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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.