On the way to Geneva to visit our daughter who was doing a project there, we planned to include a three day sojourn at London.
After visiting the usual tourist places – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, “London Eye”, Harrods and Selfridges, on September 30th, the penultimate day of our visit, we started early morning for Canterbury, one of England’s most beautiful cathedral cities. Surprisingly, this small town with a population of around 45,000 is country’s second most visited town (over 2 M tourists visit every year). The cathedral is the focal point of a compact town centre, which is enclosed on three sides by medieval walls.
Passing through the University area and High Street, we reached the parking lot close to the medieval wall. The Cathedral complex is around half a km from the parking area and we passed through a slightly crowded street which houses Tourist Office, gift shops, small time coffee shops and reached the Christ Church Gate, built in the Gothic style in 1517. Entering Cathedral compound through this gate, we approached the magnificent cathedral from the south west.
Luckily this was a working day and since it was a little early on a windy morning, the usual throng of visitors wasn’t present.
At the entrance, following the Canterbury Cathedral age old tradition of welcoming visitors, a young lady welcomed us to the Cathedral and asked us if this was our first visit to Canterbury. (Now, Celine please you don’t laugh, as this time too I nodded my head in affirmation). She told us that to enjoy the beauty of one of the holiest places in Christendom, it would be better to go back little into its history.
Canterbury was once a small settlement that was overrun by Romans and with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Saxons took over. In 597, Ethelbert, the Saxon king, welcomed Augustine, who was an emissary of Pope Gregory. His mission was to convert the heathens to Christianity. King Ethelbert became a Christian along with many of his subjects. During his life time, Augustine founded two monasteries, one of which was Christ Church, which became the first cathedral in England. He was appointed the first bishop and later archbishop of Canterbury.
At the turn of the millennium, Canterbury was among the many English towns which had repeated attacks from the marauding Danes, until Canute, a Christian convert, restored the ruined Christ Church. This was again destroyed by fire before the Norman invasion. Lanfranc, built a new cathedral, of which only the crypt survives.
Most critical to the history of the cathedral was the murder of Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170, just after vespers.
(Some of the pictures have been taken from internet sites since I did’t have these. This has been done with a view to support the narration for better understanding of the readers. My grateful thanks to the publishers of those photographs.)
The Tour of the Cathedral
We had three options: a) to book a tour for our group, b) to join the general tour or c) to go on our own. We opted for the general tour since it was cost effective.
The present nave was built during the end of the fourteenth century and consists of eight perpendicular bays. The nave terminates at a choir screen at the top of a wide stairway. The choir, one of the earlier major Gothic structures, is the longest in the country. The screen between the nave and the choir dates back to 1304. On both sides of the choir are the tombs of the archbishops.
East of the choir is the large Trinity Chapel. Prior to the building of the Trinity Chapel in the year 1220, the body of St. Thomas Becket was kept in the crypt of the cathedral. This was built primarily with a view to allow easier access to the ever increasing number of pilgrims. The Trinity Chapel was the site of Becket’s shrine from 1220 to 1538. The shrine was demolished in 1538 during the Reformation on the orders of King Henry VIII.
The Trinity Chapel also houses the tomb of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales.
Our tour guide gave us glimpses into the life of St. Thomas Becket, who was born in 1118 in Normandy. His father was an English Merchant and a former Sheriff of London. After his education in England and France, he joined the household of Theobold, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s intelligence, administrative skills and diplomacy found favour with the Archbishop, who made him Archdeacon of Canterbury.
Becket was introduced by Archbishop Theobold to the newly crowned King, Henry II, who took an instant liking for Becket. Owing to the similar personal chemistries, a strong bond grew between them. On the advice of Archbishop Theobold, Henry appointed Becket as his Chancellor.
Upon the death of Archbishop Theobold, Henry saw an opportunity to increase his influence over the Church by naming his loyal advisor to the highest ecclesiastical position.
Somehow, contrary to Henry’s plans to gain greater control over the church by appointing Becket – his “own man” – as Archbishop, Becket transformed himself from a pleasure loving courtier into a serious, simply dressed cleric. Becket’s allegiance shifted from the court to the church and the king’s friendship with his archbishop started showing signs of strain. Henry found himself, on many occasions, in conflict with the archbishop, who constantly sided with the church, and this infuriated the king. During one of the conflicts with the strong – willed Becket, the king is said to have exclaimed in frustration, “who will rid me of this troublesome priest”. Four knights present at the scene took the king’s statement literally and on December 29, 1170, murdered the archbishop in the cathedral, just after vespers.
Miracles began to be reported at the martyr’s tomb in the crypt in the Canterbury cathedral within days of the murder of Becket, and soon his shrine was visited by innumerable pilgrims. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contains a magnificent account of these pilgrimages. In 1173, barely three years after his death, he was canonized by Pope Alexander. In 1174, King Henry also humbled himself by doing public penance at Becket’s tomb.
While our guide was talking about the saint, I recalled the great portrayal in Becket, one of the finest films of our times, with Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II, for which both of them were nominated in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. I don’t recall who got the award finally.
Coming back to the Trinity chapel, some of its windows are masterpieces of medieval stained glass. Circling around the ambulatory, there are eight windows depicting the miracles of St. Thomas Becket. Some of the windows tell us the stories of the pilgrims who experienced miracles by praying or visiting the shrine. Some of the windows are old. The first stained glass panel “Adam Delving” was completed in 1174, while a few have been executed by modern artists.
At the end of the cathedral there is a small round chapel known as Corona or Becket’s Crown, with St. Augustine’s chair.
The large crypt beneath the east end of the cathedral is one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, a relic of the Norman church. Built in early 1100, it still has some of the most beautiful carved pillars.
Water Tower in the precincts of the cathedral, a Romanesque structure, is still a source of water supply to the monastery. There are numerous other features of interest in the precincts of the cathedral, including the Chapter Library, which contains a collection of old manuscripts.
Canterbury also has the ancient King’s School, which was founded by Henry VIII. Its pupils include Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey who discovered the circulation of blood and the famous novelist, W Somerset Maugham (my personal favourite). Maugham’s biographical novel “Of Human Bondage”, gives us glimpses into school life.
East of the cathedral, just outside the walls of Canterbury is the impressive ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey. The Abbey was a burial place for the Kings of Kent and the Archbishops of Canterbury.
St. Martin’s Church is one of the oldest surviving churches in England. It is believed to be originally built for Queen Bertha (wife of Ethelbert, the Saxon King), prior to the arrival of St. Augustine.
The World Heritage Site covers Canterbury Cathedral, St. Augustine’s Abbey and St. Martin’s Church. The Cathedral is a living, working church, where services take place every day.
The Gift Shop, near the exit, offers some exquisite souvenirs. Besides some brochures and replica, we picked up a couple of necklaces, which were greatly appreciated by our friends.
Canterbury is not only a Cathedral city, but it also has a famous university and is a busy market town. With the student community predominantly present, there are many shopping malls, restaurants and pubs.
There was so much to be seen, so much to be done that the day’s visit hardly sufficed. May be some other day we will go back.
As we had a flight to board the next morning, we left Canterbury at four in the evening, passed through the Dover Castle, saw the port through which the majority of cross-channel traffic passes and reached our friend’s house at Norwood Green, right on time to grab some good liquor and a delicious Punjabi meal.
After a long day’s excursion, soaked in the mystic grandeur of Canterbury, floating in the splendid aroma of the fine French wine served by our hosts, what could be more blissful than to slip into a warm bed with one’s adorable wife.
After getting lot of comments and queries around Becket’s murder and Kings’ reaction, I searched for this particular clip from the famous 1964 movie “Becket”, which I thought you might find interesting and pertinent.
A small clip from the famous movie “Becket (1964)”