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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Kade

Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury, United Kingdom

Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England. It forms part of a World Heritage Site. It is the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, currently Justin Welby, leader of the Church of England and symbolic leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

"The Cathedral is often described as "England in stone" as its history is intrinsically linked to the country’s history. From its first Archbishop, Augustine, who established Christianity in England to Archbishop Langton’s role in the Magna Carta negotiations and the power struggle between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral’s history is as rich as it comes."

These gargoyles are not as menacing or frightening as those of Notre-Dame de Paris.

"St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived on the coast of Kent as a missionary to England in 597AD. He came from Rome, sent by Pope Gregory the Great. It is said that Gregory had been struck by the beauty of Angle slaves he saw for sale in the city market and dispatched Augustine and some monks to convert them to Christianity. Augustine was given a church at Canterbury (St Martin’s, after St Martin of Tours, still standing today) by the local King, Ethelbert whose Queen, Bertha, a French Princess, was already a Christian.This building had been a place of worship during the Roman occupation of Britain and is the oldest church in England still in use. Augustine had been consecrated a bishop in France and was later made an archbishop by the Pope. He established his seat within the Roman city walls (the word cathedral is derived from the the Latin word for a chair ‘cathedra’, which is itself taken from the Greek ‘kathedra’ meaning seat.) and built the first cathedral there, becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Since that time, there has been a community around the Cathedral offering daily prayer to God; this community is arguably the oldest organization in the English speaking world. The present Lord Archbishop of Canterbury Primate of All England, The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Justin Welby, is 105th in the line of succession from Augustine. Until the 10th century, the Cathedral community lived as the household of the Archbishop. During the 10th century, it became a formal community of Benedictine monks, which continued until the monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540. Augustine’s original building lies beneath the floor of the Nave – it was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by the Saxons, and the Cathedral was rebuilt completely by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire. There have been many additions to the building over the last nine hundred years, but parts of the Quire and some of the windows and their stained glass date from the 12th century. By 1077, Archbishop Lanfranc had rebuilt it as a Norman church, described as “nearly perfect”. A staircase and parts of the North Wall – in the area of the North West transept also called the Martyrdom – remain from that building."

The Nave

"The Nave is over 600 years old. The word Nave comes from the Latin word for a ship, because the roof looks similar to the timber struts of a wooden boat. It was designed by Henry Yevele and the vault is 82 feet (26.5 meters) high. It is used for services, concerts and degree ceremonies. At the west end is a huge window filled with stained glass, much of which is over 800 years old. There are many memorials on the walls, several to soldiers and statesmen but also one to Orlando Gibbons, the famous musician who died in Canterbury in 1625. On the north side of the Nave is a beautiful 17th century marble font."

The Martyrdom

"This is the place where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights of King Henry II on the December 29, 1170. Within three years, he was declared a saint by the Pope. A modern altar and sculpture commemorate this savage killing. On the other side is a doorway into the Cloister by which the knights entered the Cathedral. Also visible is the screen leading to the Dean’s Chapel, which has many remarkable tombs.

The Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom

The Pulpitum Crossing

"Here you can see the richly carved stone screen, called the pulpitum screen with six royal statues. In the Middle Ages, this screen would have been painted in vivid colors and had statues of the 12 apostles (they were destroyed during the Civil War in the 1640s). Look up into the fan vaulting of Bell Harry Tower. This tower was the last major addition to the Cathedral and is 500 years old. The tower is 235 feet (76 meters) tall. Notice from here the great length of the Cathedral; from east to west it is 515 feet long (157 meters)."

The Quire

"The Quire is used every day for services. It is over 800 years old, having been rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1174 and is the first Gothic building in the UK. The stone vault is about 59 feet (18 meters ) high. Note the dark brown wooden choir stalls, most of which are Victorian. Also visible is a brass lectern, in the shape of an eagle, to support a Bible. Behind it the High Altar can be seen."

"Thomas Becket, a London merchant’s son, was a complex person – in his youth he was a normal young man, stormy and proud, selfish and arrogant, vain, and anxious to please, but in later life, became one of the most pious and devout Archbishops of the 12th century.

Despite differences in their status Thomas’s greatest friend was Henry, who was later to becomeKing Henry II of England. They hunted and played chess together, people said the two men ‘had but one heart and one mind’.

At the age of 21, Henry became king, Becket became his Chancellor. Both furious workers, they labored tirelessly to bring law and order to Henry’s realm.

It was during Henry’s reign those legal terms such as ‘trial by jury’ and ‘assizes’ (sittings) became so familiar in the English language. The king’s judges traveled the country administering the common law – the law of all free men.

The exception to this was the Church, which had its own courts and own laws. Priests who murdered or raped could avoid common-law justice by claiming ‘benefit of clergy’, the right to be tried in the bishop’s court. The worst that could happen here was to be issued with a severe penance or exceptionally, expulsion (defrocking) from the priesthood.

Much of the power in the country at that time was enjoyed and exploited by the rich bishops and abbots of the Church. And, while the Church swore loyalty to the king, they also insisted that their true allegiance was to God and his earthly representative, the Pope in Rome.

On the death of his Archbishop of Canterbury in May 1161, Henry saw his chance of bringing the Church to heel, by promoting his best friend Thomas to the newly vacated post.

With the donning of his archbishop’s robes however, Becket’s whole demeanor seems to have changed, as he appeared to have experienced a religious conversion.

‘Born again’ Thomas changed completely – from then on he wore a sackcloth shirt which reached to his knees, and swarmed with all forms of wildlife. He had a very sparse diet, and his accustomed drink was water.

King Henry and Becket remained good friends until they clashed over clerical privilege. Henry stated that the church was subject to the law of the land, but Becket insisted that the Church was above the law.

Their confrontation came to a head at Northampton Castle in October 1164, when supporters of Henry questioned Thomas’s loyalty to his king by accusing him of being a ‘Traitor’.

Some harsh words were exchanged …‘Whoremonger!’, ‘Bastard!’, and other such choice expressions, before Thomas made a strategic withdrawal …to France!

Thomas spent six years in exile before things calmed down sufficient for him to return to Canterbury. Preaching from the cathedral on Christmas Day 1170, Thomas again displayed his stormy temperament when he excommunicated some of his fellow bishops with the words …’May they all be damned by Jesus Christ!’

Henry became incensed when he heard of this outburst and is said to have uttered the fateful words “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!”

Four of Henry’s knights, probably not the brightest of men, took this as a summons to action, and left for Canterbury immediately.

They reached Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, where they found Becket before the High Altar, as he had gone there to hear Vespers. One of the knights approached him, and struck Becket on the shoulder with the flat of his sword. It seems that the knights did not at first intend to kill Becket, but as he stood firm after the first blow, the four attacked and butchered him.

It is recorded that they cracked open his skull spilling his brains onto the cathedral floor!

Henry was horrified when he heard the news as he believed that it was his words that had been the cause of Becket’s death. As an act of penitence, he donned sackcloth and ashes, and starved himself for three days.

Becket was immediately hailed as a martyr and canonized in 1173, after which his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became the most important center of pilgrimage in England, with relics associated with him distributed to churches throughout Europe.

Unfortunately this shrine was totally destroyed during the Reformation in 1540, when King Henry VIII ordered his bones to be destroyed and all mention of his names obliterated. Today, the place of Thomas’ death in Canterbury Cathedral is marked by a lighted candle and simple stone bearing his name."

The Trinity Chapel

"This splendid chapel was built over 800 years ago for the shrine of St Thomas Becket. Note the marble columns and the very ornate marble floor. Also visible are the tombs of King Henry IV (died 1413) and the Black Prince (died 1376). Many of the windows are filled with wonderful 800 year old stained glass showing some of the miracles that took place after the death of ThomasYou can also see the back of the Archbishop’s official seat which is known as St Augustine’s Chair. "

Tomb of King Henry IV 1367-1413 and his wife Joan of Navarre

The Black Prince

"A range of  hi-tech investigations are being undertaken to find out more about the 14th century Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince, whose tomb lies in the Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel.

The non-invasive scientific analysis has been used to discover more about the tomb as well as the garments known as the Achievements, which hung over the tomb for more than 600 years, and were removed from public display in 2016.

Cathedral experts have been working with a number of specialists and results of much of the research were presented in papers at the inaugural Collections and Conservation Conference held at the Cathedral in November 2017.

Helm: Alan Williams (Archaeometallurgist at The Wallace Collection), Antonella Scherillo and Dr Francesco Grazzi (who designed the experiment), spent three days at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, conducting an experiment on the helm to determine its composition. Using a nuclear reactor and neutron diffraction, they were able to determine (among other things), that the helm was likely a used item and part of the Black Prince’s wardrobe during his lifetime.

Jupon: Lisa Monnas (an independent textiles historian) examined the jupon in detail before it went on loan to the V&A for their ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition in 2016, and again on its return. She was able to help us understand the item in the context of 14th century textiles and the wardrobe of the Royal Household in the time of the Black Prince and his father, King Edward III.

Cap of Maintenance: Lloyd de Beer (Ferguson Curator of Medieval Europe, British Museum), Yvette Fletcher (Head of Conservation, Leather Conservation Centre), Marie-Louise Sauerberg (Paintings Conservator) and Poppy Singer (Textile Conservator), combined forces in order to discover more about how the cap was made and its function as they looked at ways to consolidate and conserve the cap to ensure its long term preservation and prepare it for future display."

Tomb and effigy: Dr Jessica Barker (University of East Anglia), Emily Pegues (The Courtauld Institute) and Graeme MacArthur (Metals Conservator, The Wallace Collection) spent two days examining the Black Prince’s gilt bronze effigy, which lies upon his chest tomb. They used a combination of detailed visual examination, mirrors, torches, and scanning the tomb with a portable X-ray fluorescent (XRF) machine. Research into the tomb and effigy of the Black Prince is ongoing.

Shield: Yvette Fletcher (Head of Conservation, Leather Conservation Center) and Ariane Langreder (Head of Book & Paper Conservation, Canterbury Cathedral) undertook consolidation work on the shield to prepare it for display, The close examination of the object also allowed them to make deductions about the construction of the shield.

The Black Prince

The Funeral Achievements of Edward Plantagenet "The Black Prince" carried in procession in 1376.

Copy by E W. Tristram of the painting of The Holy Trinity on the underside of the tester above the tomb of "The Black Prince."

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