Approaching from the north on the A2, the view you get of the city of
Canterbury is dominated by the size of the cathedral. That is probably
as it should be since most or all of what we know or have ever heard about
Canterbury is, in some way, related to the cathedral. It is a magnificent
building with a long and glorious history.
An arresting view of it can be had in the late afternoon of any sunny
day. Mercery Lane, from the High Street to the Buttermarket forms a narrow
canyon, with old buildings overhanging a walking thouroughfare, where the
street and the storefronts are all in shadow. The medieval gateway in
the mid-distance is illuminated by the slanting rays of the sun with the
great cathedral mass looming high above the top of the gate. The walk down
Mercery Lane eliminates some of those visual elements from view, but what
is left is even more impressive. As you approach the Buttermarket, an open
area at the end of the street, you can see the whole of the spectacular
Christchurch Gate, built in 1517. The most striking feature of the gate
is a powerful image of Christ, seated in judgment, positioned above the
pedestrian walkway. This gate opens onto the cathedral precinct and the
southwestern doorway to the cathedral building, the normal visitors' entrance.
Before you go inside, stroll around the cathedral grounds and study
the building. Remember that it didn't just happen, that it didn't evolve
out of nothing. Imagine how much stone it took to build it. How far did
they have to go to get the stone? How did they transport it? How long did
it take to shape it? How many men did it take to haul it into place? Imagine
how much it cost to build the building. Now, notice the condition of the building.
It is old and in need of constant maintenance. How many people have cared for it over the years? Think of how much it has cost to maintain it. Now, look at the massive central tower. It's known as "Bell Harry." Allow yourself to get caught up in
its mass and its vertical lines. Think of how long this particular building has
been here (about 800 years), and remember that this is a very special building, indeed.
You can go inside, now, but be thinking about the artistry of architectural
design, structural engineering and stonemasonry. Think of the challenges
of planning, logistics and supervision. Inside the cathedral, your mind
will overdose on what you see. This is a building with multiple personalities,
done in different styles at different times, so don't think that you've
seen it all while you're still out in the nave. Go to the crossing area,
beneath the tower (see photo below, left). Lie down on the steps and look up. M.C. Escher never did anything like this. You can get lost in the incredible fan vaulting and the delicate stone tracery of the lantern.
Move on toward the east end of the cathedral and you'll next come to
the high altar area in the magnificent presbytery, followed by the place where the Shrine of
St. Thomasstood until it was destroyed at the Dissolution by Henry VIII's
men. Look to your left, to the tomb of Henry IV. Now, look to your right,
to the tomb of Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince with its striking brass effigy. Everywhere you look
there is something interesting. The triforium and the clerestory. The Norman
Crypt. The ambulatories. The stained glass. The cloisters. All wonderful
Much of Canterbury's early past had been covered over by layers of time,
but was exposed after the German bombings of World War II destroyed about
a third of the old city. Originally, it had been a settlement of the Belgae
(a Germanic branch of the Celtic people), sometime before the Roman invasions
in 55 BC. Afterward, Canterbury had been occupied by the Romans (who called
it Durovernum Cantiacorum) and by the Saxons (who called it Cantwarbyrig).
Not much is known about specific events in Canterbury until 597, when Pope
Gregory dispatched Augustine (not to be confused with the other Augustine,
the fourth century St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote "Confessions"
and the "City of God") and other monks to England to
convert the heathen Saxons to Christianity. Soon after his arrival, Augustine
founded a monastic community and established the Archbishopric of Canterbury, and was consecrated as its first Archbishop. At the same time, the pope appointed an Archbishop of York, thereby creating a tension and competition for primacy between Canterbury
and York which would only be resolved (in Canterbury's favor) by the Accord
of Winchester in 1072. Augustine's first Christian convert was King Ethelbert
of Kent. In making the royal convert, Augustine established a successful
pattern for future evangelism: begin with the man at the top, and let it flow down.
From that beginning point on, Roman Christianity spread across Anglo-Saxon
England and Canterbury had an important place in that spread.
To many people, though, Canterbury is chiefly important for being the place
where Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and England's most famous
martyr, was murdered in 1170 by four of Henry II's overzealous knights, Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse and William de Tracy. Owing
to this event, the cathedral was a popular destination* for pilgrims from
all over Europe, all throughout the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer's famous
"Canterbury Tales", which has sold more copies than any other work in the English language, except for the Bible, takes place on a fourteenth century pilgrimage from London's Tabard Inn to the The Shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury. Six hundred years later, the pilgrims still come and Canterbury is still enjoying the benefits.
* Recently, in an effort to defray the enormous costs involved with keeping a great medieval cathedral in good repair, the Chapter has decided to levy a £3 admission charge, the first in its long history, on visitors to the cathedral. True worshippers, however, are admitted without charge.
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