Canterbury Cathedral / by Tyler Wood


“(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)

Then people long to go on pilgrimages

And palmers long to seek the stranger strands

Of far-off saints, hallowed in the sundry lands,

And specially, from every shire’s end

Of England, down to Canterbury they wend

To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick

To give his help to them when they were sick."




And so it is said, that men shall go to Canterbury for a pilgrimage. I did. When I lived in London one place that was a “must see” in the “honkey motherland” was the famous Canterbury Cathedral. At Christ’s gate at the entrance to the Cathedral there is a Starbucks and turnstiles at the gate for paying and I wondered what it must have been like to be here throughout its history, and what an amazing past this immense structure must have seen. I wonder, though, what the old monks would have ordered from Starbucks. 

The history starts much farther back than I had imagined. The first archbishop of Canterbury was St. Augustine who arrived on the coast of Kent in 597. He was given a church by King Ethelbert on the site where the Cathedral now stands. The city grew over the next, nearly, five hundred years around this church until they had the funding and the interest to build on a larger scale. The “new” gothic movement started in France and was spreading, as well as its people. The archbishop at the time of 1070 was French; Lanfranc, and he commissioned the building of the first Cathedral (1070 to 1077) on this spot. The only remaining parts that are from that time are parts of the crypt. 

Now begins the story of why this infamous Cathedral is infamous. Thomas Beckett, whose life I will not go into to too much detail about, was the archbishop in the latter part of the 12th century. He was supposed to conjoin the will of the church and the will of the throne of England, that is to say, he was to do what the King wanted with the church, but he refused to do so. This wasn't received well by his friend King Henry II. Beckett believed the power was in the church and not in the hands of the monarchy. What he failed to realize was that God's power was not helpful for the physical pain that could be inflicted on his body in this life by the people with physical power, in this life. The king did not like his decision and sent some knights to the Cathedral who believed the king wanted him dead. Everyone knew his decision would cause a backlash eventually, and so the knights came and called out Thomas Beckett for the kill they thought the king wanted. Thomas Beckett was murdered in 1170 inside the Cathedral where he now lays entombed. 

In the next few years the story of his steadfastness ignited people to go on a pilgrimage to the Cathedral to see the tomb of Beckett. This is the saint that Chaucer mentions in the quote above. Beckett did not die a saint, but in the next few years (1171-1173) after his death, three miracles were reported at his tomb that would then dub him a saint. This then sparked even more pilgrims to venture to the cathedral. 

In 1174 a great fire destroyed most of the, then, Romanesque Cathedral. William of Sens was commissioned to rebuild in the new Gothic tradition from 1175 to 1187. The monks had a steady stream of income from the government, and now that they had all these pilgrims donating to the cathedral, they had a large amount of money to rebuild with. The Quire and the eastern crypt were rebuilt and the trinity and corona chapels were added. William's work on the transepts, the vault, and the quire were some of the earliest work in the Gothic tradition. 

The stained glass in the new quire was complex and at the height of technology at the time. Since the masses didn’t read Latin, and the bible was in Latin, these windows were the visual stories of the bible for the people to follow when they were there. In Canterbury Cathedral the stained glass reflects what story would best suit the area of the cathedral. For instance, in the quire aisles the biblical emphasis prevailed. But in St. Thomas’ shrine there are depictions of his life and the miracles that took place at the tomb. These windows are called the miracle windows of the trinity chapel. It shows the society of the day, medieval, receiving aid from St. Thomas. However, in the clerestory the genealogical series depicts the lives of the bible, in quite the achievement, it starts with Adam and Eve of course, and ends with Mary and Jesus. It holds eighty-six figures from the gospel Luke and is the largest of its kind. Sadly, only forty-six now remain. 

Much like the stained glass in purpose, the wall art was an important part of medieval cathedrals. The most famous in Canterbury is in St. Anslem's chapel of St. Paul and the viper (c. 1160) and John the Baptist and the infancy of Christ (c. 1180). The artists are unknown, much like the authors of chants, they were doing it for God and didn’t put their names on it. 

The one thing that struck me as I entered the cathedral itself was the intricate sculpture used to carve out figures on the outer walls. The time and effort put into this cathedral must have been immense. In the choir stands, every seat has a carved out face on each arm, each one different. It looks like the faces that might have once stood there singing the hymns for the services. The grand ceilings of the nave carry the sound throughout the entire building. I touched the walls in hopes that I might feel what it was like then. Walking through it you can’t help but feel insignificant compared to such a large structure built so long ago. That was the point, after all.

It is still in need of upkeep of course, which is why I had to pay a pound ($1.50 US) for a picture permit. They still take donations as well, and they have a shop that you are forced to exit through. I was told by one of the woman working there that it takes nine-thousand pounds a day for upkeep costs, I guess I put in my one. They probably receive more than nine-thousand people a day though, and the postcards are expensive, so that is where they get their money now. But uniquely enough, it is still pilgrims that fund this place, it’s just a different kind of pilgrim now, over nine-hundred years later.