Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury cathedral has been around ever since St. Augustine’s baptism of the Saxon king Ethelbert in 597.

The most important religious icon in the region was the Archbishop of Canterbury who resided at the cathedral. The cathedral had major religious and political significance in medieval England but it became much more known as a pilgrimage centre after Thomas Becket was murdered there in 1170.

There are not many remains left of the initial cathedral or Lanfranc’s Norman cathedral who William the Conqueror made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. Though writings by the English monk Bede provide more awareness of how the cathedral originally looked before the 1067 fire and its appearance after the completed rebuilding under Lanfranc’s supervision. Gervase wrote an account of how the cathedral’s choir appeared during reconstruction towards the end of the 12th century.

Canterbury cathedral’s enormous size meant its upkeep always cost money, and there were periods of a lack of money.

Canterbury Cathedral by Julian P Guffogg]
Canterbury Cathedral by Julian P Guffogg]

Lanfranc’s nave was able to survive a cathedral fire in 1174 but ended up decaying. The nave’s condition was so bad at the end of the 1370s that Archbishop Sudbury requested work on a new nave. One of Edward III’s master masons, Henry Yeveley was appointed as leader - altogether it took 25 years to finish and is still able to be seen in the modern age. Previously naves restricted the length and width which Yeveley could work with, however height did not have any limits apart from the period’s engineering, and the nave is almost 80 foot in height from floor to vaulting. A stone girder was placed above an altar in the late 16th century to make sure the vast central tower of the cathedral was stable.

Master masons only had limited tools available such as hammers, chisels, crude measuring devices, wooden scaffolding and more. Despite these limitations, Canterbury’s professional building skills can be seen in its central tower - the Bell Harry Tower. The ceiling is also very well decorated but practical and the men would work on their backs on unsteady scaffolding. The cathedral’s tower is 235 feet high and its weight is kept and shared out through the fan-shaped vaulting that ‘carries’ the weight out to the foundations. Bell Harry’s geometric ceiling is one of the many triumphs of medieval architecture to represent the greater glory of God

There is a huge stained glass window at the cathedral’s east end which shows Bible stories and underneath is the patriarchal chair (cathedral) made of Purbeck marble where the enthronement of all archbishops has occurred since the 12th century. Originally the chair was believed to have been the one St. Augustine used as his cathedral, but now the chair is considered to have originated during the choir’s reconstruction. Thomas Becket’s scalp was also displayed in the cathedral.

Becket’s murder in 1170 caused a large growth in the amount of pilgrims visiting Canterbury. Because of this, Canterbury was required to change in order to allow for all the pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Becket in the cathedral. In 1220 his remains were transferred over to Trinity Chapel from the crypt.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written 1390, explores the reasons pilgrims made the journey to Canterbury Cathedral. It tells stories about a group of pilgrims who undertook the pilgrimage. The route of the pilgrimage was along the Old Kent Road in London which led to the ancient “Pilgrim’s Way” from Rochester to Canterbury.

It is not easy to acquire a clear number of figures for the total pilgrims who travelled to Canterbury but in 1420, approximately 100,000 pilgrims reportedly went along on the nave to Pilgrim’s Steps on their knees.

See also: Building a Medieval Cathedral

MLA Citation/Reference

"Canterbury Cathedral". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.