Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury
The Precincts
Kent CT1 2EH  
When visitors talk of visiting ‘Canterbury’ in Kent they are usually referring to the town’s magnificent cathedral. The cathedral is not only the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury but also the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion.
A curious situation occurs with the Archbishop of Canterbury. As leader of the Church of England he is a spiritual lord and sits in the House of Lords in London. When in London he lives at Lambeth Palace, however, his ecclesiastical seat or cathedra is in Canterbury.
Canterbury Cathedral owes its splendour to this strong connection between the Crown and The Church which came to a head in 1170 with the murder of Thomas Becket.
The Cathedral is now part of a World Heritage Site and visitors from all over the world come to see the spot where the murder occurred. In the process they discover a building with a remarkable history and glorious architecture.
Canterbury Cathedral stands within its own walled precincts, surrounded by medieval buildings and ruins. The Romanesque Water Tower was once the centre of the monastic water supply. Parts of the monastery's Granary, Bakery and Brewery, now occupied by The King's School, still stand.
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In 597 AD Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine as a missionary to the people of Anglo-Saxon England. Initially he was given St Martin's Church in Canterbury by the local King, Ethelbert.
In 602 AD Augustine founded a cathedral within the Roman city walls, dedicated it to St Saviour and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He established a monastic community around the Cathedral which served as part of his household.
In the 10th century the arrangement became formalised with the establishment of a Benedictine monastery. Before this Augustine’s original building had been enlarged by the Saxons but was destroyed by fire during a Viking raid.
Remains of Augustine’s original building have been uncovered. The spot is marked by a brass Compass Rose set into the floor at the east end of the Cathedral Nave.
Original Saxon Church Rebuilt
The ruined Saxon church was rebuilt as a grand Romanesque building by Norman Archbishop Lanfranc in 1070. We can get an idea of what the Nave looked like by visiting the Crypt where many features remain intact.
Traces remain of contemporary wall painting and there are a variety of decorated pillars and carved capitals. The Crypt is the oldest part of the building still visible to visitors.
In 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered and canonised three years later. Canterbury became an important place of pilgrimage. As we know from the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, all kinds of people were Canterbury pilgrims.
Between 1175 and 1184 the Quire was rebuilt, an Eastern Crypt added, and the Trinity and Corona Chapels built. These are as we see them today and make up the eastern end of the Cathedral. In 1220 Becket’s body was placed in a new Shrine in Trinity Chapel.
Further enhancements of the Cathedral occurred in the 14th century. The solid Romanesque Nave was replaced with the current structure which was designed by the King’s Master mason. It is a superb example of English Perpendicular Gothic with its tall columns, delicate vaulted arches and gilt roof bosses.
In 1538 King Henry VIII destroyed Becket’s Shrine as part of the Reformation of The Church. The spot where the Shrine stood is now marked by a stone in the floor bearing an inscription and a simple candle. Notice how the pink stone before it is worn from thousands of pilgrims kneeling here in prayer.
In 1540 the monastery was dissolved but Canterbury remained a place of worship, run by a Dean and Chapter of Canons.
Repair and conservation is an ongoing task but the Cathedral we see today has changed little since the major rebuilding in the 15th century.
Canterbury is known for its rich stained glass windows. Some of the stained glass from the 12th century has been incorporated into the great West Window. The oldest piece (1176 AD), Adam delving, can be found in the centre of the bottom tier.
Archbishop Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket and King Henry II spent their youth together and were good friends, doing what young men like to do. Henry thought that if he made Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury he would have an ally in any fights he might have with the Pope.
When Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry in 1162, he changed his total allegiance from the King to the Pope and the Church. Instead of an ally, Henry found himself involved in many conflicts with Thomas.
The worst insult of all occurred when the King had his son crowned as his heir by the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury, usurping a long standing right of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas excommunicated them for their support of Henry's attacks on the rights of Thomas as archbishop.
The enraged King is reputed to have said ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
Four of Henry’s knights overheard the King’s outburst and on 29 December 1170 they went to the Archbishop’s lodgings in Canterbury to kill him. The monks told Thomas to escape into the Cathedral sanctuary through the Cloisters into the North West Transept.
Vespers were being said when the knights burst in, and found Thomas kneeling at the altar. According to an eye witness account, Thomas refused to absolve the Bishops and told the Knights that "for the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death."
The knights wielded their swords and struck him on the head with three mighty blows, breaking off one of the sword tips with the last blow.
Three days after his martyrdom, miracles began occurring. Pilgrims started flocking to the site. One of these pilgrims dressed in sackcloth and barefoot was the very repentant King Henry II. Three years after his death, Thomas was made a saint.
Today, the site of the Martyrdom is marked by a modern memorial. Two ragged steel swords and a broken sword point throw a striking shadow behind a bare stone altar.
Cathedral Tour
To make the most of your visit to the cathedral we would recommend joining one of the cathedral guides for a tour.
The Cathedral has an excellent website giving full information - Opening Times, Entrance Costs and Accommodation within the precincts.
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Contact & Further Information
Telephone  +44 (0)1227 762 862
Website  Canterbury Cathedral    External Link
Google Maps - Canterbury Cathedral