Address: Cathedral House, 11 The Precincts, Canterbury CT1 2EH

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Phone: +44 (0) 1227 762862

 

Canterbury Cathedral History

The cathedral dates back to 602 and was founded by St Augustine, who was sent over from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great. He was travelled with 40 monks to restore the Christian faith in England and landed on the Isle of Thanet in Kent in 597. Augustine was advised by the Pope to consecrate the pagan temples and not destroy them and when he baptised King Ethelbert, the restoration of Christianity set in motion a trend that gained momentum to this day.

The cathedral we see today is the result of many phases of construction and the interesting thing is that different architectural styles were used over the years. In the 8th century, a rebuild was undertaken by Archbishop Cuthbert and two hundred years later Oda undertook a major reconstruction.

When the Danes invaded in the early 11th century, much damage took place. They killed Archbishop Aelfheah, who became the first of five Canterbury martyrs.

The year after the Norman Conquest of 1066, there was a fire that destroyed much of the building. It was rebuilt in 1070-77.

Perhaps the most famous event at the Cathedral happened in 1170 when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the Cathedral by knights of King Henry II. Becket had frequently argued with the king and paid the price. He thus became the second martyr.

Becket was made a saint and pilgrims flocked to his grave. This provided much needed funds for the Cathedral and, after a major fire in 1174, enabled them to rebuild.

Around 1400 both Edward, the Black Prince and Henry IV were buried at the Cathedral.

Becket had a treasure-filled shrine and following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, Henry VIII sought ownership. He summoned the dead saint to court to face treason charges and when he didn’t turn up, he confiscated the treasures.

There have subsequently been tower replacements and the odd fire, but the Cathedral today is basically from that time.

 

Canterbury Cathedral Visit

Immortalised in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it’s one of the most important religious buildings in Britain and it certainly has an aura. There’s a feeling of history, importance, significance – call it what you want, but it certainly feels special. The city itself is a wonderful place. It’s steeped in Roman history and the narrow, cobbled streets make it easy to imagine life centuries ago.

You access the cathedral through the entrance on the high street, which makes the cathedral an integral part of the city – this probably as the city was built very much around the cathedral in ancient times. It’s termed a ‘city’, but size-wise, it’s not a huge place and feels more like ‘town’ size. This adds to the pleasantness and enhances the experience.

You pay your entry fee at the high street entrance and you can wander around the outside first or go straight inside. When entering the cathedral, you use the south west entrance – the one in front of you as you walk into the grounds. Once inside, there’s lots to see and it’s good to take advantage of the audio guide that can be picked at the desk. This gives all the background information that you need at each specific point.

It’s good to take your time and there’s much detail to see if you do – and if you can do a bit of research before you go, so much the better. There are some amazing sculptures around the south west entrance, in fact there are figures around the whole west side, although a number of these have disappeared, especially towards the north end. The figures relate to monarchs and clergy and the detail is amazing – shame they haven’t replaced the missing ones.

The architectural detail of the whole place is incredible and to think that most was built nearly a thousand years ago is astonishing – it’s little wonder so many people made the pilgrimage here. The early pilgrims came to visit the tomb of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered by the knights of King Henry II in the cathedral. This event took place in what is now known as ‘The Martyrdom’, an area halfway down the cathedral on the north side. Becket was one of five martyrs that have died here over the years, all of whom are remembered in cathedral displays. There’s a passage that leads from the side of the cathedral, under the presbytery, into the Martyrdom – a route that enabled the visiting pilgrims to be kept apart from the cathedral clergy.

There are also tombs of kings here. In Trinity chapel, located past The Martyrdom, lie the tombs of Henry IV and Edward ‘The Black Prince’. The layout is stunning and in the chapel’s central area lies a candle, permanently lighted, of where the shrine of Thomas Becket stood from 1220 to 1538, before it was destroyed under the orders of King Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Past Trinity Chapel, you’ll find Corona Tower, this being at the east end of the cathedral. The stained glass is amazing, as it is throughout the cathedral and a little further back down the south side you’ll find the Miracle Window. At the west end you’ll find what’s believed to be one the oldest pieces of stained glass in Britain.

Today, it’s open to the public. It’s open to visitors 09.00-1730 on weekdays, opens 10.00 on Saturdays and 12.30-14.30 on Sundays. The entry fee is about £13 for adults and full details are on the website.