Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest Christian churches in England and it continues to play a central role in English Christianity. Originally founded in 602 AD by St. Augustine, it still functions as the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Canterbury was an important spiritual center ever since Augustine, but it became a major pilgrimage destination after the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170 (familiar to most as the subject of Geoffrey Chaucer's humorous Canterbury Tales).
The grandeur of the architecture reflects Canterbury's historic and religious importance, as does the magnificent collection of medieval stained glass windows depicting miracles experienced at Thomas' shrine, biblical scenes, prophets and saints.
History of Canterbury Cathedral
The history of Canterbury Cathedral begins with St. Augustine, a Roman missionary sent to England by Pope Gregory to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The mission was a success: in 597 AD, Augustine baptized King Ethelbert of Kent.
In 602 AD, Augustine dedicated a cathedral church on this site to Christ the Savior. It was in fact probably an existing church building from Roman times, rehallowed by the missionary saint.
A monastery was also established in connection with the cathedral. Around 750 AD, Archbishop Cuthbert added a baptistery-mausoleum to the north of the church, but none of this survives.
In 1011, Canterbury was among the many English towns devastated by marauding Danes, who traveled up the rivers killing and pillaging from their longships. The city was destroyed, the cathedral was set on fire, and Archbishop Alphege was taken hostage in hopes of ransom.
Alphege reportedly refused to allow anyone to pay for him, and was pelted to death with oxbones at the Danish camp in Greenwich. The archbishop became a martyr and a saint and his life story is told in a medieval stained glass window in the cathedral.
Another disastrous fire broke out in 1067, the year after the Norman Conquest, destroying what was left of the Saxon cathedral. When the Norman Lanfranc was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, the ceremony had to be held in a temporary shelter.
But Archbishop Lanfranc was a motivated and highly capable leader. He immediately set about reorganizing the monastery, asserting the primary of Canterbury over York, and rebuilding the cathedral.
Before coming to Canterbury Lanfranc had been the abbot of St-Etienne in Caen, Normandy, where he had supervised the reconstruction of the abbey church. The strong influence of the earlier building can still be traced in Canterbury Cathedral. Lanfranc's new Norman cathedral was dedicated in October 1077.
In 1093, a man named Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm was a quiet scholarly type, known for his wisdom and piety. But it is to him, along with the priors Ernulf and Conrad, that we owe much of the Romanesque architecture and art that survives today.
Most notably, Anselm built the huge and beautifully decorated crypt beneath the east end, which still survives fully intact. An extensive choir with ambulatory, consecrated in 1130, was then built over the crypt.
Critical to the history of Canterbury Cathedral was the murder of St. Thomas Becket on Tuesday, December 29, 1170, by order of King Henry II. The king later performed penance there in 1174. On September 5 of that same year, the great Romanesque choir was devastated by a fire.
The income from pilgrims visiting the Shrine of St. Thomas, which was reported almost immediately to be a place of miraculous healing, largely paid for the subsequent rebuilding of the cathedral.
The highly talented William of Sens began the rebuilding work on the choir in 1175, but tragically fell from faulty scaffolding in 1178 and died shortly after. William of Sens is credited with pioneering the Early English Gothic style in his choir at Canterbury Cathedral.
His successor was William the Englishman, who contributed the Trinity Chapel and Corona at the east end. These were designed specifically to house the relics of St. Thomas Becket, which were originally interred in the crypt. The work was completed in 1184.
Meanwhile, numerous artists, who had probably worked in France, were hard at work on the stained glass windows. The first stained glass panel to be completed was "Adam Delving" in 1174 or 1175, the first of more than 80 ancestors of Christ placed in the clerestory windows.
This creative activity was rudely interrupted in 1207, when Canterbury's archbishop and monks were exiled by King John. Work resumed immediately upon their return in 1213, and St. Thomas was moved to his new home in the Trinity Chapel in 1220.
Prior Thomas Chillenden (1390-1410) rebuilt the Nave in the Perpendicular style of English Gothic. In 1430 the short central tower was demolished and rebuilt at a height of 297 feet.
The medieval greatness of Canterbury Cathedral and its monastery came to an end in 1538. King Henry VIII, who had recently declared himself head of the Church of England, ordered the Shrine of St. Thomas destroyed and despoiled.
Many cartloads of treasure, representing gifts from centuries of grateful pilgrims, were carried off and appropriated by the king. One such treasure was the Regale of France, a great ruby donated by Louis VII, which Henry had made into a thumb ring. Today a candle burns at the site of the former shrine.
It ceased to be an abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII when all religious houses were suppressed. Canterbury surrendered in March 1539 and reverted to its previous status of "a college of secular canons."
During World War II, the cathedral's beautiful stained glass windows were removed for safekeeping from Hitler's air raids. It was a wise decision - the replacement windows were blown in. A large area of the town of Canterbury was destroyed, as was the cathedral library, but the main body of the cathedral remained intact.
What to See at Canterbury Cathedral
The exterior of Canterbury Cathedral immediately impresses by its size, but also rewards closer attention to its details. Viewed directly from the south, the abrupt change from Romanesque to Gothic is clearly evident - to the right (east) are round arches, blind arcades, and rough surfaces; to the left are the abundant pointed arches and pinnacles of the Gothic nave.
Decorating the Romanesque exterior are intertwined blind arches embellished with decoratively carved columns and figurative capitals, all of which date from Archbishop Anselm's reconstruction around 1120. Many of the capitals are weathered beyond recognition, but others still clearly display proud Green Men and other interesting medieval characters.
The main entrance is through the Gothic southwest porch, built in 1424-25 by Thomas Mapilton and 1455-59 by Richard Beke. It was restored with new statues of Canterbury's most notable archbishops by Theodore Pfyffers in 1862. There are some details to spot here, too - look for grinning faces and tiny symbols carved along the top.
The nave terminates at a great Gothic choir screen (a.k.a. pulpitum) at the top of a wide stairway. The pulpitum was built about 1455 by Richard Beke and originally had sculptures of Christ and the twelve apostles along with the shield-bearing angels and six kings that survive today.
East of the choir is the large Trinity Chapel, a level higher than the rest of the interior and surrounded by an ambulatory. It is reached by stone stairs on either side, which have been worn down from the feet (and sometimes knees) of centuries of pilgrims.
The Trinity Chapel was built specifically for the Shrine of St. Thomas, which stood here from 1220 to 1538, when it was destroyed on orders of King Henry VIII. It has been left empty and a single candle burns over the site of the shrine.
The floor of the Trinity Chapel, near the west end, has a set of interesting inlaid marble roundels representing the signs of the zodiac, months of the year, virtues and vices. These were added in the early 13th century to embellish the shrine. They are badly worn today, but many can still be identified.
The ambulatory around the Trinity Chapel is home to some of the most interesting and accomplished stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral. Most of the glass is original, ranging in date from about 1180 to 1220, but there were significant restorations (and replacements) made in the 19th century.
Circling around the ambulatory are a total of eight windows depicting the Miracles of St. Thomas Becket. The first window, in the north ambulatory, depicts some of the events leading to his martyrdom, but the rest tell stories of ordinary people who experienced miracles by praying to the saint or visiting his shrine.
The narratives depicted in these windows provide a fascinating glimpse into medieval life, particularly its most common illnesses and accidents. Many scenes take place around Thomas' tomb, which is shown in its original position in the crypt. It was only after the Trinity Chapel and its windows were completed that his relics were moved to the new shrine.
The far east end of the cathedral is occupied by an apse chapel known as the Corona ("crown"), because it once housed the relic of St. Thomas' head. Here there are two more medieval windows of interest: the Tree of Jesse and the Redemption Window. Both date from about 1200.
From the Tree of Jesse only two original panels survive, which are displayed in the far left window: King Josiah and the Virgin Mary. The entire window has been reconstructed with modern glass to its right. The Redemption Window is a typological window, showing four Old Testament "types" (foreshadowing events) for each of five scenes related to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. You can explore the Redemption Window in full illustrated detail here.
Two more typological windows, equally fascinating, survive in the north choir aisle. They are earlier than the Becket Windows, dated to about 1180. There were originally six of these windows; the surviving panels have been compiled into what are now called Typological Window 2 and Typological Window 3.
For a good look at most of the medieval stained glass found throughout the cathedral (with even more waiting to be processed), please see our feature article on Canterbury Cathedral's Stained Glass Windows and its accompanying Stained Glass Photo Gallery.
Another notable feature of the ambulatory are its many tombs of archbishops and royals. The most famous of these is the Tomb of the Black Prince (1330-76), topped with a bronze chainmailed effigy of the knight, in the south ambulatory. It's not clear how he got his romantic nickname; his contemporaries knew him as Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales. He was the eldest son of a king (Edward III) and the father of a king (Richard II), but was never king himself because he died before his father.
The massive crypt beneath the east end of the cathedral is one of the most fascinating parts of the building (and, alas, was closed when I visited). Built under Archbishop Anselm in the early 1100s, it still has extensive Romanesque murals and exquisitely carved columns and capitals.
Quick Facts on Canterbury Cathedral
|Names:||Canterbury Cathedral · Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury · Christchurch Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.279696° N, 1.082883° E|
|Phone:||01227 762 862|
|Hours:||Summer: Mon-Sat 9-5:30; Sun 12:30-2:30|
Winter: Mon-Sat 9-5:00; Sun 12:30-2:30
|Lodging:||View hotels near Canterbury Cathedral|
- Personal visit (November 18, 2007).
- Jonathan Keates, Canterbury Cathedral.
- Michael Michael, Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral.
- Canterbury Cathedral - official website
- The Canterbury Mosaic Appeal - help save the South Oculus window by buying a mosaic tile for £10
- Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church - UNESCO
- Canterbury Cathedral Reviews - TripAdvisor
- Charmed by Canterbury - The Sunday Tribune (India)
- Margaret Agnes Babington, The Romance of Canterbury Cathedral.
- E.W. Boyd, English Cathedrals: Their Architecture, Symbolism and History
- Derek Butler, Canterbury Cathedral.
- John Butler, The Quest for Becket's Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury.
- T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.
- Sally Rousham, Canterbury: The Story of a Cathedral.
- Michael Wanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The Monks of the Monasteries of Winchester, Canterbury, Peterborough, Abingdon and Worcester.
- Canterbury Cathedral - Go Historic
- Photos of Canterbury Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Canterbury Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Canterbury Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.