There has been a cathedral in Canterbury since St Augustine’s baptism of the Saxon king Ethelbert in 597.
Canterbury Cathedral has long been home to the most important and iconic religious icon in the region, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who resided at the cathedral itself. As a result, the building had huge significance in Medieval England, both in terms of religion and politic. However, it became better known as a pilgrimage destination after Thomas Becket’s murder within the cathedral walls in 1170.
Little of the original cathedral remains as a result of the fire that spread through the building in 1067. This also goes for the rebuilding of the cathedral in a Norman style at the time when Lanfranc was the Archbishop of Canterbury - having been appointed by William the Conqueror in 1070 - for which poor upkeep resulted in rapid decay.
However, the writings of English monk Bede has provided historians with an insight into how it looked in both instances. Gervase, a famous chronicler, also described an account of the cathedral’s choir appearing during its reconstruction towards the end of the 12th Century.
Most of the troubles faced by the cathedral were due to periods with a lack of money, which meant upkeep was inconsistent.
For example, the nave constructed during Lanfranc’s time in post managed to survive another cathedral fire in 1174, only to end up decaying through lack of care. The nave’s condition was so poor, in fact, that at the end of the 1370s Archbishop Sudbury ordered work on a replacement. Henry Yeveley, one of King Edward III’s master masons, was appointed to lead the project, which took 25 years to complete and can still be seen today.
Before working on Canterbury Cathedral, the naves constructed by Yeveley had been restricted in both length and width. However, the only limit for this project was the engineering knowledge of the time, which made it possible for the mason to construct a nave of almost 80 feet in height from the floor to the vaulting. The decision was made in the 16th Century to reinforce the central tower with a stone girder placed above an alter.
Although master masons were restricted by basic tools in Medieval England, the standard of the skills used to construct the cathedral are clear. It’s central tower, the Bell Harry Tower, is just one example of this. Stretching 235 feet into the sky, the tower had its weight carefully balanced through fan-shaped vaulting that spread it to the foundations. The tower’s geometric ceiling is also a triumph of medieval architecture, created by skilled craftsmen who lay on their backs on unsteady scaffolding in in the name of religion.
Another of the cathedral’s most popular features is its stained class window, which sits at the east end of the building and depicts Bible stories. Underneath this window is the patriarchal chair, which was crafted out of marble and has been used to enthrone all archbishops since the 12th Century. Originally it was believed that the chair was created as part of the original cathedral, but historians now think it was placed there during the choir’s reconstruction.
The city of Canterbury itself has also developed over the years to account for the vast number of people who have travelled to the cathedral to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, whose remains were transferred from the crypt to Trinity Chapel in 1220.
The pilgrimage made by so many was explored in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was written in 1390. The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of pilgrims who undertook the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral via the route along the Old Kent Road in London, which resulted in the creation of the “Pilgrim’s Way” trail from Rochester to Canterbury.
Although there is no clear record of how many people have travelled to Canterbury on pilgrimage, in 1420 it is believed that approximately 100,000 pilgrims travelled on the name to Pilgrim’s Steps on their knees.
See also: Building a Medieval Cathedral
"Canterbury Cathedral". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.