After the Kingdom of Kent‘s conversion to Christianity in 597, St Augustine founded the Canterbury Cathedral and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Today it forms a World Heritage Site, along with the Saxon St. Martin’s Church and the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey. Canterbury Cathedral, in South East England, is a popular tourist destination and actually one of the most-visited cities in the United Kingdom. Personally I think it is one of the most beautiful as well.
I got to visit this stunning Cathedral with my very good friend Adel who shares my love for travel and history. I couldn’t wait to visit the Cathedral in which Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. This gruesome event led to the Cathedral becoming a place of pilgrimage for Christians worldwide.
The archbishop, Thomas Becket was murdered in the north-west transept of the Cathedral on Tuesday 29 December 1170 by knights of King Henry II. The king had frequent conflicts with the strong-willed Becket over the rights and privileges of the Church.
In June 1170, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the archbishop of York, along with Gilbert Foliot, the bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the bishop of Salisbury, crowned Henry the Young King at York.
This was a breach of Canterbury’s privilege of coronation, and in November 1170 Becket excommunicated all three. While the three clergymen fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church, the news of which also reached Henry.
Upon hearing reports of Becket’s actions King Henry is said to have exclaimed in frustration, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights took it literally and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. I was told that he was beheaded while kneeling down to pray during the church service that day. Becket was the second of four Archbishops of Canterbury who were murdered.
Today Thomas Becket is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Churchand the Anglican Communion. Soon after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III.
Although it was founded in 597, the cathedral was completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077. The east end was greatly enlarged at the beginning of the twelfth century, and largely rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174, with significant eastward extensions to accommodate the flow of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. The Norman nave and transepts survived until the late fourteenth century, when they were demolished to make way for the present structures.
In 1180-4, in place of the old, square-ended, eastern chapel, the present Trinity chapel was constructed, a broad extension with an ambulatory, designed to house the shrine of St Thomas Becket. A further chapel, circular in plan, was added beyond that, which housed further relics of Becket, widely believed to have included the top of his skull, struck off in the course of his assassination. This latter chapel became known as the “Corona” or “Becket’s Crown”.Work on the chapel was completed in 1184, but Becket’s remains were not moved from his tomb in the crypt until 1220.
The shrine of Thomas Becket in the Trinity Chapel was placed directly above Becket’s original tomb in the crypt. A marble plinth, raised on columns, supported what an early visitor, Walter of Coventry, described as “a coffin wonderfully wrought of gold and silver, and marvellously adorned with precious gems”. Other accounts make clear that the gold was laid over a wooden chest, which in turn contained an iron-bound box holding Becket’s remains. For much of the time the chest was kept concealed by a wooden cover, which would be theatrically raised by ropes once a crowd of pilgrims had gathered.
The shrine was removed in 1538. Henry VIII summoned the dead saint to court to face charges of treason. Having failed to appear, he was found guilty in his absence and the treasures of his shrine were confiscated, carried away in two coffers and twenty-six carts. I think this was a very sneaky way to get hold of all his riches and donations from pilgrims all over the world.
The adjoining abbey is mostly deserted with the original lying in ruins next to the Cathedral. I think Canterbury Cathedral is definitely one of Englands most stunning Cathedrals to explore.