Canterbury Cathedral is magnificent in and of itself. Still, it’s probably most famous for being the site of the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop who repeatedly butted heads with King Henry II (husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a pretty powerful woman in her own right) over whether or not the Church was above the law of the land.

Their main conflict was over the treatment of clergy who committed secular crimes: Henry argued that the legal custom in England allowed the king to enforce justice over these clerics; Becket maintained that only church courts could try the cases.

Formerly very good friends, the argument became deeply personal. By reputation, Henry was stubborn and held a grudge; Becket (no saint himself), was apparently vain, ambitious and overly political. Neither of them was willing to back down. Henry became increasingly exasperated with Thomas and was heard to exclaim, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  Four of his knights (probably not the sharpest knives in the drawer, it turns out) took it upon themselves to do just that. Their original intention was to confront and if necessary, arrest Becket, but the situation took a turn for the worse, as they tend to do. On December 29, 1170, the foursome burst into the Cathedral. In the ensuing scuffle wherein Becket refused to be arrested by these relatively low-born knights, they whacked off the top part of Thomas Becket’s head right in front of the altar.

There is a plaque on the Cathedral floor commemorating the spot. It’s all very disturbing, even almost a thousand years later.

There was a large public outcry and even Henry was apparently horrified by their actions. Although Becket had not been popular in life, he was declared a martyr by the local monks. He was canonized in 1173, empowering him even more greatly in death than he had been in life. Oh, the irony! To follow, on July 12, 1174, Henry performed a public act of penance at Canterbury. This included a public confession of his sins; each bishop gave him five blows, and the 80 monks gave the king three blows with an iron rod. Henry offered gifts to Becket’s shrine and spent the night in a vigil at Becket’s tomb. Couldn’t have been any too comfortable.

I’ve always found Henry II to be one of the most interesting of the British Monarchs. To balance the sense of horror, you may feel at all these goings-on with Thomas Becket, he was also the King who first introduced the concept of common law. I greatly enjoyed the fascinating series of mystery novels by Ariana Franklin, the first of which is the Mistress of the Art of Death. To quote Amazon: In medieval Cambridge, England, Adelia, a female forensics expert, is summoned by King Henry II to investigate a series of gruesome murders that has wrongly implicated the Jewish population, yielding even more tragic results. As Adelia’s investigation takes her behind the closed doors of the country’s churches, the killer prepares to strike again.” 

Back to The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury, as it is officially known. Besides being a World Heritage Site, it’s the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England.

Founded in 597, the original church was much smaller, likely a nave, possibly a narthex and some side chapels. That building was replaced in the 9th or 10th century with a much larger structure, which was badly damaged during Danish raids on Canterbury in 1011. Those marauding Vikings!

The Archbishop at the time, Ælfheah, was taken hostage and eventually killed at Greenwich on April 19, 1012. He was the first of Canterbury’s several martyred bishops, the others being Simon Sudbury (beheaded during the peasant’s revolt in 1328), Thomas Cranmer (put to death by burning in 1556) and  William Laud (executed in office in 1645). Looking down the list of Archbishops of Canterbury from 597 to today, it’s been a surprisingly hazardous profession! In the earlier years, especially, it was not a job that seemed to present many opportunities for a pension.

After the Viking raids, repairs took place but seemed to be somewhat in vain, as the cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. The first Norman archbishop, Lanfrac, cleared the ruins and began anew, basing his design closely on the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, and using stone brought from France. The builders seem to have worked at breakneck speed, as the new cathedral was dedicated in 1077.

The Cathedral’s troubles continued, though. In September 1174, the choir was severely damaged by fire. I’m inclined to wonder if Thomas Becket’s ghost had anything to do with the Bad Building Karma. Recall his head had been separated from the rest of him in 1170. Certainly, his death had an influence on the reconstruction, He was held as a martyr, and a steady flow of pilgrims to the site brought many donations, a la Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

When the major reconstruction began, the cathedral was much enlarged to deal with the pilgrim-flow. The crypt had survived with no damage, and in the new build, the outer walls of the choir were increased in height by 12′. The plan left the round-headed Norman-style windows intact.

The new Gothic style held sway everywhere else, complete with pointed arches, rib vaulting and flying buttresses. (Don’t you love the term “flying buttress”?  I always get a vision of winged backsides jetting off into the distance. Very irreverent).

By 1180, the choir was back in use. I find it astonishing that builders in that era could be exhorted to work so quickly. Perhaps the nature of contractors has changed?

Sometime between 1180 and 1184, the present Trinity Chapel was built to house the shrine of St Thomas Becket, placed directly above Becket’s original tomb in the crypt. Though work on the chapel was completed in 1184, Becket’s remains were not moved from his tomb in the crypt until 1220. They were not to remain in peace; the shrine was removed in 1538. To add insult to injury, King Henry VIII summoned the dead saint to court to face charges of treason. Having failed to appear, he was found guilty in his absence, and the treasures of his shrine were confiscated, carried away in two coffers and 26 carts.

Though seemingly a crazy act, Oliver Cromwell’s corpse was treated even worse. After being buried with due pomp and circumstance at Westminster Abbey, on the orders of Charles II, Cromwell’s body was disinterred for posthumous execution. After hanging “from morning till four in the afternoon”, it was cut down and the head placed on a 20-foot spike above Westminster Hall (the location of the trial of Charles I, who was himself beheaded under the auspices of Cromwell, which probably explains the grudge held by his son, Charles II). Sometime between 1674 and 1703, a storm broke the pole upon which Cromwell’s head stood, throwing it to the ground. It remained in the hands of private collectors and museum owners until 25 March 1960. I can just imagine the conversations after dinner: “Hey, wanna see Cromwell’s head? It’s in my private collection”. It was ultimately buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

You can see the light on the floor in the Trinity Chapel, marking the spot where the shrine once stood.

At the far eastern end of the nave, another chapel was added to house additional relics of Becket, including what is widely believed to have been the top of his skull, struck off during his assassination. The chapel became known as  “Corona” or “Becket’s Crown”. It’s the rounded bit right at the back and beyond the several flights of steps.

The tomb of Edward Plantagenet (The Black Prince) is also in Trinity Chapel. Isn’t it wonderful? It’s so lifelike you’d think he could get up and walk.

On a side note, I was interested to read that Edward, as the eldest son of King Edward III, was styled both the Duke of Cornwall and the Prince of Wales, the same titles held by Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales. With all the controversy surrounding his marriage to Camilla, she styles herself as the Duchess of Cornwall, the “lesser title”.

The stone choir screen came along in the early 14th century. You’ll note how many of the statues are still intact, having escaped the baseball bat techniques of Thomas Cromwell’s (earlier than Oliver Cromwell, but a relative, nonetheless) marauders, er, men.

All in all, Canterbury Cathedral came through that period quite well, unlike some of its brethren, like Ely, where scarcely a statue remains unscathed.

Also from this period is the Chapter House. This one is rectangular; many are octagonal. It’s a bare, chilly place, though the stained glass is fabulous and rare, as it’s the original from 1405, not Victorian as much of the stained glass is in these ancient cathedrals.

Our tale of bad luck continues… The cathedral was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1382, losing its bells and tower, affectionately known as a campanile. The rebuild is quite gorgeous, though, don’t you think? What a view upwards.

I’m always intrigued by all the details – the acanthus leaves at the top of the columns, the tooth-saw mouldings, the peaks and whorls and curlicues. These are all carved out of stone by hand. It must have taken hours with a great deal of skill and patience.

The “furnishings”, including the pulpit, are also incredibly detailed.


On top of a tomb, this gentleman is quite dashing with his Elizabethan ruff. I don’t know who it is. It’s not Geoffrey Chaucer; he’s in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

And an intensely sincere angel soars from the heights.

The stained glass covers over 1200 square metres, much of it medieval, some dating back to the 12th century, so it requires a lot of preservation. The Cathedral has its own stained glass studio. Wouldn’t that be a fascinating job? You could be one of the lucky eight people who work there!

On now to the cloisters, always one of my favourite stops. The originals dated from 1070-77, but went the way of all flesh and were rebuilt between 1397-1444.

The cloisters formed part of the series of outbuildings where the monks conducted their daily lives, eating, sleeping, entertaining and studying. At Canterbury, the cloisters are to the north of the Cathedral (usually, they were to the south), and I would imagine that made them a good deal colder. Brrrr.

Here we came upon, Laptop, the Cathedral cat. He was a battle-scared old wreck, as my father would have said. Louis, the Cathedral Cat at Wells, had a much cushier life. Also, a ginger tom cat, he lived in the Cathedral shop and was much coddled. Poor old Laptop seemed more of a street-dweller, though he had his own feeding bowl and cushion in the cloisters. Given the rather violent history of the cathedral, I thought his scrappy appearance was very fitting.

Looking up, the ceilings in the cloisters are beautifully rendered.

Here is a view of the cloisters from the outside.

You can see the ruins of some of the older structures which would have supported the inhabitants.

Some of the buildings have been rebuilt, and I imagine provide offices and living quarters for the current inhabitants.

We visited the town a bit after touring the Cathedral. It doesn’t seem to have changed much from what you would envision from Canterbury Tales days,  with narrow streets and timbered buildings.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of Canterbury Cathedral.