Wandering Around Canterbury Cathedral

Wandering Around Canterbury Cathedral

In my previous blog Canterbury Cathedral – A Shortish History, I promised that I would show you around some of the cathedral’s highlights, but before I start, I have to say right from the outset that trying to cover all aspects of a building like this in one visit is nigh on impossible, and not only that, ongoing restoration work always restricts access to somewhere or another, so bearing that in mind, here is a selection of what I saw and worthy of special mention, which of course, is subjective – so here goes.

The main entrance into the cathedral precincts is through Christ Church Gate in the Buttermarket. This Tudor gateway was probably built as a memorial to Arthur Prince of Wales, and according to cathedral records was constructed between 1504 and 1521.

Prince Arthur was Henry VII’s eldest son and destined to become king. In 1501 at the age of fifteen he married Catherine of Aragon but a year later died of an unknown illness. When Henry VIII became king after his father’s death in 1509 he took his brother’s widow as his wife and queen.

Note the Tudor Coats of Arms as you walk under the archway and through the 17th century wooden doors. The original doors and the statue of Christ were destroyed by the Puritans in 1643. The present bronze sculpture of Christ was installed in 1990.

Christ Church Gate
17th Century Wooden Doors
Tudor Coats of Arms

In the previous article I talked quite a lot about the building itself as well as its history, and so now I’m going to concentrate less on the architecture and more about what can be seen inside.

Entering through the South-West Porch you’ll come directly into the Nave where the first thing of note (as is often the case) is the Font. I’ve seen many old fonts in churches up and down the country, but I can’t remember seeing one with a cover as ornate as this one. Made of marble, the font was given to the cathedral by the Bishop of Rochester in 1639, but with the onset of Civil War the Puritans felt the need to smash it up during a rampage in 1643. Before they could finish the job, it was hidden away and repaired as soon as the monarchy was restored.

The 17th Century Font
The 17th Century Font
The Font and Font Cover
The Font and Font Cover

Moving on up through the Nave, look out for the brass Compass Rose set into the floor. With so many things to take in, it would be easy to overlook this, but it’s the symbol of the Anglican Communion of which Canterbury Cathedral is the Mother Church.

Just to your left is something you definitely can’t miss – the Pulpit. This painted Gothic Revival platform is Victorian and a bit too garish for my liking, but I have to remember that churches were quite colourful in the past, and so it’s probably me that’s out of step here.

As if to prove the point there are any number of flamboyant memorials scattered around the cathedral and in the North Aisle of the Nave nearby are two good examples – one to the Hales family and another to Sir John Boys, a local dignitary who died in 1612.

The Compass Rose
The Pulpit
Monument to Sir John Boys

There’s nothing unusual about seeing a Font, Pulpit, and Memorials in a church, but the Martyrdom is unique to Canterbury as this is where Thomas Beckett was struck down by Henry II’s knights on 29th December 1170.

Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse, and William de Tracy (for a mixture of personal and political reasons) took up the king’s cause and attempted to seize Beckett in the North-West Transept, but the archbishop initially managed to shrug them off. He even threw FitzUrse to the ground who then drew his sword: The others joined in and Brito dealt the third and mortal blow; he used such force that he cut off the crown of Beckett’s head and shattered the tip of the blade on the stone floor.

After the event, an altar called the ‘Sword’s Point’ was installed at the spot where the martyr was slain, and the tip of the sword placed on top. It was destroyed at the time of Henry VIII’s break from Rome in 1538.

A replacement altar was added in 1986 – the first for 448 years – and accompanied by a striking new sculpture by Giles Blomfield of Truro. The tip of a blood-stained sword is flanked by two others creating shadows which represent the swords of the four knights. It may be modern but to me it creates a very apt and powerful memory of the event.

The Martyrdom

One of the Cathedral’s highlights are the magnificent collection of stained-glass windows, and in the Trinity Chapel aisles are a set of windows dedicated to St. Thomas. Anyone interested in the art of stained glass and the life of Thomas Beckett could spend ages here, but there are any number of different themed glass windows which all tell a story. Most of these stories are only of minor interest to me, but I’m still awestruck at the quality of workmanship that these craftsmen produced hundreds of years ago.

Stained Glass of Thomas Beckett (in the centre, bottom row)

The Great South-West Window is especially worth checking out:

It contains twenty-four figures from the Ancestry of Jesus which, like many other of the cathedral windows, was originally installed in the Quire before iconoclasts and Puritans did their best to destroy them.

Some of the windows are at least 800 years old, and the style of one of the artists is so distinctive that he’s been called the Master of Methuselah, referring to the panel at the bottom of the man himself. Methuselah was supposedly the oldest man who ever lived when he died at the age of 969, but he’s portrayed as a young man in this panel.

A seven-year complex restoration project which was completed in 2016 has saved this magnificent window for future generations to appreciate.

The Great South Window

Not all the stained glass in the cathedral is old, and in the nearby South-East Transept is an old window with modern glass created by Ervin Bossanyi.

Not too much is known about the artist except that he was a Hungarian Jew, imprisoned for five years during World War I, and fled Nazi Germany for England in 1934 where he kept a relatively private life producing remarkable work like this.

The Bossanyi Windows

Not surprisingly, there are a good number of tombs dotted around the cathedral: Many of them are the final resting places of previous archbishops, which if I’m being honest doesn’t actually set my pulse racing, but I couldn’t help take a closer look at the tomb of Archbishop Chichele. It was the tomb rather than the man himself that grabbed my attention.

Henry Chichele was archbishop between 1414 and 1443 and a strong supporter of King Henry V. When the king died in France in 1422 Chichele received his body at Dover, which immediately gave him the idea of starting to prepare for his own burial. As it turned out he didn’t need the tomb until 1443, but what a tomb! A canopy supported by pillars decorated with saints shelters the effigy of the archbishop dressed in his episcopal vestments, while underneath, his naked body seems ready to be transported to another world. Every fifty years, Chichele’s Oxford foundation, the College of All Souls, restores the tomb.

Tomb of Archbishop Chichele

Talking of King Henry V, the tomb of his father, Henry IV is in the Trinity Chapel.

The king’s 13½ year reign was beset with rebellions and plots against him, but it was his poor health that seen him off in 1413 at the age of 45. He wasn’t a universally popular figure and it seems that he chose Canterbury over Westminster Abbey for his final resting place so that he could lie close to Thomas Beckett – someone who could enhance his reputation as a legitimate king and a person who he had a lot of admiration and respect for. His second wife, Joan of Navarre, joined him in 1437.

Tomb of King Henry IV and Queen Joan of Navarre
King Henry IV

You may think I have a death-wish or something because there’s one more tomb I want to talk about – that of Edward Woodstock, perhaps better known as the Black Prince. He was the eldest son of King Edward III and therefore heir to the English throne.

During the Hundred Years War with France he was regarded as one of England’s greatest knights for his bravery and chivalry, but to the French he was known for his brutality, and it was for this that he probably earned the nickname of the Black Prince.

His achievements on the battlefield weren’t the cause of his death however, but dysentery: Even so, he never lived long enough to succeed his father as King: That privilege fell to his son instead who became Richard II.

He was buried on the south side of the Trinity Chapel along with some of his heraldic ‘achievements’ on the wooden tester above. These have since been removed to a glass case and replaced with replicas.

The Victorians took the name ‘Black Prince’ literally and painted his gilded copper effigy in black: It was restored to its original glory in the 1930s.

Not only was the Black Prince a fine warrior, he was also buried in a fine tomb as well. Don’t miss it.

Tomb of the Black Prince

The tombs of both Henry IV and the Black Prince are located in the Trinity Chapel, which seems an appropriate place to end our tour of the cathedral, because it’s also the location of St. Augustine’s Chair.

This chair is the cathedra, or seat used for the enthronement of all Archbishops of Canterbury – a bit like the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey when a new monarch is crowned, and is therefore only used for such occasions.

Its name implies that it was around at the time of St. Augustine, but it’s much more likely to have replaced an earlier chair that was damaged in the fire of 1174.

St Augustine's Chair

Probably made around the time that Thomas Beckett’s body was moved to the Trinity Chapel in 1220, it sits close to the spot where the martyr’s shrine was kept until Henry VIII had it destroyed.

Today, a single candle burns at the same spot. Henry, his wives, and his enemies are all long gone, but even though he wanted Thomas Beckett’s name erased from history, his memory still lives on. It may only be in the form of a flickering flame – but it seems that his memory will never be extinguished altogether.


18 thoughts on “Wandering Around Canterbury Cathedral

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Stephen – and yes those doors would definitely be worthy contenders for your Thursday Doors

  1. Alli Templeton

    A great tour of some of the real highlights here, Malc. Again, I really enjoyed the trip down memory lane, (or should that be memory aisle?). I agree the tomb of Archbishop Chichele is striking. It’s a good example of a cadaver, or transi tomb, and I studied these on one of my modules. They were a popular design around that time, and they’re supposed to represent the transition from life to death and beyond to resurrection, although they seem quite shocking to us today, And it was nice to see the candle on the site of Thomas Becket’s shrine. Often a simple memorial like a single flame is enough to be highly effective. They’ve done something similar on the HMS Victory on the spot where Nelson died. A very simple wooden wreath behind a single candle in subdued light. It’s really poignant.

    And talking of Thomas Becket, when I lived in Canterbury I used to go and see the ‘ghost of Thomas Becket’ in the cathedral, which was in fact a human figure-shaped smudge on one of the great pillars in the nave. I used to find it fascinating, although I suppose someone’s probably cleaned it off by now! Great post again, Malc. I really want to go back now! 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Alli. I’d like to go back again too. I can never take it all in the first time I go to places like this – and not only that it’ll be great when they’ve finished the restoration project. I want to go back to Dover Castle too – another one of my favourite places down in that part of the world. You must have been there as well. 🙂

      1. Alli Templeton

        Ah yes, Dover is wonderful. I spent a day there the summer before last – just before my exam – doing a castle study day with one of my favourite medieval historians (he wrote the book that got me into castles and medieval history in the first place). I had a wonderful day and, wow, what a keep! It’s such a fantastic experience to wander through the chambers and halls as they would have been in their heyday. It was truly amazing. So Dover is firmly on my ‘return to’ list as well! 🙂

        1. Easymalc Post author

          And there is so much more to Dover Castle than its medieval background isn’t there? Would it be ok if I messaged you?

              1. Alli Templeton

                No worries. Don’t worry if I can’t get back to you straight away – I definitely will. 🙂

  2. starship VT

    In my opinion, relatively few modern churches can hold a candle to those built even in ancient times. Such is the case with Canterbury Cathedral, the architecture and stained glass being exceptional (but I’m not a fan of the modern, movable chairs that seem they use in them these days). The Archbishop Chichele tomb is interesting with a depiction of his naked body being nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Also,there always seems to be important history attached to these churches which I like. The murder of Thomas Beckett is so graphic in its horror that you have to wonder about the arrogance of the men who committed this atrocity inside of a consecrated church — obviously they didn’t fear for their mortal souls. Thanks for the great history detailed here and the wonderful photos, Malcolm.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again for your comments Sylvia. I always appreciate them. I know what you mean about those modern chairs. I’m not a fan of them either. It’s possible that thwy’e temporary because there’s been a lot of work going on in the nave – but I can’t be sure. There’s plenty of history in those walls though – if only they could speak

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Francisco. I really value your comments as always. These are not great times for anyone. You stay safe too


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