Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury is the seat of the origins of English Christianity, the site where St. Augustine, the monk sent by Gregory the Great to Christianize the English, baptized King Etherbert of Kent on Whit Sunday in 597. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his church, dedicated to Christ Jesus, was later burned by the Danes during the reign of Archbishop  Alphege.

Augustine's monastery today


In 1067, the cathedral was destroyed by a fire. Lanfranc, the first Norman archbishop, reorganized the monastery and initiated the rebuilding of the cathedral which was dedicated in 1077. Lanfranc's successor, the internationally renowned scholar and theologian Anselm added the towers abutting the eastern transepts and the crypt, the largest of its period in England. The quire was dedicated in 1130, but in 1174, another fire destroyed the entire eastern arm of the cathedral. William of Sens  was hired to supervise the rebuilding, and his work on the transept, the vault, and the quire at Canterbury was some of the earliest work in what came to be known as the Gothic style. 

 right: the southeast end of the cathedral

The Bell Harry

South side, looking west

William's successor added the Trinity Chapel to the quire as a setting for a new shrine to Thomas Becket, which stood there  from 1220 to 1538 when it was destroyed by order of Henry VIII.. Thomas  Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II, "the hooly blisful martyr," whose shrine is the object of the Canterbury pilgrims' journey, was martyred in 1170 at the behest of Henry II, traditionally as the result of an ill-framed wish, something on the order of, "would that there were someone to rid me of this pesky priest" which was taken literally by four of his followers. On December 29,  four knights, Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse, and William de Tracy, erupted into the cathedral and demanded to see the archbishop. At the urging of the monks, Becket left the monastery and met his attackers in the cathedral, in the north transept . Following the conventional pattern of accusation and rebuttal, the four charged Becket with treason to the king. Becket resisted fiercely, but was attacked and killed by the sword of Richard Brito. Becket's body was placed in the crypt, and a few days later began a series of miracles which in 1173 resulted in Becket's canonization. 
Canterbury quickly became the most popular and lucrative pilgrimage site in England, as the wealth of the cathedral deorations attest. This  panel (left) from a window in the south quire aisle depicts medieval pilgrims journeying to Canterbury. 
      At the heart of the disagreement between Henry and his sometime Chancellor of England was an intense power struggle between the church and the monarchy.  There were two fundamental causes of conflict between Becket and the Henry II.  The most immediate was a disagreement over Henry's coronation of his son, known as the Young King (since he pre-deceased his father and never assumed effective control), in the presence of the Archbishop of York and other clerics but without the participation of the most powerful representative of the Church in England. Henry wished to crown his son king in his own lifetime, a decision he presumably came to regret since his son's restiveness at being king in name only, without effective power, finally led him to revolt against his father and to die as a result of his rebellion. Henry took this controversial step while Becket was absent on the continent, one which infuriated Becket as an affront to his office and a symbolic statement of the autonomy or the monarch. When Becket returned from France, he excommunicated all the clerics who had taken part in the ceremony, causing Henry to utter his fateful wish. 
Note the placement of the figures in the panel below which shows the larger and centrally placed bishop dominating the smaller figure of the king below him.
       The issue of the monarch's ability to designate and crown his own successor without the participation of the head of the church was part of a larger controversy over the relative powers of the church and state that had as its most inflammatory expression the Constitutions of Clarendon issued by Henry in 1164. The Constitutions of Clarendon were, from top to bottom, an extreme challenge to the authority and the autonomy of the Church in England.  The proclamations in this document effectively reduced the Church from a separate and parallel governing institution to one that was subject to the crown. One of the most contentious issues was the punishment of the criminal clergy, which the Constitutions of Clarendon arrogated ultimately to the royal courts rather than giving the final say to the ecclesiastical courts. In addition, the Constitutions made many other provisions that lessened the autonomy of the Church. For example, they provided that no tenant in chief of the king could be excommunicated without the assent of the king, that the archbishops, bishops, and priests could not travel abroad without the permission of the king, that any dispute regarding the patronage and presentation of a church should be litigated in the royal courts, that all revenues from vacant archbishoprics, bishoprics, abbeys, and priories of the king's demesne reverted to the king, that the filling of those vacancies was at that king's discretion, that the clerics elected to these positions had to perform homage and fealty to the king, that no church of the king's demesne could be permanently bestowed without a grant of the king. 

      Thomas at first agreed to the Constitutions of Clarendon but later recanted, resulting in a six- year period of exile and the confiscation of all his revenues and those of his property. He had only just returned from exile when the new controversy over the coronation of the Young King arose. Henry believed that Becket had accepted the irregular coronation when word reached him in Normandy of additional measures Becket was taking against the participants in the ceremony. 


Above: windows from the Corona, at the eastern end of the cathedral

Right: south transept window

Below left: the southwest porch

Below right: Bell Harry towers above the medieval city walls

The Norman water tower, built in the twelfth century, still supplies water to the cathedral The tomb of the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III
Christ Church Gate, completed 1517

The Warriors' Chapel, datng from the fourteenth century

The exterior of the cathedral,  decorated with figures of gargoyles, saints, kings, and the Virgin Mary, sends extraordinarily complex messages of mercy, compassion, desire, power, hope, and terror.



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