Saturday, 10 November 2012

Historic Canterbury - Bull-Baiting and Ducking Stools

Sketch Copyright Janet Cameron
The beautiful city of Canterbury is a vibrant mix of old and new. But the city has seen its share of tragedy and persecution.

Fine craftsmen from medieval times to the Tudors and Stuarts have left their mark on Canterbury's architecture - but "makeovers" have always been popular. They were undertaken mostly for vanity and fashion and for making an impression on your neighbours. This makes dating buildings difficult, although there are clues to indicate which buildings are wearing a facade, and, for the experts, these are as easy to spot as a nylon hairpiece!

The emergence of the coaching trade during the late eighteenth century made it imperative to modernise the streets, so gradually existing thoroughfares were improved and new streets cut. As always, change demanded sacrifice, so all gates were demolished except for Westgate, the City Gaol.

Bull-Baiting in Canterbury's Buttermarket

Two hundred years ago, Canterbury's famous Buttermarket was called "The Bullstake." Here, in the special bullring, bulls were baited prior to slaughter. Bull-baiting was a popular medieval sport. It was believed that the distress of the animals tenderised their meat and, after the baiting, the animals were moved on to Butchery Lane for slaughter.

The idea of the Buttermarket was to provide an open-sided building in which local farmers could trade their wares. After the original building was taken down, it was replaced by a more substantial edifice. Later, this too was replaced by the war memorial, which now stands in a prominent position in the irregularly-shaped "square."

The 16th Century Weavers' Houses

St. Peter's Street crosses the River Stour at King's Bridge. To the left, along the riverbank, is a row of medieval houses known as the weavers' houses, which date from the 16th century. This was where Huguenot and Walloon weavers plied their trade having fled their own countries to escape persecution. The houses, which are now used as shops and restaurants, have been restored and have twentieth century beams on their outside facades.

A grisly relic of medieval times is the ducking stool which hangs over the river. It was used to see if a woman accused of witchcraft was guilty or not. If the accused survived, she was deemed a witch. If she drowned, she was innocent.

In this age, Canterbury's swans did not enjoy the protection they do today. They were fattened and killed for banquets, but as the river was often used as a public lavatory, some of the poor birds died from pollution. This was not a good time to be a swan or a woman with a third nipple!

Sir John Boy's House in Palace Street

Palace Street is one of the best-preserved streets in Canterbury and its name derives from the Archbishop's palace, which was replaced by Archbishop Lanfranc after a fire in 1067. The famous Sir John Boy's House, is named for its owner, an MP and recorder of Canterbury, and built around 1612. It leans over at an alarming angle to the northeast, the tilt apparently caused by a twisted chimney and fallen bricks. The house is now supported by a steel cage.

St. Augustine and Thomas Beckett

From swampy wasteland, Canterbury has been visited by St. Augustine in AD597, sacked by the Danes in 1011, swarmed over by pilgrims after the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170, and survived through to the horrors of witch-trials. Canterbury has been through the mire - to become what it is today - one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

Copyright Janet Cameron
Adapted from "Canterbury Streets" by Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing (with permission.)

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