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Canterbury Cathedral





Canterbury Cathedral (this page)

A Walk Around Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral Zodiac Signs, Labours, Sins and Virtues Roundels

Canterbury Cathedral Stained Glass Windows

Limoges Reliquary Châsses made to contain relics of Thomas Becket

Images of the Saint Thomas Becket story







Canterbury Cathedral from the north west on a Summer evening in 2007.  The monastery buildings (cloister, chapter house et al) are on this (the north) side of the nave.  With a bit of distance you can get a much better idea of the comparative size of the Bell Harry Tower.  The photo was taken from the grounds of Kent University.





Canterbury Cathedral Web Site




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Augustine, Lanfranc, Anselm, Becket and Langton




In 597 Pope Gregory the Great (the Gregorian Chanter) orders a reluctant Augustine off to England to convert the Brits to Christianity.  Augustine bases himself with a monastic community known by the name of "Saints Peter and Paul" in Canterbury, and quickly persuades King Aethelbert of Kent to become the first of the (Germanic) Anglo-Saxon Kings to be  baptized, which happens on Whitsunday (Pentecost) 597.


As the conversion process starts rolling across the other Anglo Saxon kingdoms, Augustine sets about a codification of the law for the first time.  As well as the usual injunctions against murder, adultery etc, the code contains an extensive list of the tariffs applicable for each crime .... with regard to delimbing the most expensive crime by a factor of ten is to wipe out a bloke's tackle.  If you want to wipe out the bloke himself, then the best bargain by far  is to pick a Welshman. 




Saint Augustine dedicates the first Canterbury Cathedral.


740 - 760


Saint Cuthbert is Archbishop (not the same Cuthbert as the one whose shrine in Durham led the pilgrimage ratings for 400 years).


960 - 988


Saint Dunstan is Archbishop.




Saint Augustine's Monastery outside the town walls and the cathedral church in Canterbury town itself (which had its own separate monastic foundation) both grow until they are sacked in 1011 by Vikings, who martyr the Archbishop Alphege by tying him to a stake and using him for oxbone throwing practice (after they had gnawed the meat off of course).




Repaired just before the Norman Conquest of 1066, the cathedral and its city are both largely destroyed by a huge fire in 1067.  Rebuilding, and the English Church in general, are going nowhere under the ineffective Anglo Saxon Archbishop Stigand, and there is general relief when he is deposed in 1070 and replaced by the energetic, intelligent and widely respected Italian Lanfranc (from Pavia), the Abbot who had put the Abbey of Bec in Normandy on the map of Europe.


1070 - 89


Archbishop Lanfranc (c1007 - 1070 - 1089 (82)) gets stuck into building a new Cathedral and associated monastery, and also gets stuck into most of the Anglo-Saxon Bishops, who find themselves replaced by Norman appointees (Wulfstan of Worcester being a notable exception). 



Bishop Wulfstan's Crypt - Worcester Cathedral


In the process, Lanfranc leaves no doubt that the centre of power in the Church has moved from York to Canterbury, where it resides from now on.


1089 - 1109


Back in Bec, there is another Italian abbot (this time from Aosta in  NW Italy) named Anselm (1033  - 1089 - 1109 (76)), and when Lanfranc dies Anselm reluctantly agrees to take over the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, a post he holds for 20 years from 1089 to his death in 1109. 


Anselm spends a significant amount of this time in exile from England - first from William II (Rufus) and then from his successor Henry I - mainly because of disputes over the relative powers of Church and State.  One suspects that he is quite happy being away from England - he was reluctant to take on the position in the first place, and later explains to Eulalia, the Abbess of Shaftesbury, how harassed he feels by it (also, he is Italian!).  His real love is philosophy - he is regarded, along with Saint Augustine (354 - 430) and Erigena (an Irish philosopher of the 800s) who both preceded him, and Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) and Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292), who came later, as one of the leading medieval philosophers and a major contributor to the development of Scholasticism.


At a more concrete level, Anselm decides to greatly extend Lanfranc's cathedral so that there is more quire, presbytery, and other east end stuff (for monks' use only) than there is nave (for the rest).  The new quire et al is eventually consecrated in 1130.


During this time the First Crusade (which Anselm opposes) bloodily takes over Jerusalem on July 15 1099, and establishes the crusader kingdoms which are to last for 200 years before being finally closed down. 


Anselm's elevation to sainthood took a bit longer than Thomas Becket's - 383 years (1494), and 611 years after his death (1720) he was recognized as a Doctor of the Church.







29 December 1170




Gisants of Eleanor of Aquitaine and husband King Henry II in Fontevraud Abbey


Canterbury's special moment happens when Archbishop Thomas Becket (c1118 - 1162 - 1170 (52)) is murdered (attacked, beheaded and brained) on 29 December 1170 in this, his own cathedral, by four knights responding to the urgings of Plantagenet King Henry II (1133-1154-1189 (56)).



A dramatic modern sculpture overhangs the Canterbury Cathedral spot where Archbishop Becket was cut down


Becket has not been a popular, saintly or even particularly likeable person, but the manner of his death fires up huge public interest, and within two years he has become a mega Euro Celebrity, is credited with a heap of miracles (illustrated later in several whole window ensembles in the cathedral) and is canonised. 


Graphic representations of his killing appear in places as far away as Palestine, Sicily (Mosaic in Monreale Cathedral), Spoleto (Umbria - fresco in the church of Saints John and Paul) and the pilgrimage churches of France such as Chartres (an entire window sponsored by the Guild of Tanners dedicated to Becket's life), as well as many English churches such as Saint Augustine's at Brookland in the Romney Marshes, in an explosion that far surpassed what happened with any other medieval event or person except Saint Francis and Saint Martin.  In Anagni, the "City of the Popes", the English Saint took over a barrel vaulted oratory under the duomo which dated back to pre-Christian use for the worship of Mithra.



Becket "portrait" window in the north ambulatory - made in the early 1900s using fragments of medieval stained glass


Becket's crypt tomb (and later above ground shrine) in Canterbury Cathedral, and the dozens of Limoge Chasses picturing his murder and containing Becket "relics", give new meaning to the commercial possibilities of pilgrimage and medieval celebritydom. 



Limoge Reliquary Châsse for Saint Thomas Becket, this one now in the Louvre Museum, Paris


Before his fateful return to England in 1170, Becket had been put up for three years by the monks of Sens Cathedral and the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny, in Burgundy (photo below) and whilst there had dumped on Henry big time from the pulpit of the Abbaye Ste-Madeleine in nearby Vézelay.




1174 - 1184


Anselm's quire is completely destroyed by a fire in 1174, and the rebuild, completed in 1184, is essentially what is there today, 820 years later.  The still existing stained glass window panels depicting Methuselah and Adam, by the same master artist, date from the time of this rebuild.


1207 - 1228



Foundation Cistercian Abbey Church of Pontigny, N Burgundy


Cardinal Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150 - 1207 - 1228 (78)) spends the first seven years of his archbishopric also enjoying the hospitality of the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny, in Chablis country in Burgundy, the abbey which 40 years' earlier had opened it doors to Thomas Becket.  Langton is the appointee of Pope Innocent III, and the problem is that Henry II's son King John (1167-1199-1216 (49)) has someone else in mind for the job and won't let Langton (a Lincolnshire lad) back into England. 


You don't have to be a genius to predict the outcome of  the arm wrestling between King John ("sans terre") the loser and the Most Powerful Pope Ever, but events drag on for much longer than anyone could have anticipated. 


John moves first by seizing all the possessions of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York.  In 1208 Innocent retaliates by imposing an interdict.  This means that the priests of England are ordered to go on strike - they are not allowed to conduct any church services, hear confessions or administer sacraments (including the Last Rites).  Imagine the impact of that in a medieval world!


A year later Innocent steps up the pressure further and excommunicates John, one of whose responses is to turn on the (Cistercian) Abbeys of England with a vengeance and impose crippling levies.  It takes another four years to resolve the standoff in Innocent's favour, after which the priests go back to work, Langton is allowed in to England, John agrees to large annual payments to the Pope, church possessions are returned and noone offers a helping hand to several Cistercian Abbeys which are financially crippled - it isn't just Kings who are a bit iffy about powerful monasteries.


more from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


John may have had a premonition about Langton, because the Archbishop becomes a major force in the negotiations between King and Barons that leads to a most unwilling John having to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.  The nursing and eventual reissuance of Magna Carta (by the 18 year old Henry III in 1225) is also largely down to Langton. 



Copies of Magna Carta are to be found in Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Castle and the British Library


In 1224 Archbishop Langton also helps Henry III draw up an historic peace treaty with Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, the Welsh prince and leader, which is signed in Ludlow Castle.


The largely forgotten unsainted Archbishop Stephen Langton, to whom Cathedral and Country owe so much, is buried in a stone tomb then just outside the pilgrim's entrance to the south quire aisle, in an area later occupied by the SW transept and St Michael's Chapel - memorial chapel for "The Buffs" - the Royal East Kent Regiment.  Maybe it is a mark of his greatness that his tomb was left in place and intact, even though it was built over, and the feet end projects, unsigned, through the east wall of the Chapel. 



1207 - 1213


As part of "the troubles" the monks of Canterbury are banished to the Abbey of St-Bertin in St-Omer.  The 37 large roundels showing zodiac signs, monthly labours, cardinal virtues and sins and some heraldic beasts and inset in the floor of Trinity Chapel just to the west of the shrine, could well owe their origins to craftsmen and materials from St-Bertin.



Aquarius the Water Carrier


7 July 1220


After two years' notice had circulated throughout Europe, the "Translation" of Saint Thomas eventually took place on 7 July 1220 "before such an assembly as had never been collected in any part of England before".  Cardinal Archbishop Stephen Langton presided over the "Translation" of the Martyr's remains from the Eastern Crypt to the completed Shrine in the Trinity Chapel, in a ceremony of such splendour that it was to dazzle the Christian Church in Northern Europe for the next three centuries. 


Stephen Langton had, with all the monks of the Priory, opened the tomb in the Crypt on the night before.  On the next day, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Reims and Hubert de Burgh, Grand Justiciary of England, carried on their shoulders the chest containing the bones up to the Shrine, behind the High Altar.  All the bishops of the Province of Canterbury were present and the procession was led by the young King Henry III, then aged 13.


(extract from part of an unattributed document kindly provided by the Canterbury Cathedral Information Centre)


Overnight, the Canterbury Shrine takes over from Shrine of Saint Cuthbert in Durham as England's numero uno pilgrimage destination of choice. 


1234 - 1240


Saint Edmund (Rich) (1170 - 1240 (70)) is Archbishop, after earlier being a professor at the Sorbonne then Oxford.  Ironically he is eventually buried at the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny, though not this time because he lived there -  he was just passing by (probably sampling a few bottles of premier cru Chablis) on his way to Rome, when he died.  He is canonized in 1247 - the first academic to become a saint?  His rather ordinary tomb is still there in the apse of  Pontigny Abbey, which is the sole survivor of the foundation Cistercian abbey churches.




The Black Death wipes out over half the population of England (and Europe generally), and subsequently large areas of built on and cultivated lands return to the wild as there is no-one around to live on and work them.  Many surviving villagers desert their homes and build new villages (which is why one comes across several surviving village churches in fields). Labour becomes scarce and related institutions such as the Cistercian Lay Brothers fade away.


Late 1370s


Tomb and likeness of Edward, Prince of Wales ("The Black Prince") (1330 - 1376 (46)) erected on the south side of the Canterbury Cathedral Saint Thomas Becket shrine.  Edward, a destructive piece of work, was never to become king as he died befopre his father Edward III.


1377 - 1405


The Cathedral Nave is demolished and replaced and the Great Cloister is reconstructed, whilst in far away Florence the Italian Renaissance is born.


1380 - 1390


Geoffrey Chaucer writes the (incomplete) Canterbury Tales about a horizontally unchallenging pilgrimage from Rochester to Canterbury, where there is more drinking and story telling than walking.  This is actually a much more typical pilgrimage than the long distance efforts to Rome and Santiago de Compostela which are associated with the mythology of the Middle Ages.


           Pilgrimage, The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, John Ure














The tomb of King Henry IV (1367-1399-1413 (46)) and his second wife, Joan of Navarre, is erected on the north side of the Becket shrine.




The West Transepts are completed, leaving a spot over the crossing in the middle for ......




the Bell Harry Tower.



North side - cloister, chapter house and Bell Harry tower.


Completed in 1498, making it a comparative youngster, Canterbury's famous Bell Harry Tower is just under 235ft (72m) high.  For comparison the main tower of Lincoln Cathedral, the tallest Cathedral tower in today's Europe, is 271ft (83m) - it was built in the 1300s 150 years before Bell Harry and, together with its spire (no longer there), reigned for 200 years as the tallest building in the World. 



Lincoln Cathedral


In Italy, the situationally gross (in Architetto Dottore Professore Paradosso's view) campanile in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, is 325ft (99m), but not built too well as the original fourteen hundreds model fell down in 1902, and was replaced with a copy which the Venetians foolishly put in the same place even after this "tap on the shoulder".  The perfectly proportioned and positioned "Torre del Mangia", the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, completed around the same time as Lincoln in 1348 (as the Black Death moved in), is 286ft (88m) high and on par with Lincoln and Canterbury in beauty (Paradosso thinks).



The Siena Campo, Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia (1348)


1538 - 1541


Officers from Henry VIII's Commission for the Destruction of Shrines go to work on Canterbury in 1538.  It is reported that they need 26 wagons to carry off the loot from the Saint Thomas Shrine - which includes the gold crown of Scotland donated by Edward I.  The loot is destined for the King's coffers, which is a good indicator of why Henry was so enthusiastic about his shrine closure initiative. 


The photo below shows the reconstructed Shrine of Saint Alban in the Abbey Cathedral of the same name.  In the background is the original medieval wooden gallery structure, from the upper level of which the "duty monk(s)" would keep watch to ensure that none of the loot stacked around the shrine was nicked.  There was a similar gallery structure - long gone - at Canterbury and other major shrines.



St Alban's Cathedral - Reconstructed shrine and original wooden medieval gallery.


The King is also enthusiastic about Saint Thomas Becket - enthusiastic about giving him his come uppance for treasonably challenging the God given authority of an English King.  So Becket's bones are disinterred, tried in a court of law, found guilty, decanonised and burned.  The King also orders the destruction of all Becket memorabilia and "portraits" in England.


The Cathedral's Christ Church Priory is shut down soon afterwards.  Contrary to what several web sources say it was not the last such closure in England - that privilege belonged to Waltham Abbey in March 1540.  Ironically, the surviving nave of Waltham Abbey, on par with the nave of Durham Cathedral for the Norman elegance of its stone, columns and arches, was funded by Becket guilt money from Henry II.


Canterbury Cathedral governance is reconstituted with a Dean and Chapter in charge (of greatly diminished assets),  and the King's School Canterbury is set up, both under new Royal Charters.


1649 - 1659


The Cromwell years - much more brutally destructive of the fabric of English churches then Henry VIII (who was after the loot, not trying to make a statement !) - specialities included statue denosing and stained glass smashing, plus the demolition of many monastic buildings.  Canterbury loses quite a bit of stained glass, but is better off than, for example, Peterborough, where the cloister and associated chapter house, dormitory, refectory etc are reduced to rubble à la French Revolution.



Peterborough Abbey / Cathedral - the empty space where the cloister would have been before Cromwell's men arrived




Link to the 1897 book by Hartley Rivers "The Cathedral Church of Canterbury"






Tomb of the Black Prince



A Walk Around Canterbury Cathedral



Inside Canterbury Cathedral



The angel warns the dreaming Magi to avoid Herod



Aquarius the Water Carrier



Canterbury Cathedral Stained Glass Windows



Canterbury Cathedral Zodiac Signs, Labours, Sins and Virtues Roundels



Limoges Reliquary Châsse for Thomas Becket - Louvre Museum





Limoges Reliquary Châsses made to contain relics of Thomas Becket


Medieval Images of the Saint Thomas Becket Story



Archbishop Becket presides over the south door of the amazingly preserved Church of Saint Nicholas at Barfreston, which is just off the A2 between Canterbury and Dover.






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