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South East Canterbury Cathedral

An important Christian site since St Augustine, the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and the burial place of the Black Prince and Henry IV

Not only is Canterbury Cathedral one of the oldest Christian Churches in England, it is architecturally one of the best. It has been at the heart of English Christianity for nearly fifteen centuries. It is a World Heritage site along with the nearby ruined St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church, the oldest church in England.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170 put Canterbury very firmly on the tourist map and the cathedral became a major centre of pilgrimage. Visitors still arrive in their thousands today.


There has probably been a Christian church here since Roman Times. King Ethelbert of Kent’s wife, Bertha was a Christian and worshiped in her private chapel of St Martin’s, just outside the city walls. St Augustine was sent from Rome in 597 and established his missionary headquarters in Canterbury around St Martin’s Church. Ethelbert was baptised in this church and granted St Augustine land to build a monastery and a cathedral, with St Augustine as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Christianity gradually spread from here across England.

The city was sacked by the Danes and the cathedral burnt down in 1011. The Archbishop was taken hostage and killed. The cathedral was rebuilt but was destroyed in 1067 when a disastrous fire broke out in the city.

William the Conqueror appointed the Norman Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a motivated and capable leader and soon began rebuilding the cathedral in the latest Norman style of architecture. Lanfranc’s church was extended to the east by his successor, Bishop Anselm with the the north east and south east transepts, and additional chapels as well as the massive crypt under the quire. The only parts of the Norman church to survive today are the crypt, north east and south east transepts, the base of the Chapter House and chapels off the Trinity Chapel.


The history of Canterbury was drastically changed by the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, following several years of bitter rivalry between him and Edward II as to who should be in control of the Christian church. This rocked the establishment and Edward had to pay penance in the cathedral. A series of miracles followed Thomas’s death and he was canonised in 1173. This lead to a massive increase in pilgrims visiting Canterbury, bringing in vast sums of money.

The quire was destroyed by fire in 1174 and this was the opportunity to rebuild the east end of the Cathedral, not only to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims but also to provide a worthy setting for Becket’s shrine. William of Sens was put in charge of the rebuilding which began in 1175 with the quire. This was built in the latest Early English style with flying buttresses on the outside and dark Purbeck marble columns which emphasised the height of the arcades, compared with the triforium and clerestory above. Fortunately the chapels of St Anselm with its C12th wall painting and St Andrew were not damaged and survive with their Norman architecture. William fell from faulty scaffolding on the east transept in 1178 and was permanently injured, dying two years later in France.


He was succeeded by William the Englishman who added the Trinity Chapel and the Corona in 1184 and extended the crypt eastwards. The north and south quire aisles acted as ambulatories, taking pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Becket in the Trinity Chapel. The stained glass windows were made by some of the best workmen in France. A watching chamber was built so monks could keep an eye on pilgrims visiting the shrine. The Corona housed a jewelled reliquary containing the tonsure from Thomas Becket.


Burial near the shrine was thought to give great sanctity and the tombs of Edward, the Black Prince and Henry IV were built on either side of the shrine.

The east end now dwarfed the nave and there was a second great period of building and embellishment in the C14th, when the Norman nave was replaced by a magnificent early Perpendicular style nave, with tall columns rising up to delicate vaulted arches and gilt roof bosses. It is regarded as one of the best examples of Perpendicular work in England. A magnificent stone screen separated the nave and choir.


The Norman central tower was pulled down and this wasn’t rebuilt until the start of the C16th. The cloisters were rebuilt and the chapter house ceiling was replaced with a wagon vaulted roof. The transepts were also rebuilt as was the south west tower.

This drawing is taken from the Canterbury Cathedral website.

Cathedral drawing.jpg

A detailed plan of the cathedral can be found here.

The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 and the cathedral survived as a college of secular canons. Just over half of the monks became members of the new foundation. The rest were pensioned off. Becket’s shrine was destroyed and cart loads of treasure were appropriated by the King.

There was further damage during the Civil War and the Commonwealth when stained glass was smashed, the organ and monuments damaged and hangings torn down. The lead was stripped from the roof.

In 1660, the church was in a wretched state and major repairs were needed. There were further restorations in the mid C19th to the north west tower and the south west porch. Some of the statues on the outside of the building were replaced.


This is still continuing with the addition of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the west door, joining Edward VI and Queen Victoria.


Sir George Gilbert Scott was responsible for restoring the quire in the C19th, incorporating as much of the original structure as possible.

The Cathedral still stands in its walled precinct and all visitors have to pay to enter this, unless they are attending a service. The ticket gives free admission for the next 12 months. Entry is through the Christ Church Gateway which was one of the last parts of the monastic buildings to be built before the Dissolution. The heraldic shields commemorate the visit of Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII to Canterbury in 1500. The statue of Christ above the archway is modern, replacing a statue damaged by Parliamentarians during the Civil War.



Canterbury is on nearly everyone’s tick list, which means that it does get very busy. It is very much an important part of our Christian history.

I last visited when I was 15 and all I remember is the tomb of the Black Prince complete with his surcoat and helmet above. These are now reproductions. Walking into the nave is impressive. The cathedral is big and it is very easy to miss things. The introductory leaflet gives a recommended route round the cathedral which I started to follow until I kept getting distracted by other things. The stained glass around the Trinity Chapel is wonderful, as are many of the tombs. The crypt is massive and the Norman crypt has a womb like quality. Unfortunately I was not not allowed to take photographs in the crypt. The wall paintings in St Gabriels’ Chapel are beautifu and my camera finger was twitching in there.

I spent nearly three hours in the cathedral and even then I didn’t have chance to properly walk round the precincts or find the remains of the original monastery.



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Canterbury Cathedral - Nave, Martyrdom and St Michael's Chapel

Entry into the cathedral is through the south east porch, dating from the early C14th. It was restored in the C19th with new statues of Canterbury’s most notable



The first impressions inside the Cathedral are the size of the nave with its tall pillars taking the eyes upwards to the vaulted ceiling with its gilded bosses. This is perpendicular architecture at its best.




The walls of the side aisles are lined with memorials, including this splendid tomb to Johanni Boys and family in the north aisle.


The C17th marble font with its elaborate painted lid is dwarfed by the arch of the arcade.


The glorious C19th painted pulpit is the work of GF Bodley with its Angels, and carvings of the Nativity and Crucifixion.


Thomas Becket was murdered on 29th December 1170, on his way to say vespers on a spot near the door into the cloisters, the stairs leading to the crypt and the steps to the quire. This is now referred to as the Martyrdom. A modern stone altar marks the spot. Below is a simple memorial stone with ‘THOMAS’ inscribed on it. On the wall above is a new sculpture representing the swords of the four knights who murdered Becket.


On the west wall are two tombs of Archbishops of Canterbury.


Behind the Martyrdom is the (locked) Lady Chapel


Off the south transept near the steps into the crypt is the locked St Michael's Chapel, also called the Warrior’s Chapel as the standards of the Kent as the standards of the Royal East Kent Regiment hand from the ceiling.


In the centre is the massive tomb of Lady Margaret Holland who died in 1437 with her two husbands, the Earl of Somerset and the Duke of Clarence.


On the north wall are the splendid C17th tombs of members of the Thornhurst family.




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Canterbury Cathedral - The Quire, Presbytery and Crypt

A splendid carved stone screen separates the nave from the quire. This dates from 1455 and is decorated with angels holding shields and kings of England including Ethelbert, Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. The figures of Christ and the twelve apostles were destroyed by the Puritans.


The quire was rebuilt by William of Sens after a disastrous fire in 1174. Its architecture is very different to the nave, being Early English. The dark Purbeck marble columns provide a stark contrast to the lighter stone. Its round pillars are much shorter with carved capitals. It has a simple ribbed ceiling. Behind the C19th choir stalls is an open carved screen. Above the stone screen is a view of the crossing and the nave ceiling.




A flight of steps leads up to the Presbytery with the Trinity Chapel and Corona beyond.


The C11th Crypt below the quire is the oldest part of the Cathedral. and is reached by flights of stairs off the quire aisles. It was extended beneath the Trinity Chapel in the C14th.


No photography was allowed in the crypt when I visited in 2016.

The crypt is massive. The Norman crypt has tiny windows admitting very little light. It has an almost womb like feel. At the centre is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Undercroft with C14th carved stone screens around the altar, with a statue of Mary holding the young Jesus on the wall above. On the south side is the splendid tomb of Archbishop John Morton who died in 1500 which still has the remains of its medieval red and green paint as well as the brighter more recent paint.

Massive round Norman pillars with elaborately carved capitals support the vaulted ceiling and form an ambulatory around the crypt. These include a knight on horseback, a green man as well as mythical beasts.

On the south wall is St Gabriel’s Chapel, with its wonderful C12th wall paintings. Those on the ceiling are in poor condition, unlike those around the altar which are still vibrant and depict the naming of John the Baptist.

Next to St Gabriel’s Chapel is what was the Chantry of the Black Prince and later the Huguenot’s Chapel. It is now the Eglise Protestante Français and a French service is held here every Sunday.

Opposite is the Chapel of the Holy innocents which was locked. This has a central pillar with an elaborately carved bulbous capital.

At the back of the crypt is Becket’s Mazer, a C14th wooden drinking bowl with a silver rim. The orange crystal in the base is said to be from the shoe Becket was wearing when he was murdered.

The Norman crypt was extended when the quire and Trinity Chapel were rebuilt in the C13th. This end of the crypt is very different with larger windows allowing in light and vaulted ceiling.


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Canterbury Cathedral - The Trinity Chapel and the Corona

After William of Sens’s accident, the Trinity Chapel and the Corona were completed by William the Englishman. These form the far east end of the cathedral.

The Trinity Chapel was the site of Becket’s shrine from 1220 until 1538, when the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII. A lighted candle in the floor marks the site of the shrine.


There are good views back down to the west end of the Cathedral. Overlooking the Presbytery is St Augustine’s Chair which is used for the enthronement of all Archbishops of Canterbury.


The Trinity Chapel is surrounded by an arcade of round pillars with carved capitals. Above is the triforium with Purbeck marble columns supporting the arches. The stained glass windows of the clerestory flood the Trinity chapel with colour on sunny days.

On either side are the tombs of Edward the Black Prince and Henry IV with his wife Joan of Navarre. It was an indication of importance and sanctity to be buried near the shrine.

Round the Trinity Chapel, the quire aisles extend to form an ambulatory. This was used by the pilgrims to gain access to the shrine. The Purbeck marble pillars lead to the ribs of the vaulted ceiling. Some of these are decorated with Norman style dog tooth carving.


At the far end is the small apsidal Corona, which contained the jewelled reliquary containing the tonsure of Thomas Becket. This now has a small altar.



The Trinity Chapel and the Corona contain some of the best Medieval stained glass in England and have images of the life and miracles of Thomas Becket.







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Canterbury Cathedral - The North Quire Aisle and the North East Transept

The choir aisles acted as an ambulatory, leading pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Becket in the Trinity Chapel. They are reached by flights of stairs from the nave.



Along with the crypt, they contain some of the only Norman work to survive in the Cathedral, with Norman arcading along the base of the walls. The north east transept is slightly later and the style is more transitional than Norman. It also has the dark Purbeck Marble pillars so typical of Early English work.




In one of the arches opposite the quire is a wall painting of the legend of St Eustace dating from around 1490. A panel on the opposite wall explains the legend. At the bottom is the kneeling figure of Eustace who had been hunting a stag and had seen a vision of the crucified figure of Christ between the stag’s antlers. He became a Christian and the family travelled to Rome to renounce their worldly possessions. Eustace then had an eventful life as his wife was carried away in a ship by pirates while Eustace and his sons prayed on the shore. He tried to cross a swollen river, but a wolf ran off with one child and a lion with the other. Eustace prayed in the middle of the river. After 15 years, Eustace has managed to get his wife and sons back and was now the victorious general of the Emperor Adrian. Adrian ordered a great sacrifice to the gods to celebrate his victory. Eustace and his family refuse and as a punishment were roasted to death. Adrian stands by with a sword in his hand. At the top, two angels hold a sheet containing the souls of Eustace, his wife and two sons while a dove representing the Holy Spirit descends from Heaven to receive them.


There are more wall paintings in St Andrew’s Chapel which is kept locked.


The tomb of Archbishop Chichele is between the north quire and the Presbytery. Above is the brightly coloured effigy of the Archbishop in his ceremonial robes. Below and hidden by the chairs is his emaciated cadaver.


The tomb with its richly carved figures on the pillars and canopy of angels holding shields was restored by Bodley in the C19th. The original figures were destroyed by Puritans and are replaced with carvings of well known Archbishops.

Between the North quire aisle and the Trinity Chapel is the tomb of Henry IV and his wife, Joan of Navarre, with a beautifully painted canopy above them.




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Canterbury Cathesdral - The South Quire Aisle and South East Transepts

The south quire aisle acts as an ambulatory to and from the Trinity Chapel. Looking back down to the crossing from the south east transept, the style is Norman, from the original Norman cathedral. Looking the other way, the style is the later Early English style. Between the south quire aisle and the presbytery are a row of splendid tombs.



The south east transept shows Norman arcading along the base of the walls with later Early English work above. The sunlight floods in through the large stained glass windows colouring the floor and walls. On the east side are two small chapels.




Beyond the south east transept is St Anselm’s Chapel, which is one of the oldest parts of the Cathedral, surviving from the Norman Cathedral. There is blind Norman arcading round the base of the walls and a lovely round Norman arch leads into the chancel. Tucked away high on the north wall of the chancel is a small C12th wall painting of St Paul shaking off the viper into a fire.




On the wall between the chapel and the south quire aisle is a later dark marble tomb of Arcbishop Mepham set under ogee arches.


There are more tombs between the south quire aisle and the Presbytery of Archbishops Kemp, Stratford and Sudbury.


Perhaps the most important tomb is that of Edward the Black Prince, who died in 1327. He was a popular figure who defeated the France at Crécy and Poitiers. He had asked to be buried in the crypt and a chantry chapel was prepared for him but these wishes were overruled and he was buried in the Trinity Chapel near the shrine of Thomas Becket. His bronze effigy lies on a table tomb surrounded by railings. Above is a tester depicting the Holy Spirit. Replicas of his surcoat, gauntlets, helmet and shield made in 1954 hang above the tomb. Known as achievements, the originals would have been carried in the funerary procession and displayed above the tomb. These are now very fragile and are being conserved with the intention to display them again in the cathedral.




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Canterbury Cathedral - The Cloisters and Chapter House

The cloisters with their heavily ribbed lierne vaulted ceiling were completed in 1414 and are in the Perpendicular style of architecture, like the nave. The bosses commemorate those who contributed to the rebuilding of the east end of the Cathedral in the C12th.



The cloisters are reached through a door near the Martyrdom.


The Chapter House is off the east wall of the Cloisters and is a mix of styles, including work from the C11th to C15th. It is one of the largest in England with stone seating round the walls for the monks to sit set under arched arcading and a larger raised seat for the Prior.



Prior Chillenden was responsible for the beautiful early C15th wagon vaulted ceiling made from Irish oak.


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