Canterbury has been a place of Christian worship for 1700 years. The city was originally built by the Romans before becoming the capital of Kent under the Saxons. In 400 A.D. the Romans departed Britain and left it a Christian nation, but the Saxons were pagans. It was here in the 6th century that St. Augustine and his missionaries came to Canterbury to bring Christianity back to England. Later in the 11th century a Benedictine monastery was founded at Canterbury.
From the center of London, Canterbury Cathedral is 62 miles east, south east in the district of Kent. It is an easy drive from London or there are plenty of tours that will take you for the day.
I took a class in college on Chaucer and even had to memorize the first 40 lines for my professor. This trip to Canterbury Cathedral was exciting because I was a getting a chance to study Chaucer’s medieval life first hand. Arriving in the village of Canterbury at night, I drove into town after dark trying to organize my trip the next morning. It was an experience I won’t forget. Much of the old town is blocked off from vehicle traffic. As in most English villages, there was little activity outside of the pubs after dark. I decided to be adventuresome and drive through the restricted areas typically reserved for delivery trucks during the day. Thirty minutes later I was unable to find a way out of the area. It was truly a Twilight Zone experience. One of the challenges with GPS (SatNav as they are called in the UK) is that some of the roads in these villages are no longer accessible to vehicles. More than once or twice I have followed my GPS directions exactly only to find myself driving down a street that is designated for foot traffic only. It is embarrassing when everyone from another country is looking strangely at you, but this experience in Canterbury was downright frustrating. Every turn my GPS told me to take was either blocked by construction or road obstacles designed to keep cars from entering (or exiting). Taking matters into my own hands, I quit following my GPS and just started randomly turning on streets I didn’t recognize. I must have been 10 miles from downtown when I finally got my GPS to provide directions back to my hotel without going through closed roads in Canterbury.
Daylight was much better. I left early and parked at the first parking lot on Castle Street (along with High Street always a road you want to follow). Parking might be the UK’s biggest challenge. You have to pay for parking wherever you go. Always remember this! You will see “pay and display” every time you park in the street or a parking lot where it is legal to leave your vehicle. The parking garage I chose was a long walk to the Cathedral, but it was a beautiful morning so I enjoyed the walk. The size of the crowd at 9:30 a.m. surprised me.
Walking through the cobblestone streets of Canterbury, I could see the Cathedral in the distance. It was so exciting to see the final destination of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What a great village! I snapped so many pictures of houses and businesses that were still in operation from the Middle Ages. The intersection of High Street and Castle Street was crowded with pilgrims, vendors, musicians and tourists. There was great energy in the air as I continued to the Cathedral. I remember feeling pulled emotionally in different directions by the sights, sounds and smells of Canterbury.
Walking into an open area outside of the Cathedral I was face to face with the Norman entrance to Christ Church, Canterbury Cathedral, which was built in 1517. It was Tudor cool, architecturally impressive and strangely exciting as I paid the entrance fee and entered through its arches on my way to the Cathedral.
Once on the Church grounds you see the enormity of the Cathedral whose entire view is obstructed by buildings that surround it in the village of Canterbury. Its Gothic towers rise up against the sky and are impressive. There is extensive construction in progress and part of the Cathedral will be under reconstruction for a number of years to keep important areas from crumbling due to weather, age and pollution.
Inside the Cathedral it looks large enough to have its own atmosphere. Beyond the front entrance is a large common area for services called the Nave. There are a large number of rows of chairs with a pulpit in the front curling around a single column. A small, open tourist shop is in the back corner of the Cathedral. Beyond the Nave are stone stairs leading through a single arched door into the choir. The choir is made of ornate, dark wood that took years of craftsmanship to make. Beyond the large choir area is the open area that was once the location for the shrine of Thomas Becket. Originally in the crypt below the altar, Becket’s shrine was moved to the area beyond the choir to accommodate the large number of pilgrims. During the English reformation, Henry VIII sent his men to Canterbury Cathedral to destroy the shrine of Becket, who was a Catholic saint, and scatter, or crush, his remaining bones. A single candle on the floor shows where the shrine used to rest. Tombs of famous politicians, members of royal families and former archbishops line the side corridors around the choir and the area surrounding Becket’s former shrine.
Below the choir is an underground crypt. Visitors have to go down the stairs to enter the crypt where some of the oldest areas, dating back to Saxon times, of the church remain. As expected it is darker than the above ground areas of the Cathedral since there are no windows, but shadows from the light of candles and a few electric lamps give the area the feel of a dungeon. There are a variety of tombs, small chapels and religious monuments located throughout. The spot of Becket’s original shrine is now an open area for pilgrims and tourists to view.
I searched for the area where Thomas Becket was originally murdered by four knights who believed King Henry II wanted him dead for disagreeing with the King over Papal authority. I spoke with a guide standing nearby and he said that there had been some renovation changes to the area over the years. At the time Becket was killed there was a column in the area. When Becket refused to leave the building with the Knights he admonished them for even coming to talk to him, they grabbed him with the intent of dragging him outside. Becket fought back and clung to the column as he was being pulled. The knights became more frustrated and one of them swung his sword at Becket taking off the crown of his head. He dropped to his hands and knees. Two other knights finished Becket off by taking their turn with a sword against the top of his head. The fourth, and last knight, used his sword to separate the brain matter from his skull as he lay on the floor, bleeding.
Becket became an important martyr and within 2 years of his death he was canonized by the Pope in Rome. Pilgrims from all over Europe flocked to the Shrine that held his bones. Today there is an unusual monument marking the location where he was murdered – just above the entrance to the crypt, below the entrance to the choir and on the far side of the Nave from the main entrance. He was going to prayers when he was stopped and brutally killed.
There is a lot of interesting sites to see in and around Canterbury Cathedral and a tremendous amount of political and religious history. It is impossible to separate the history of politics, the monarch and religion in England as they are so intertwined. The Cathedral and area around it has seen major events at, or near this site, for almost 2,000 years when the Romans first arrived in England.
The Background and History
Canterbury has been a place of Christian worship for 1700 years. The city was originally built by the Romans before becoming the capital of Kent under the Saxons. The Romans left Britain a Christian nation in 410 A.D., but the conquering Saxons who replaced the Romans were pagans.
Born around the middle of the 6th century, St. Augustine was given the task to bring Christianity back to England by Pope Gregory the Great. At first reluctant to land in England after hearing of the danger of being a missionary in England, Augustine’s trip was stalled in France. With the Pope’s encouragement, Augustine landed in Kent and met with King Ethelbert and his wife Bertha, a Frankish Princess and Christian, who welcomed him to the kingdom. The Saxon king of Kent was King Ethelbert who was the first ruler of any Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be baptized into the Christian faith. Augustine established the Church, which would later become a Cathedral, on the site of an old Roman Christian church.
In the 11th century Canterbury Cathedral became a Benedictine Monastery. Six years after the Norman Conquest, in 1072, the Archbishop of Canterbury was chosen as Chief Bishop of all England. However, by this time the church was already a focus of worship, not just for Kent, but for people from around the world.
Three years after his death in 1170, Thomas Becket was canonized and pilgrims were already flocking to his tomb. The greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote about a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury in his famous poem Canterbury Tales. It was written in the 1380s. Chaucer’s poem shows and illustrates the variety of individuals and their experiences in making a pilgrimage to Canterbury.
The English Reformation began in the early 1500s and ended almost two hundred years later. The result was a split of the Church in England from Papacy leadership. In 1535, Henry VIII affirmed himself as head of the Church of England. Canterbury Cathedral lost many of its saints of the Catholic Church, but the same faithfulness and devotion that lead the original pilgrims guided the future worshippers at Canterbury.
In medieval times there were four great sites for Christian pilgrimages: 1) Jerusalem, 2) Rome, 3) Compostela (Spain) and 4) Canterbury. The body of St. James was supposed to have been loaded onto a ship shortly after death and taken to Compostela, Spain where it became a major site for pilgrims wanting forgiveness or good health. Canterbury Cathedral actually held the shrines of many saints although Thomas Becket was the most popular. Pilgrims also flocked to the shrines of St. Augustine and Theodore in the Abbey of St. Augustine and Saints Dunstan, Alphege and Anselm in the Cathedral.
The pilgrimage itself started with a journey, often from great distances with all of the dangers that were resident with travel in the Middle Ages. The journey itself was part of the religious experience that mirrored the gradual approach to Heaven in the course of an earthly life. The end of the pilgrimage was its climax which included individual worship at the shrine of the saint who was to act as an intercessor with God on behalf of the pilgrim. The most famous of the depictions of these pilgrimages was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He wrote of a group of pilgrims traveling together for safety from London to Canterbury. His rich story shows the wide variety and types of people who went on pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.
Cathedral Survives WWII Bombing
From among the surrounding rubble and ruins the Cathedral still stands virtually unscathed. This was in part due to the bravery of wardens throwing incendiaries from the roof onto the grass below; in the same way St. Paul’s in London had been saved. The few incendiaries that did get through into the building fortunately burned harmlessly on the stone floors. There was one scare when a four-ton bomb, the largest dropped during the air raid, landed in the precincts only twenty yards from the Warrior’s Chapel. Some glass in the nave was blown out but the most valuable and important windows had been removed previously and stored safely elsewhere.
Despite the carnage on every side, including the destruction of some of the houses within the precincts, the Cathedral received only one direct hit which was on the Victorian Library. Fortunately, particularly for the genealogists that visit this site, the valuable papers and records, like the stained glass windows, had already been stored elsewhere.
Christ Church Gate
More than 3 million visitors a year enter the Cathedral through Christ Church Gate. It was built in Tudor times. The gate was probably built as a tribute to Prince Arthur of Wales, eldest son of Henry VII and brother of Henry VIII who died at 16. Prince Arthur’s wife, the Spanish Princess Katherine of Aragon, became Henry VIIIs first wife after Arthur’s death.
Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #2
Comments: Canterbury Cathedral rivals St. Pauls Cathedral in London as the two greatest Cathedrals in England. Canterbury Cathedral is the center of religious history in England while St. Paul’s Cathedral has become more the national Church of England. Well worth a day trip, get to Canterbury early enough in the day to see some of the other interesting sites around the Cathedral.