The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury is the seat of the Archbishop, the leader of the Church of England, and is part of a World Heritage Area. It’s one of the most important churches in the United Kingdom for its historic and spiritual significance and is a must-visit if you enjoy ecclesiastical architecture.
You can find detailed information about the cathedral and visiting options at www.canterbury-cathedral.org. In this article, I include pictures from my visit in October 2020 as part of The Pilgrims’ Way.
From Wikipedia: Founded in 597, the cathedral was completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077. The east end was greatly enlarged at the beginning of the 12th century and largely rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174, with significant eastward extensions to accommodate the flow of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. The Norman nave and transepts survived until the late 14th century when they were demolished to make way for the present structures.
Before the English Reformation the cathedral was part of a Benedictine monastic community known as Christ Church, Canterbury, as well as being the seat of the archbishop.
But a cathedral cannot stand unaffected by the ravages of time. This is the view of the cathedral when I visited in October 2020 when the exterior and parts of the interior were under restoration.
On the one hand, it was a shame to see so much of the cathedral covered in scaffolding and protective boards, but it’s also fascinating to see it during a historic restoration. If the building is not maintained, it won’t last hundreds more years. It was humbling to stand in front of a building that has been here for almost a thousand years and know that the work going on now will be seen by so many generations to come in the future.
I also enjoyed seeing the new statues of the Queen and Prince Philip, whose white stone stood out in the niches. There are statues of many dead monarchs and the status of the monarchy has changed so much over the time the cathedral has stood here.
I love Gothic cathedrals and the nave is always the most spectacular. Again, it was covered in protective shielding when I was there, but it usually looks like this.
Whichever way you walk, remember to look up!
The pulpitum screen, built in the 1450s, divides the nave from the quire. The sculptures are all English kings.
Looking up to the fan vault over the crossing, completed in 1503.
The Compass Rose on the floor of the nave is a symbol of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It points to the east end of the cathedral, not north. The text reads ‘The truth will set you free’ in Greek, the language of the New Testament.
Ornate wooden pulpit, erected in 1898 and carved by the architect George Bodley. The main panels include carvings of the crucifixion and annunciation.
The western crypt under the quire was built around 1100 and features Romanesque carvings.
The Jesus Chapel, off the Eastern crypt. The letters M and I are the Latin initials for Mary and Jesus.
St Michael’s Chapel, also known as The Warrior’s Chapel.
The Martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas a Becket, murdered on this site on 29 December 1170 by four knights of King Henry II. He was canonized on 21 February 1173 and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage site until the Reformation.
In the chapel to the left of the martyrdom site, look right as you enter. There is an interesting tomb covered in marble bones.
The first tomb of St Thomas a Becket was destroyed during the Reformation. A sculpture now hangs above its position. Transport by Antony Gormley, a male figure made from old iron nails from the transept roof. Gormley said of the sculpture, “We are all the temporary inhabitants of a body. It is our house, instrument and medium. Through it, all impressions of the world come and from it all our acts, thoughts and feelings are communicated.” [BBC]
Cadaver monument of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1443), Canterbury Cathedral. He had this built while he was alive, a reminder that whoever we are, we all end up in the tomb. Memento mori, indeed.
Trinity Chapel, where a candle burns on the site of Becket’s original tomb, which was destroyed in 1538.
The Cloisters. The cathedral was originally the church of the Benedictine priory of Christ Church.
Looking out of the cloisters towards the quadrangle.
The timber ceiling of the Chapter House was built in 1405 and restored in the Victorian era.
Walk around the exterior of the Cathedral to explore the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey.
If you stand at the ruins and look back at the cathedral, there is a window on your right with some … unusual … carvings for a religious area!
Nearby, the Canterbury War Horse, in memory of the 8 million horses that died during the First World War.
The door to the Cathedral precinct was also shrouded for conservation when I was there, but it looks like this usually. If you stay within the grounds, you have to ring the bell here to get back in. It’s guarded by the special Cathedral Constables (police).
You can stay within the grounds at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, which I highly recommend. It’s quite atmospheric walking around the grounds at night, and you have access to visit the cathedral and attend services. I went to sung Evensong on arriving at the end of my pilgrimage and it was magical.
Books featuring Canterbury Cathedral
Probably the most famous is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which follows a group of pilgrims from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury. There are many translations from the Middle English.
Sacrilege by SJ Parris. Historical crime. London,1584: Radical philosopher, ex-monk, and spy Giordano Bruno suspects he is being followed by an old enemy … In the city that was once England’s greatest center of pilgrimage, Bruno uncovers a more dangerous plot in the making, one that forces him to turn his detective’s eye to the strange case of Saint Thomas Becket, a twelfth-century cardinal of Canterbury Cathedral whose mysterious murder is only matched by the legend surrounding the disappearance of his body.
Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot. The Archbishop Thomas Becket speaks fatal words before he is martyred in T. S. Eliot’s best-known drama, based on the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Praised for its poetically masterful handling of issues of faith, politics, and the common good, T. S. Eliot’s play bolstered his reputation as the most significant poet of his time.
Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy. This is the man, not the legend … A lively and enlightening new book that brings a colossal figure of British history vividly to life.
Bell Harry by Nicholas Best. In 1179, King Louis VII of France came to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket. He brought a gift with him: a magnificent, blood-red ruby. For hundreds of years the ruby, the Régale de France, held pride of place in Canterbury Cathedral. But, during the reign of Henry VIII, the ruby vanished. In 1942, a German bombing raid hit Canterbury, revealing a hidden tunnel leading straight towards the cathedral. When three young American soldiers decided to investigate, they had no idea what they would find. Will they solve a mystery spanning hundreds of years and locate the Régale de France?