Canterbury Cathedral – A Shortish History

Canterbury Cathedral - A Shortish History

Ever since St. Augustine set foot on English soil in 597 A.D, Canterbury Cathedral has been at the forefront of Christianity in England: First and foremost, it is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is both head of the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Over the last 1400 years the cathedral has not only been transformed into one of the country’s most celebrated ecclesiastical buildings, but has also played a significant part in its turbulent history.

St. Augustine’s first church for the people was built, (or possibly re-built over a previous Roman one), within the old city wall on the same site as today’s cathedral.

The early successors to St Augustine were largely members of the missions that Pope Gregory I sent over from Italy, and the first home-grown Archbishop of note was St Cuthbert who added a second building during his time in office in the mid-8th century.

The City Wall

Before the Normans arrived, there were two other archbishops that deserve a special mention. Firstly, St. Dunstan (960-988), who added the Benedictine Christ Church Priory next door, and Ælfheah (Alphege), who was taken hostage during a Viking raid on the cathedral in 1011: After ransacking the church, the Danes carted him off to their camp at Greenwich where he became the subject of a ransom demand. Ælfheah refused to cooperate and was killed for the privilege. He was the first of Canterbury’s archbishops to be martyred.

All this early history associated with the cathedral is just that – history – because thanks to a devastating fire a year after the Norman Conquest there’s nothing left to see of the original buildings, but every cloud has a silver lining as they say, because since then the church has evolved organically through a variety of different styles, making it a fascinating place to visit for anyone interested in church architecture.

It fell upon Lanfranc, the first Norman Archbishop, to construct a new cathedral, which he did in the Romanesque style. Starting in 1070, he included an impressive West Front, Nave, and a Sanctuary at the eastern end of the building. All this was achieved within seven years, whilst at the same time completely reorganizing the monastery.

Lanfranc was one of Canterbury’s most revered Archbishops, but it’s not for his architectural work that he’ll be most remembered, because what’s left of the Romanesque church was created by his successor, Anselm: I say Anselm, but in reality it was the priors that oversaw the new construction: When Prior Emulf was elected in 1096 he demolished the sanctuary and built an eastern arm 198 ft long above a large and elaborately decorated crypt, doubling the length of the cathedral in the process.

In 1107 Emulf was succeeded by prior Conrad who completed the work. The crypt is without doubt one of the cathedral’s most outstanding features, but unfortunately, I’m not able to show you what it looks like because photography isn’t allowed down there.

St Anselm's Chapel
St Anselm's Chapel
Romanesque Arcading on St Anselm's Chapel

As important as these archbishops were, there’s one that captures the imagination more than any other – Thomas Beckett.

History has shown us that the Church and Monarchy have not always seen eye to eye, and this was certainly the case when the strong-willed Beckett had frequent disagreements with England’s first Plantagenet king, Henry II. The king was supposed to have exclaimed “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights took the king’s words literally and put Beckett to the sword in the North-West Transept on 29th December 1170.

After the assassination his body was transferred down into the crypt where his marble tomb became a site of pilgrimage, including a visit from the repentant king himself.

The Martyrdom where Thomas Beckett was assassinated

Another fire in 1174, this time in the Quire, at least gave the monks a chance to enlarge it to accommodate pilgrims visiting Thomas Beckett’s shrine.

The man they employed for the reconstruction was a Frenchman named William of Sens, but in 1178 while he was working on his new creation he fell from some faulty scaffolding and was seriously injured. He died in France two years later, the same time as his successor, William the Englishman completed this Gothic masterpiece.

The remains of St Dunstan and Ælfheah were transferred from the crypt but it was to be another forty years before Beckett’s tomb was moved.

William the Englishman continued with the Gothic style into the retro-choir where the existing chapel was replaced by his very own Trinity Chapel. It was designed in a way that Beckett’s shrine could be located directly above the original resting place in the crypt.

Such was the aura surrounding the martyr that a further circular chapel was added beyond the Trinity Chapel where some of his relics were kept, including apparently, the top of his skull that was struck off in the course of the assassination. This chapel became known as the Corona.

The Quire and Trinity Chapel
The Corona
The Corona Chapel

While all this rebuilding was going on, differences of opinion between the cathedral and monastery resulted in the exile of the monks to France, and it wasn’t until their return to Canterbury that St. Thomas Beckett was given his final resting place in the Trinity Chapel on 7th July 1220 – the 50th anniversary of his martyrdom.

Proceeds collected from pilgrims visiting the shrine helped to pay for further improvements during the 14th and 15th centuries including a new nave which the official guidebook describes as “one of the most magnificent surviving examples of early Perpendicular Gothic”, but I’ll have to take the author’s word for it because when I was here the whole ceiling of rib vaulting was covered in sheeting as part of a huge restoration project. Mind you, somebody had the great idea of adding an art installation made up of what appeared to be glass jars, which I found quite impressive under the circumstances – simple but very effective.

The Nave

There were a couple of gems that weren’t under wraps though – the Quire Screen (or Pulpitum) built in 1455 and the 235 ft high Bell Harry Tower with its fantastic fan tracery that was finally completed in 1498.

The 15th century Pulpitum or Quire Screen
Looking up into the Bell Harry Tower

From St. Augustine’s arrival right up until the 1530s, religion in England had followed the traditional Roman Catholic idea of Christianity, but all that changed when King Henry VIII fell out with Pope Clement VII over his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon for the new love of his life, Anne Boleyn. To help him in the annulment he enlisted the help of Thomas Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Between 1532 and 1534 the King and Archbishop worked together to find a way to make the divorce lawful which resulted in the king becoming the ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’.

Although Pope Clement VII died in September 1534, his successor, Paul III excommunicated the king four years later and the split from Rome was complete. Today, the monarch is still the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

After the divorce from Rome, Henry set about confiscating some of the catholic assets to supplement his finances which weren’t in a particularly good state – and the easiest target were the monasteries. Although they officially fell in line with the new Church of England, their allegiance was still really with the Catholic Church – and Henry knew it.

The Cathedral’s priory monks were immediately replaced with a Dean and Chapter, St. Augustine’s Abbey was plundered and destroyed, and by 1540 Christ Church Priory suffered the same fate. Even Thomas Beckett’s shrine wasn’t spared. The story goes that King Henry summoned the dead saint to face charges of treason, and when he failed to appear, he was found guilty in his absence and the treasures from his shrine taken.

Henry VIII in the Chapter House
The Chapter House Eastern Window

England’s most famous king died in 1547 leaving just one young son as heir to the throne – Edward VI. The 10-year-old king didn’t have much time to make his mark, not only because his protectors were fierce rivals, but also because he too was dead within 6 years.

Six years must have seemed a long time for the next monarch, Lady Jane Grey, who lasted just 9 days as queen, and the reason was because the legitimate heir to the throne was Henry’s first daughter, Mary – who he had considered illegitimate – and who just happened to be a catholic.

Mary married King Philip of Spain in Winchester Cathedral and immediately started to dispose of the protestant clergy. In total she executed 283 men, mostly by burning them at the stake, including Thomas Cranmer – earning her the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’.

Mary had been queen for just 5 years when she died from influenza on 17th November 1558, the same illness that claimed the life on the same day of Reginald Pole, the last catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mary I (Painted by Master John 1554) in the National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth I (Painted by an unknown Continental artist c1575) also in the National Portrait Gallery

With the accession to the throne of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, the country returned to Protestantism, but by the time of the Civil War it seems that the Reformation hadn’t gone far enough.

In 1633 William Laud was made Archbishop: He was not only an ally of the King; he was also sympathetic towards some of the catholic practices that still prevailed. For the anti ‘Royal Prerogative’ Puritans this was all a bit too much and in 1642 they started rampaging through the cathedral in much the same way as Henry VIII’s supporters did in the monastery.

During the Long Parliament of 1640 Laud was found guilty of treason, but he had to wait until 10th January 1645 before his head was separated from his body on Tower Hill.

The Civil War left castles, palaces, and churches up and down the country in a state of disrepair, and Canterbury Cathedral was no exception, or at least until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660; but it wasn’t really until the revival of Anglican worship during the early Victorian period that the pace of restoration gathered momentum.

In 1834 the last major structural alteration was made when the North-West Tower was demolished due to structural concerns and replaced with one identical to the South-West Tower giving the West Front a symmetrical appearance and the look it has today.

Restoration of the West Front in Oct 2018

During the 20th century the cathedral managed to escape the worst of the Luftwaffe bombing raids and its deterioration came about mostly through pollution, natural weathering and no doubt through the amount of footfall that it now endures, not just from worshippers and pilgrims, but also from people like me.

The million or so visitors that pass through its doors each year may add to its wear and tear, but just as Beckett’s pilgrims helped to finance improvements in times gone by, then todays tourists help to provide the means towards maintaining a building that future generations will also be able to enjoy.

The Bell Harry Tower

Since November 2016 a 5 year restoration project called the ‘Canterbury Journey’ has been taking place which meant that my visit here in October 2018 could have been better timed perhaps, but even so, there’s still plenty to see, and in the next chapter I’ll be showing you around this fantastic building which I’m sure St. Augustine would have been proud to call his final resting place, if only Henry VIII had allowed him to remain at peace in his nearby abbey grave.


9 thoughts on “Canterbury Cathedral – A Shortish History

  1. Alli Templeton

    Hi Malc, I’m grabbing a few minutes to catch up again amid all the chaos we all find ourselves in now. And what a treat it was to find your posts about Canterbury Cathedral and your superb pictures, as always. I know it very well having grown up in Canterbury, but I haven’t been back there for more years than I care to remember, so it was lovely to gaze through this window to the past. I used to wander around St Augustine’s Abbey when I went into town with my mum, and of course we used to visit the Cathedral a lot. Of course, with it being a constant presence in my life I didn’t fully appreciate it as a kid, but when I look back I guess it was inevitable that I’d end up a medievalist – it’s got such a fabulous history. I’ve always lamented the lack of shrine for Thomas Becket, and I still find Henry VIII’s actions incomprehensible. Just one of the many reasons I can’t stand the Tudors, and him in particular!

    Thanks for sparking some lovely memories, Malc, they’ve made me want to go back to my childhood haunts one day. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Lovely to hear from you Alli. One of the pleasures about blogging is that it quite often brings back memories for people. I had no idea that you grew up around that area and it does seem that there’s some telepathy between us somewhere 🙂

      These are indeed challenging times for us all and I sincerely hope that things are not too bad for you and your family. At least this blog has taken you back to some happy memories of your childhood 🙂

      1. Alli Templeton

        It was a nice place to grow up, and yes, definitely there’s a telepathic link between us, I’m certain of it! 🙂

        Challenging times indeed. I’ve got both children at home now, and Stuart is working from home, but my days are now one string of distractions and interruptions, so studying – which was hard enough as it is this year – has been shunted down the priority list. It’s going to have an impact on my module this year, but what can you do? We’re just about coping, although it does all seem a little strange. Maddie is devastated that she won’t be doing her GCSEs after all her hard work. She was in line for the top mark for History and now she’s going to be cheated out of the chance to prove her skills. Hard times.

        Still, I’m hoping to actually get a post out myself at some point, for a bit of variety if nothing else. And I hope you and yours are staying well too and coping with all the disruption. I’ve been thinking of you. 🙂

        1. Easymalc Post author

          My blog isn’t really the place to say what I really feel about what’s happening to the world at the moment, but I feel so sorry for people like youreslves. As Mahatma Ghandi said “There’s enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”

  2. Fergy.

    Another great piece, Malc, and the photography is superb as always.

    Despite spending so much time in East Kent and even going to out-patients appointments in Canterbury, it must be over 20 years since I was inside the Cathedral. I think I’ll leave it until the work is completed although that glass jar “chandelier” looks well worth a visit by itself.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Fergy. Your comments always give me a lift. I think somewhere like Canterbury Cathedral needs at least two visits anyway. The ongoing restoration project is due to finish by the end of next year (this virus permitting of course) if you ever think of going back in there

  3. Easymalc Post author

    Thanks again for your lovely complimentary words Francisco. I always appreciate them.

    As you say we’re in uncertain times and the sooner it’s over the better for everyone. I can’t help thinking that nature is fighting back against human disrespect for our planet somehow – not just with the virus but with our weather too.

    As for me, I’m in the ‘at risk’ category for a couple of reasons and so I’m trying to lie as low as possible for the time being. I hope that you’re coping with the situation as well as possible, and perhaps maybe – just maybe – people will take a step back after all this is over and take stock of what really are the most important things in life.
    Perhaps there’s a poem in there somewhere for you 🙂

  4. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

    Beautifully written, great information and a very interesting history, all of this and incredibly beautiful photographs that really bring out the details and the grandeur of the cathedral. Great post, Malc and a wonderful place to visit. Hope you are doing well. Spain, as you might have heard, is on lock-down so we are sort of looking at all of this and wondering…hope it just disappears as soon as possible. Stay safe and all the best,


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