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 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.
Five photos on this page by P L Kessler,
one kindly contributed by Tricia Baxter, four by Sam Weller,
JR-Teams.com, Lee Johnson, and Barry Skilbeck, all via the
'History Files: Churches of the British Isles' Flickr group,
and sound recording by Herbert Boland.