Canterbury Cathedral lies at the heart of
the Kentish city, the seat of the foremost bishop of the church in
England and the mother church of the Anglican Communion. Its full
name is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at
Canterbury. It was founded by the missionary St Augustine in AD 597
as his cathedra, Latin for 'seat', the origin of 'cathedral'.
Augustine was initially allowed by the king of Kent to worship at St
Martin's before work began on this church.
During the Saxon period the early Christchurch
was extensively rebuilt and enlarged, and Augustine's original building
lies beneath the floor of the nave. The cathedral community lived as
the household of the archbishop until the tenth century, when it
became a formal community of Benedictine monks. This arrangement
remained in place until the monastery was dissolved. Before this,
the Saxon cathedral was damaged when it was sacked by the Danes in
No sooner was the cathedral repaired than it was
ravaged beyond repair by a great fire which swept through the city
in 1067. Following hard on the heels of the Norman Conquest, it must
have been a hammer-blow to the Saxons. However, work soon began on a
magnificent new Norman cathedral, between 1070-1077. The stone was
brought from Caen via the great coastal town of Sandwich and up the
River Stour to Fordwich, which was Canterbury's main port.
The finished cathedral was one of the greatest
Benedictine abbey churches in England, although changes have been
made to it since its completion. Between 1098-1130 a new quire built
over a crypt (the present Western Crypt). Monumentally, in 1170
Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral. The site of
his death became a shrine which encouraged thousands of pilgrims to
make the journey to Canterbury, including Chaucer's famous pilgrims.
The quire was rebuilt and extended after a disastrous
fire in 1174 destroyed the earlier structure. Becket's shrine was placed
in the Trinity Chapel in 1220. Construction of the Great Cloister (seen
here) began in 1396, with the great windows of the Chapter House, which
is the largest of its kind in England, looking down over its Perpendicular
arches and lierne vaulting. It seems that this kind of enclosed precinct
had its origins in the Saxon 'inner burgh' or fortified area.
In 1498 the Bell Harry Tower was extended and the
cathedral was largely as is today. Today's main entrance to the cathedral
grounds is the Christchurch Gate, which was built between 1517-1521. Three
years of turmoil erupted in 1538, when Becket's shrine was destroyed by
Henry VIII. Two years later the monastery was dissolved by royal command,
and in 1541 a new foundation involving a group of clergy known as
the dean and chapter was established.
Beyond the library and the water tower on the northern
side of the cathedral now lay the gardens containing the ruins of the Monks
Dormitory (seen here). During the Dissolution they were destroyed and
provision was made for the former members as long as they accepted Henry VIII
as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. The site now houses the Healing
Garden and Herbarium. Ruins also cover the view of the Trinity Chapel at the
far end of the cathedral.
During the English Civil War the cathedral
suffered damage at the hands of the Puritans; much of the medieval
stained glass was smashed and horses were stabled in the nave.
After the Restoration in 1660, several years were spent in repairing
the building. These repairs took until 1704, and it was during this
phase that the splendid timber doors beneath the Christchurch
gatehouse (seen here) were added. They bear the arms of Archbishop
In the 1830s, the millennium-old north-west tower
was found to be in a dangerous condition. It was demolished to be
replaced by a copy of the south-west tower. During the Second World
War, the cathedral precincts were heavily damaged, as was a large
area of the southern part of the city (clearly seen in the 1944 film,
A Canterbury Tale), and the cathedral's library was destroyed.
Fire watchers prevented incendiary bombs from setting fire to the
The Eglise Protestante Francaise de Cantorbery
(French Protestant Church of Canterbury) holds services in the Black
Prince Chantry, in the crypt, under French Protestant rites. Queen
Elizabeth I allowed French-speaking Walloons from the Spanish Netherlands
to escape Catholic persecution by resettling in Canterbury. They were added
to by later Huguenots from France. While not part of the cathedral because
they do not conform to Anglican rites, they are sheltered by it.
Seven photos on this page by P L Kessler,
one kindly contributed by Tricia Baxter, one by Sam Weller
via the 'History Files: Churches of the British Isles' Flickr
group, and sound recording by Herbert Boland.