This glorious high-vaulted cathedral was designed in the French Gothic style by William of Sens in 1070 and was the first Gothic church in England. It was built to reflect Canterbury’s growing ecclesiastical rank as a major center of Christianity by the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc, on the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon cathedral. Enlarged and rebuilt many times, it remains an exceptional example of the different styles of medieval architecture. The most significant moment in its history came in 1170, when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered here. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which, until Henry VIII destroyed it, was one of Christendom’s chief pilgrimage sites.
ST. THOMAS BECKET
When Archbishop Theobold died in 1161, King Henry II saw the opportunity to increase his power over the Church by consecrating his faithful adviser, Thomas Becket, as the Archbishop of Canterbury – the most prominent ecclesiastical role in the kingdom. The king mistakenly believed that this would allow him to exert pressure on the Church. Becket’s loyalty shifted and the struggle between Church and monarch for ultimate control of the realm culminated in the murder of Becket on December 29, 1170, by four knights attempting to gain the king’s favor. People flocked to mourn him and, three days later, a series of miracles took place that were attributed to Becket. After Becket’s canonization in 1173, Canterbury Cathedral became a major center of pilgrimage.
THE ENGLISH REFORMATION
In 1534, Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome when the pope refused to divorce him from Catherine of Aragon. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was made to do so instead. The Church of England was created, with Henry as its supreme head and the Archbishop of Canterbury its ecclesiastical guide. The Book of Common Prayer, compiled by Cranmer, became the cornerstone of the Church of England.
THE BLACK PRINCE
Edward, Price of Wales (1330-76), known as “The Black Prince”, gained popularity as leader of the victorious English army at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. he again emerged triumphant in 1356, at the Battle of Poitiers, when the French king, John the Good, was captured and brought to Canterbury Cathedral to worship at St. Thomas’s tomb. As heir to the throne, Edward wanted to be buried in the crypt, but it was thought appropriate that this hero be laid to rest alongside the tomb of St. Thomas in the Trinity Chapel. The cooper effigy on the Black Prince’s Tomb is one of the most impressive in the cathedral. The Black Prince was outlived by his father, Edward III, but his son was crowned Richard II in 1377 at the age of ten.
Bronze statue of Jesus on the main entrance to the cathedral precinct
This was rebuilt by Henry Yevele in the Perpendicular style from 1377-1405.
Bell Harry Tower
The central tower was built in 1496 to house a bell donated by Prior Henry (Harry) of Eastry. The present Bell Harry was cast in 1635. The fan vaulting is a superb example of this late-Gothic style.
Two stories of coupled Corinthian columns are topped by a pediment carved with reliefs showing the Conversion of St. Paul.
These contain stained-glass panels (1957) by Erwin Bossanyi.
Site of the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket’s
This Victorian illustration portrays Becket’s canonization. The trinity Chapel was built to house his tomb, which stood here until 1538. The spot is now marked by a lighted candle.
Southwest Transept Window
The cathedral’s unique collection of stained glass gives a precious glimpse into medieval beliefs and practices. The depiction of the 1,000-year-old Methuselah is a detail from the southwest transept window.
At 328 ft (100m) the nave makes Canterbury Cathedral Europe’s longest medieval church. In 1984, parts of an Anglo-Saxon cathedral were found beneath the nave.
Black Prince’s Tomb
This copper effigy is on the tomb of Edward, Prince of Wales, who died in 1376.
THE CANTERBURY TALES
Considered to be the first great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1345-1400) is chiefly remembered for The Canterbury Tales, a boisterous and witty saga about a group of pilgrims who travel from London to Becket’s shrine. The pilgrims represent a cross-section of 14th -century English society and the tales are one of the most entertaining works of early English literature.
In 597, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine on a mission to convert the English to Christianity. Augustine founded a church on the present-day site of Canterbury Cathedral and became its first archbishop.
597: St. Augustine founds the first cathedral at Canterbury.
1070: The cathedral is rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc.
1170: Archbishop Thomas Becket is murdered at the altar and canonized in 1173.
1534: Henry VIII splits from the Church of Rome and forms the Church of England.
1538: St. Thomas Becket’s shire is destroyed by Henry VIII.
1982: Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie pray at Becket’s tomb.