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Canterbury Cathedral

by John P. Seely

CathedralThe history of Canterbury cathedral is the history of Christianity in England. Since 597 AD Canterbury has been the seat of the head of the Christian Church in England, the archbishop of Canterbury. The present archbishop, the Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, is 104th in direct line of succession since Augustus became the first archbishop of Canterbury and all England and changed the course of English history.

Today, the Cathedral, the ruins of St Augustine's Abbey, and the ancient Saint Martin's Church have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning 1500 years of English history.

Originally a Roman town called Durovernum, later Cantwarabyrig -- Old English meaning "fortress of the men of Kent" -- Canterbury was already an important town, the Saxon capital of Kent, when St Augustine first arrived on his mission to convert the pagan English to Christianity.

"Not Angles, but Angels"

Augustine, a Roman Abbot, was sent at the head of a group of 40 monks by Pope Gregory the Great to bring the Bible to England in what is one of the more romantic episodes in English history. The primary source is the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he completed in AD 731. Working from his abbey at Jarrow, he wrote a detailed account of the conversion of England utilizing a wide variety of sources from all over England and Europe, including papal documents in Rome.

CathedralThe account begins in a Roman slave market, where the pope-to-be was drawn to a group of fair-skinned, fine-haired youths on the seller's block. When he was told that they were Angles (English) he is supposed to have replied, in history's earliest recorded pun, "Not Angles, but Angels -- for they have an angelic face." and he went on to express great sadness that such divine-looking people should still be unsaved. The story recounts how he started to go himself to convert these unfortunates, but the pope ordered him back. He never forgot these angels in human shape, so when he himself was made pope, Gregory I -- now known as Gregory the Great, he took the opportunity given by the marriage of the pagan Kentish King, Æthelbert, to Bercta the daughter of the Christian King of Paris, to send off his preachers.

Augustine and his monks landed at the Isle of Thanet, not far from Canterbury, in 597. Æthelbert was initially a little suspicious and confined them to the island while deciding what to do about them. He eventually consented to an open-air audience, being wary of inviting them into any dwelling in case they were able to use magic arts to get the better of him. However, after listening to what they had to say he is supposed to have replied,

"Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favorable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."

CathedralHe gave Augustine permission to stay in Canterbury, his capital. Bede describes their procession as they arrive in Canterbury.

"...as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."

King Æthelbert was an early convert to the Christian faith, and this greatly facilitated Augustine's work. The king granted them land to build an abbey which was dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. This was to be the final resting place for many of Kent's kings and bishops. Augustine was later ordained as the first archbishop of the English nation, which was rapidly turning to Christianity. Augustine died in 604, and his remains were moved into his abbey in AD612.

The arrival of Augustine signaled more than just the conversion of the pagan English. It also opened England to a flood of letters, arts and civilization from Europe. Latin was once again heard and became the language of England's commerce, its worship and its literature. England again became part of western civilization. It is significant that shortly after the arrival of Christianity, the laws of England first started to be written down.

The Heritage Site

The Heritage Site at Canterbury consists of three areas:

CathedralThe oldest is Saint Martin's church, a delightful little building and England's oldest working parish church. It was being used by the queen Bercta when Augustine and his monks first arrived and it was here that they used to meet and pray. The church is freely open to the public today and is a peaceful place to sit and meditate on all that has taken place in this spot.

A little to the west are remains of St Augustine's abbey. Towards the end of the 10th century this was a Benedictine Abbey and continued as one until it was ordered closed by Henry VIII at the reformation. There is a small museum on the site today, which is open daily. There is a small charge to enter the abbey ruins.

To the west of the abbey ruins, within the city walls, sits the cathedral within its own walled precincts. This is a newer cathedral, started in 1070. The site and extent of the original Anglo-Saxon cathedral were only recently discovered to be on the same site. Replacement of the flagstones in the nave, which were becoming cracked and dangerous, revealed the walls of an earlier building directly under the present cathedral These remains themselves reveal four distinct phases of building, the earliest being a simple church using Roman material. Bede tells us that Augustine built his first church on the ruins of an older one, though there is no evidence as to whether the material came from a church or from other buildings.

This church was rebuilt and extended three times before being destroyed completely by fire in 1067. The exact dates are of course unknown. What is certain though, is that by the 11th Century, the building was one of the largest and finest in Northern Europe.

The last building phase is thought to have occurred in the 11th century, possibly following the sacking and burning of Canterbury in1011 by Danish raiders led by Thorkell the Tall and his brother, Hemming. The then archbishop, Alphege, was taken for ransom, but when he refused to pay, the drunken Danes threw ox bones at him, finally killing him. Saint Alphege became Canterbury's most popular martyr until supplanted by Thomas Becket.

Cathedral Floor Plan

The "modern" church was designed and built by Bishop Lanfranc between 1070 and 1077. It was built almost directly over the remains of the Anglo-Saxon building but slightly to the south to avoid the old walls. Major work has been carried out several times since then, the latest between 1377 and 1405 when the nave was demolished and rebuilt in the perpendicular style. The cathedral as seen today was completed in 1498, but the quire, eastern crypt, Trinity and Corona Chapels date back to between 1175 and 1184. The oldest section is the crypt, part of Lanfranc's 11th century original. Some of the original wall paintings and carved decorations remain.

"Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

CathedralIt was the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket that made Canterbury England's most important place of pilgrimage alongside Walsingham. Thomas à Becket was a long time companion of the young king Henry II, his friend and his chancellor. The king appointed him to the position of archbishop of Canterbury, hoping to have a compliant archbishop. Unfortunately for Henry's plans, the new post changed Thomas Becket from a well-dressed man-about-the-town to an austere churchman obsessed with maintaining the dignity and independence of the church he now led. He continually thwarted the king's plans to reform the clerical judicial system. Relations between the king and the archbishop became worse and worse and eventually Becket had to flee England. He spent nearly seven years in exile before finally returning to England following a reconciliation brokered by the pope.

This was a mistake because barely a month later, on Tuesday December 29, 1170, four knights were spurred to action by the King reputedly exclaiming,

"What a parcel of fools and dastards have I nourished in my house that not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk!"

or as is more traditionally remembered,

"Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

Hoping to get the King's favor, the four knights rode to Canterbury and murdered Thomas à Becket inside the cathedral itself. The spot where this happened is today called the Martyrdom and marked with a dramatic sculpture.

Within days the first miracles were reported and pilgrims began arriving. Two years later Becket was canonized. Henry II himself made a pilgrimage to the tomb in 1174 to ask for forgiveness for any role he may have played in Becket's murder and allowed himself to be scourged by the monks as penance. When the king of Scotland was captured by Henry's troops on that very day, everyone took it as a sign that Becket had forgiven the king.

CathedralCanterbury soon became one of the great centers of pilgrimage, rivaling even Rome and Jerusalem. Great prosperity also came with the pilgrims. Canterbury grew to accommodate the flood of visitors and the monks used the income to rebuild and enlarge the cathedral. The center of Canterbury today is much how medieval pilgrims would have seen it. It still has its cobbled streets and narrow lanes of wooden framed buildings leaning out over the roadway.

Whanne that April with his shoures sote
The droughte of March hath perced to the rote.
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond,
to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

These famous lines are from the prologue to one of the greatest books in English literature, The Canterbury Tales. Written by Chaucer around 1387, describes a group of people making the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket, and the stories they tell to help pass the time. Its characters are drawn from a wide cross section of 14th century society: the prologue in particular gives a picture of medieval life that is to be found nowhere else. There is a Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction in town that will tell you more than probably want to know about this book, its author, and its characters.

And if this isn't enough reason to visit, a tradition of selling beer in the cathedral precincts has just been revived. A beer made to a 300-year-old recipe by a brewery established in 1698 is being sold in the cathedral precincts, all proceeds to the cathedral fund. Beer was brewed in the abbey until the reformation, and Thomas Becket himself would probably approve. After all, he was once brewmaster at St Albans Abbey, and led a brewer's delegation to France in 1158.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral
Salvation Window

Canterbury Cathedral
Peace Window

Related Articles:

Canterbury: Still the Perfect Pilgrimage! by Julia Hickey

Timeline: Canterbury, by Darcy Lewis

Read More about:
The Hospital of St. Thomas
St. Augustine's Abbey
The History of the Archbishop of Canterbury
The Canterbury Tales
Thomas Becket

More Information:

Canterbury Cathedral (official site)

Canterbury Cathedral

John Seely is a freelance writer living in Thailand, who returns regularly to England. He writes regularly for local magazines and has also been published in International Living, Transitions Abroad and Gonomad. Samples of his work can be found at http://www.johnpseely.com/Travelarticles.htm.
Article © 2006 John Seely
Photos courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral and Britainonview.com; cathedral exterior and plan courtesy of Wikipedia.org.


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