St Augustine’s Abbey marks the birthplace of English Christianity and it is where St Augustine first established a monastery in 598.
St Augustine arrived in England in 597 after being sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Although he initially based himself at St Martin’s Church, Augustine was given land by King Æthelberht of Kent to build a church and monastery, and St Augustine’s Abbey was founded the following year.
Although the monastery was initially constructed from wood, work soon began on a more substantial stone building, similar to the stone churches that Augustine would have been familiar with in Rome and the abbey quickly became the most important religious building in Kent.
The abbey was rebuilt in the 10th century under the direction of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and it was expanded upon again following the Norman conquest.
St Augustine’s Abbey continued to be used as a church and monastery until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early 16th century and it then became a royal residence that was occasionally used by Elizabeth I and was sublet by the Crown to a succession of noblemen and during this time many parts of the complex fell into disrepair.
It has also been used as a school, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, and after the Second World War it came under the care of the government is now managed by English Heritage.
What to see at St Augustine’s Abbey
Visitors to St Augustine’s Abbey can explore the abbey ruins and can also visit a museum that has artefacts from the site.
Although the site is mostly in ruins, the ruins do provide an indication of the scale of the complex. Visitors are free to explore most of these ruins; however, many of the buildings that are not in ruins are part of the King’s School (the world’s oldest continuously operating school) and are off-limits to the public.
In addition to visiting the ruins of the monastery, there is also a museum on-site with exhibits about the Abbey along with a virtual-reality experience and an audio tour. The museum exhibits include a number of artefacts found on the site including a skeleton and it also has an exhibition chronicling the history of St Augustine’s Abbey.
The abbey is set amongst extensive grounds that include the Campanile mound, which offers lovely views of the abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.
Visiting St Augustine’s Abbey
St Augustine’s Abbey is around a 3–4-minute walk outside the city walls and most points of interest are within walking distance. St Martin’s Church is only a five-minute walk from here and Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury Roman Museum and the Beaney House of Knowledge are no more than a 10-minute walk from the abbey.
There is a picnic area on the grounds as well as a gift shop that also sells hot and cold drinks, snacks and ice creams. Its location just outside the city walls means that you don’t have far to go if you are looking for something more substantial to eat.
An audio tour is included in your admission price, which includes commentary explaining the history of the site from its founding up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The audio tour is available in English, French and Japanese.
Most of the site has disabled access; however, the historic nature of the ruins means that disabled visitors may encounter difficulties in some parts of the complex and visitors in manual wheelchairs are advised to visit with an assistant.
Although it is a major historic site, the fact that it is mostly in ruins means that it is a relatively quick place to visit and most visitors spend no longer than an hour here.