularly difficult time in 1817. Keats' poem 'Endymion' refers to '... one faint eternal eventide of gems' which is thought to be an illusion to the light shining through the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral. The line certainly conjures up the mystical quality of colour and light as it filters through the magnificent glass.

Charles Dickens 1812 - 1870 

Dickens lived for many years at Rochester in North Kent and was known to be a great traveller throughout the county. On his visits to Canterbury, he would stay at the Sun Inn, close to the Cathedral Gate in the heart of the city.

One of Dickens' most loved book, David Copperfield, has strong connections with Canterbury. David spends his schooldays in Canterbury, where he also meets Uriah Heep and the Wickfields' 'very old house bulging out over the road; a  house with long low lattice windows bulging out still further and beams with carved heads too' bears a close resemblance to the House of Agnes in St Dunstan's Street. Dickens gave a reading from David Copperfield at the Old Theatre Royal which stood in Guildhall Street.

Joseph Conrad 1857 - 1924

Joseph Conrad was born in Poland, but became a British citizen in 1866 and is considered as one of England's great writers. In his later years he moved to the Canterbury district and lived at the Rectory next to Bishopsbourne church. His funeral mass took place at St Thomas' Roman Catholic church, Canterbury and he is buried in the Canterbury Cemetery.

Mary Tourtel 1874 - 1948

The artist who created the instantly recognisable Rupert Bear, in his yellow checked trousers, red jersey and yellow scarf, was educated at the Simon Langton School for Girls and trained at the Sidney Cooper School of Art in St Peter's Street. She is buried in St Martin's Churchyard.

Somerset Maugham 1874 - 1965

Somerset Maugham lived at Whitstable with his uncle, who was then vicar of All Saints Parish Church. He was educated in Whitstable and at the King's School and memories of his time at King's are recorded in his book 'Of Human Bondage'. 

Maugham spent much of his adult life in France, but he maintained his links with King's School and for a time was a school governor. He also donated his personal collection of books to the school. He died in the South of France, but his ashes are buried beneath a rose bush under the window of the room where the collection of books is housed.

T.S. Eliot 1888 - 1965

Born in Missouri, T.S. Eliot became a British citizen in 1927. His first full length verse drama, 'Murder In The Cathedral' was commissioned by the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. The first performance of the play was given in the Cathedral Chapter House.

Ian Fleming 1908 - 1965

Known mainly as the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming lived for a time at Bekesbourne near Canterbury and one of the Bond books, 'You Only Live Twice' was written at The Duck, at Pett Bottom. Another connection with Canterbury comes through the popular children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which Ian Fleming based on a colourful local character, Count Zborowski, who lived in Bridge in the 1920's and was the owner of a famous racing car.

We are grateful for the help given by Dr Peter Brown. A fuller account of the many literary connections with Canterbury is given in 'Written City' by Peter Brown, Stuart Hutchinson and Michael Irwin, published by Yorick books.

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Marlowe's Canterbury Walk

The playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564, the son of a shoemaker. Join Kent Libraries and Archives and Explore Kent on this exciting walk celebrating Marlowe.

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