A horse that is cantering is moving at a speed somewhere between a trot and a gallop. And the word is only ever used in association with horses; dogs and cats never canter, and neither do lions and elephants. When the Anglo-Saxons invaded the southern part of England in the fifth century, taking over cities and towns previously occupied by the retreating Roman Empire, they gave the major town of Durovernum Cantiacorum a new name, Cantwaraburg, which meant ‘the town of the men of Kent’. It has since become known as Canterbury. Kent switched from paganism to Christianity at the end of the sixth century, largely thanks to a Benedictine monk called Augustine (later St Augustine), who had been sent over by Pope Gregory I for that very purpose, and Canterbury’s place as the seat of the Christian church in England was established. (There is a point to all of this, I promise.)
A few centuries later, in 1170, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket was hacked to death at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by four renegade knights from Henry II’s court, who had supposedly taken the king’s throwaway comment ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ quite literally. The cathedral became a shrine to the holy martyr almost immediately, with pilgrims travelling from all over England to visit the scene of the crime. One of the most famous pilgrimages to Canterbury, of course, is documented in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fourteenth century. The relaxed pace suitable for long-distance riding that would have been adopted by the Wife of Bath, the Knight and the many other real-life pilgrims later became known as a ‘Canterbury gallop’.
The Sport of Kings (horse racing to you and me – see also handicap, steeplechase) became incredibly popular in Britain in the early eighteenth century, by which stage ‘Canterbury gallop’ was an established phrase. It was used outside the sport – carriage drivers, for instance, always travelled at a Canterbury gallop – but within the horse-racing community the expression was gradually abbreviated to ‘Canterbury’ and then ‘canter’, the word we still use today. I doubt this is quite what Pope Gregory I had in mind, however, when he sent Augustine over to Kent.
The thoroughbred horses that are nowadays used in racing are cross-breeds of English mares and Arab horses imported to England around the turn of the eighteenth century. At the same time as horse racing was growing popular in England, it was also becoming something of a national pastime in Ireland, and the first steeplechase – literally a race from one church to another – was arranged in County Cork in 1752. The race was the result of a wager between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake as to which man owned the better horse, and it was run cross-country over the four miles between Buttevant and Doneraile. The modern steeplechase course has fences, ditches and other obstacles scattered along it to make it appear ‘cross-country’, but it doesn’t replicate what supposedly happened at the end of the very first race: the winner rode straight into the church at Doneraile and down the aisle, just as the vicar was holding a funeral service.
Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2
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