Canterbury, the Cathedral Town

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.

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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 cathedral has six sections; the Nave, the Choir, the Presbytery, the Archbishop’s throne, the High Altar, the Treasury, the Trinity Chapel and St. Augustine’s chair.
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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.

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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.

Site of Becket’s murder
Site of Becket’s Murder

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)”

44 Comments

  • nandanjha says:

    There comes another elaborate and complete account. I can imagine that a lot of hard work must have gone behind all the data and facts. Great work Ram.

    Also, there may not be many people who would have heard of this town. I have been to London only once and I dont think any one ever suggested me to visit this place. With so much of history, your writing should help to build more awareness.

    Splendid !!

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Beautiful pix!

    Seems you have some ‘inside knowledge’ of cathedrals and worship :-)

    Two visits but yet to go beyond London. May be next time.

    Pat

  • Rajesh Kumar says:

    This travelogue is really an insightful and intellectual piece of writing. Such an in-depth detailing of things or places clearly reflects the fervor and sagacity of the writer. The simple yet exhaustive documentation along with wonderful supporting pictures actually transport you to this historical town. I am eagerly waiting for the next one from your side Ram

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Nandan for your kind comments. The grandeur and serenity of the cathedral at Canterbury is hard to put into words, you have to see to believe the beauty of this magnificent opus.

    Pat :

    Thank you very much for your nice words.

    Having been associated with the Mission Schools and some very fine christian families from my childhood, I did learn a few things about christianity and some of the churches. The Gothic and Romanesque architecture always had a great attraction for me. So, during the course of time, I did pick up a few things about these holy places.

    Easter greetings to you and your family.

    Rajesh: I am deeply touched and honoured by your kind and
    generous comments.

    Welcome aboard and stay in touch.

  • Smita says:

    Great description, again. If someone reads your post and goes to Canterbury, they may not need a guide at all :)

  • backpakker says:

    Great pictures and all through, I was trying to imagine Chaucer and his stories…

  • Diptish Banerjee says:

    Excellent description & also great pictures collection.No one need a guide if reads this artical before Canterbury tour.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Backpakker,

    You have said everything in one liner. Thanks.

    Good to see you after an interval.

    Haven’t seen any thing from you since Shettihalli !!! Awaiting your next post.

    Thanks Smita. Thanks Diptish. I only hope the Tourist guides of Canterbury do not read your enchanting comments.

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    It is an enchanting journey through Canterbury that you’ve taken us to.

    Your story brings into perspective a large part of English literature for me. Having studied in detail (MA English) both Chaucer’s Canterbury tales and T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (Thomas Beckett’s matyrdom) it was very interesting for me to read your post. I also remembered Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which I had really enjoyed. The Photographs are magnificient.

  • Bindiya says:

    Hello again!

    Here comes another chance for me to be able to say, “you write really well Ram Sir”.

    Loved the details and the description …… could not miss the info on the gift shops and more importantly the necklaces :-).

    Would love to read more work written by you.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Geetha,

    Getting a generous comment from a scholarly person like you could be an honour for any one.

    Your comment has made me nostalgic about my university days, when I read Chaucer’s great work “The Canterbury Tales”. Who can forget – The Prologue, The Knight’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Thank you for transporting me to the good old days.

    I have mentioned about the film entitled “Becket” in my post. I think the screenplay of the film was based on Eliot’s “Murder in the cathedral”, I am not sure though.

    God bless you.

  • Deepak says:

    Ram Saab,
    I have been trying to phrase an appropriate complement since I read your article..but whatever I think of isnt measuring up. & I realized it cant be matched !! Couldnt have been more complete & as I always keep mentioning brimming with knowledge !!

  • manish khamesra says:

    So finally I managed to read this beautiful account on Canterbury. From the day I saw this beautiful post with beautiful pictures, I was waiting to get an opportunity to go through it in one go. I must say that I enjoyed reading the whole account.

    Ram Sir, Please mention the movie Becket in the post itself. If a movie is recommended by someone you admire, you put it in your To watch list. My wife has recently read Razor’s edge by W. Somerset Maugham and she has told me many times that I should read that book. (still a pending task) My friend Asif has suggested her “Of Human Bondage” and with this second recommendation of the same book, I think I have to buy it soon :)

    And yes to add to the list: Canterbury Tales & Murder in the Cathedral. I can sense the enjoyment, mere mention of this seemingly great piece of literature brought to you, Backpakker and Geetha.

    Next time I will be careful before reading your articles as they generate so many “Things to do” :)

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Manish,

    I am deeply touched by your heartwarming and kind words. Being an humble person, I don’t even know how to thank you for your generosity.

    Yes, “Of Human Bondage” and “Razor’s Edge” are both great works by Somerset Maugham. Sometimes, when I meet you, I will tell you how one of Maugham’s six pager short story “Mr. Know All”, enjoined me to this beautiful world of letters.

    Thank you and God’s choicest blessings to you, Jaishree and your son.

  • Sudhir Sharma says:

    Great work again Ram sir,
    This gives many ideas about our history and greatworks done by Human.
    Having architecturural background I learnt many architectural details from this research work.
    Great work!!!!!!!!
    Sudhir

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    Uncle, you are too kind!
    Just for the record… I found that the movie Beckett is based on Jean Anouilh’s play by the same name.

  • Jogiraj Sikidar says:

    I would say one dont need guide if one visit this place, what a observation and research……now i know in my trip to London what to do……thats the best part of this write up…..thank u so much….

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Jogi,

    What a joy hearing from you. Thank you very much for your beautiful comment.

    You have no idea how much we all miss you. Every time I hear ” Bhala hua meri matki phuti”, I miss you all the more.

    God be with you, Mili and Adi.

    Geetha: Thanks for correcting me on Jean Anouilh’s play. Actually, it’s been so long since I saw this film. Also the fact that T S Elliot’s book is so very beautifully written that you tend to get carried away.

    Thank you Bindiya, Deepak and Sudhir for your kind and encouraging words.

  • Amit Dixit says:

    Wow….Simply Awesome!!!
    What a nice discriptions and collection of Photos!!
    The person having profound knowledge of this subject can articulate this type of article.
    Certainly no one requires any pioneer after reading this article.
    “Hats of to you Sir”
    Please keep writing…Gr8 Work once again!!!

    Amit Dixit

  • Grumpy says:

    Great post, nice pictures, lots of informations!

  • Navin Khatri says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    The Meeticulousness in your description of such a wonderful HEAVEN ON EARTH – Cantebury is imminent and it evokes in me a wish to see such a serene and historical place at least once in a lifetime. Absolutely fantastic article. Keep up the good work Sir

  • Celine says:

    Hahaha..sorry Ram, I am not always obedient. You nodded your head again!!
    I can’t help laughing. I could have been mirthful 5 days back, but I was away and just about returned from Jordan.

    Now let me continue the rest of the post with a smile. :)

  • Celine says:

    Murder of Beckett after vespers..gruesome! I wonder if King Henry II regretted his words. The link between church and state is still there in parts of UK.

    A fabulous post with interesting history detailed by you and presented for us.
    The pictures are excellent (you ought to take credit for the ones which are yours).
    More importantly, thank you for sharing it all here. :)

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks for your very kind words Celine.

    Yes, King Henry did regret his words uttered unintentionally and humbled himself by doing public penance at Becket’s tomb.

    It is believed that on receipt of the news about Becket’s death, the king burst into loud lamentations and exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth and ashes, behaving more like a friend than the sovereign of the state. For three days he shut himself in a chamber and didn’t take food nor he allowed any one to comfort him.

    It is also said that when he arrived near Canterbury, he laid aside all the emblems of royalty, with naked feet and in the form of a penitent and supplicating pilgrim, he arrived at the cathedral, where prostrate on the floor, he submitted himself long in prayer.

    At the command of the king, the bishop of London declared in a sermon that the king had ” neither commanded, nor wished, nor by any device contrivred the death of the martyr, which had been perpetuated in consequence of his murderers having misinterpreted the words which the king had hastily pronounced.”

    Now, let’s talk about your trip to Jordan. Trust you had a great time there. We shall await your travelogue on Jordan.

  • Celine says:

    Ram,

    Thank you for the detailed response which made it clear that Henry II did ”actually” regret his words (rather than merely pay lip service like a few heads of state do in the world of politics!).

    I had a good time in Jordan, thank you, and hope to write about it sometime. :)

  • Veer says:

    Ram,
    Thanks for sharing your article with me. You have very well assimilated your modest thoughts and presented the facts in an excellent manner. I enjoyed reading the journey to Cantebury. God willing if I happen to visit this place any time your article will be my best guide.
    The pictures are awesome and well posted. I can foresee in you a distinct narrative writer. I wish you well and much happiness in life.

    Veer Mukhi
    S. Setauket, NY

  • Dinesh Sharma says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    The reading of Canterbury experiece cannot be explained in words. This is the first time i am reading this writeup with my family. Ram Sir, the biggest comment I got from my daughter who says after reading that papa I feel most of the Britisher must not be knowing this history.

    Great work sir, the historical narration, pictures, geographical depictions & above all Indo-British writing pattern which can be understood by any of the indian or British with ease make it more beautiful.

    May God Bless U

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Veer,

    I am deeply honoured by your heart warming comments.

    Although all the cathedrals are equally reverred, the Canterbury Cathedral has always been getting a special mention owing to the martyrdom of St. Thomas. Being a close friend of the King (who once said ” I can give my life for you laughingly —-“), Becket could easily have made some compromises and remained in the good books of the king. Somehow, his allegience shifted from court to the church and his relationship with the king strained and due to over agression on the part of four knights, he was murdered.

    The miracles that happened after his martyrdom, have been magnificently captured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

    Next time you are in London, just hop across to Canterbury (It is just 120 Kms) and visit this magnificent opus.

  • Terence says:

    Ram,
    The plaudits accorded to you by so many readers is not one bit misplaced.
    The combination of your description and the relevant pictures make this a compelling and most informative read!
    Watch out! Travel companies may blacklist you. You know why?
    Because the writeup has captured the ambience and history so well, that people may not feel the need to actually travel… since they are mentally transported to Canterbury!
    Keep on going strong!
    Cheers!

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Terence:

    Thanks for your kind and generous remarks.

    The basic idea is to give the readers an adequate information, so that when they visit such places, they would be benefitted by the inputs.

    Thanks Amit. I understand that you have been writing for print media in Lucknow. Would be happy if you would share your expreriences with us too. Would look forward to your contributions.

    Thanks Grumpy. You have been very kind.

  • Edmund Jayaraj says:

    I have been to Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury in 1983. But the detailed descriptions by Ram Dhall has made me long to visit this historic place again.

  • Harry Anthony says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    Great Work – Discriptions are very touch ful & photographs are very nice.

    When I was in school,I heard the same touchful story about canterbury.

    Keep it up and may god bless you,

    Warm Wishes,

    Harry Malcolm Anthony

  • ashima says:

    Gothic structures and Romanensque architecture are really marvellous. Splendid description of Cathedral’s serenity at Canterbury.It seems TRINITY i.e.GOD -The Father ,Jesus- The son, and Holy Sprit -The Companion dwelt there. Prophets and Evangelists took great pain to spread christianity to the whole world.The Martyrdom Of St.Thomas, St.Paul and many others like Archbishop Becket will never be in vain,as Bible says in Matthew 5:10- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of HEAVEN.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Dr. Jayaraj,

    I am overwhelmed by your kind words. Getting such a generous comment from an eminent theologian like you, could be a matter of great honour for anyone.

    Thank you very much.

    Ashima,

    I don’t know how to thank you for such beautiful remarks.

    The serenity and tranquility, you have mentioned, is hard to express in words. You have to see to believe it, especially the Service at Vespers, which is conducted by some of the best artists.

    St. Thomas of Canterbury is reverred not only by the christian brethrens, but also by visitors from the other faiths too. In my personal opinion, his supreme sacrifice is simply unparallel.

    God bless you and the family.

  • rajiv malik says:

    dear ram ji,
    i knew ram as a great human being and a wonderful person and this dimension of yours of a researcher and writer of this level was really unknown to me.
    keep it up and do let me know about your next post.
    warm regards to you and your adorable wife [taken from your own post].
    rajiv malik

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Rajiv ji,

    I am overwhelmed with your kind and and generous words. Getting such remarks from a senior journalist of your standing could be a matter of honour for anyone.

    My wife joins me in expressing our heartfelt gratitude.

    Ram

  • Smitha Varghese says:

    Breathtaking information about Canterbury, the cathedral Town. The Sun of God came into this world for the salvation of mankind through the transformation of the indviduals. Born into the society, the man grows into his fullness through interactions with people. Most people in the world love to travel, but the in-depth and minute detailing requires lot of efforts which you have done excellently alongwith those lovely pictures of the places.

    Great job done. Hats off to you. Best wishes for your new endeavour.

  • Aman says:

    Dear Ram Uncle,

    What stunningly beautiful pictures and a captivating narration. I have lived in the U.K. all my life and have yet to visit Canterbury. I will put it on my ‘places to visit.’ I am astounded by the architecture and the colourful stained glass windows showing the miracles of St. Thomas Becket. An amazing place of worship with an equally amazing history.
    A wonderfully written piece as Terence wrote earlier, I too was ‘mentally transported to Canterbury.’

    Best wishes and keep up the brilliant writing.
    Aman

  • Mohit Kumar says:

    Dear Sir, Great description, again. If someone reads your post and goes to Canterbury, they may not need a guide at all, Here comes another chance for me to be able to say, you write really well Ram Sir

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Aman. Such kind words from a person who has been born and brought up in England, could be a great encouragement to any one.

    Please do keep on visiting this site.

    Thanks Smitha. I am really grateful to you for such beautiful remarks.

    Thanks Mohit. Do keep on glancing through the other posts on the site and favour us with your views.

  • Madhavi says:

    Dear Mr. Dhall
    Made interesting reading. The pictures are very beautiful.

  • arvindpadmanabhan says:

    Nice pictures and a detailed write-up. Brought back images of Canterbury when I last visited it. My brief take on Canterbury is here: http://insearchofbritain.wordpress.com/2005/02/12/miracles-in-art-canterbury-kent/

    Didn’t know that there was movie named Beckett. Will try to watch it. Thanks.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Arvind for providing a storehouse of information on Canterbury. It will be of immense help during my next visit to cathedral.

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