Canterbury has many fascinating medieval buildings. Among these are St Mildred’s church that contains great stones (see the south-west and south-east corners of the nave) which probably came from the Roman theatre, the church constructed in the early 11th century. Also cutting edge for its time (c. 1485) is the queen-strut roof with clasp-side purlins in the roof of the vestry. This can be viewed from outside the church (north-east corner) and looks somewhat like a set of football goalposts.
Before the advent of chimneys, smoke from the fire in open halls would either go out through the rafters or through louvres in the roof. However, there was also another way and Canterbury boasts the rare survival of a smoke bay situated at the rear of the late medieval section of Pizza Express and visible from the courtyard. This meant the house did not need to have a detached kitchen, instead it was part of the main building.
Going inside some of Canterbury’s medieval buildings is similarly worthwhile. For example, even though the vertical dragon post has disappeared from the corner of Siesta, the dragon beam inside the shop on the diagonal to the corner is still there. This allows the building to be jettied (stick out at first floor height above the ground floor) on two sides. Moreover, if you look closely at the oak beams above your head in the shop, you will see Roman numerals cut into them. These carpenters’ marks were used to construct the building on site, the timbers having been marked when it was originally put together in the yard. This might be said to be the original flat-pack and for Canterbury may have taken place in Wincheap because the area accommodated the early medieval wagon or wain market, as well as the timber market or Timbercheap.
Keeping with timber, Canterbury’s primary building material, there are some brilliant misericords in the upper chapel in Eastbridge Hospital. Although they were imported when Holy Cross parish church became the city’s Guildhall, this in many ways enhances their value because there is a depiction of a water mill. A highly unusual subject, it is feasible that it is intended to represent the archbishop’s Westgate mill that was almost next door to the church. Moreover, Holy Cross church was constructed in the late 14th century just after the rebuilding of the Westgate Towers by Archbishop Simon Sudbury (the Peasants’ Revolt), thereby potentially linking Towers, church, mill and misericord.
Probably the earliest English hospital foundations are in Canterbury and both hospitals still function as almshouses, offering accommodation for the elderly. St Nicholas’ hospital at Harbledown began life as a leper hospital in the 1080s, while St John’s at Northgate housed a similar number of old and infirm inmates (30 women and 30 men). Among the surviving buildings at St John’s is one of the two reredorters or toilet blocks which might be said to have been in use (not constantly) from the 1080s until the 1940s. The hospital, like Archbishop Lanfranc’s other building projects in the city, was on a massive scale and even more importantly the buildings were constructed of stone, including Caen stone from Normandy.
The third archiepiscopal hospital in medieval and modern Canterbury is St Thomas’ or Eastbridge that was established about a century after Lanfranc’s hospitals. Initially St Thomas’ was a hospital for poor pilgrims, and later this was extended to women in childbirth. The destruction of Becket’s shrine necessitated a change of use and even though there were difficulties thereafter, it was refounded as an almshouse and that is its current function. Maynard’s Hospital similarly became an almshouse, but Canterbury’s other three medieval hospitals disappeared under the later Tudors, albeit the Poor Priests’ Hospital became the city’s bridewell or workhouse. The building is still there and was until recently the Canterbury Heritage Museum, now repurposed as the ‘Marlowe Kit’.