copyright,
Kellscraft Studio, 1999                                             
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                                                             
Click Here to return to the
Canterbury
Contents Page


Click here to return to
the previous Chapter


 (HOME)   

THE CATHEDRAL

     Once within Christ Church Gate, and in view of the whole southern side of the Cathedral, we may pause for a moment and enjoy the vision. That central tower, surely for dignity and beauty without its peer in the land, took from first to last fifty years in the building, and was christened from its first stone the Angel Steeple, from the figure with which it was to be crowned, though now, the Angel having taken flight, it is usually known as Bell Harry, from the great bell hung in it. Mark in the sunshine (for it is a sunny day) the depth and variety of shadows and lights on its moulded and sculptured surface. Not without pity and indignation do we read that Goldston, the last of the priors, who built the gatehouse and completed the tower, begged in vain, when a palsied old man, at the dissolution of the convent, to be continued in his old home as the first Dean. Nicholas Wotton, a wily monk of the fraternity, whose stone effigy you will see kneeling in the Trinity Chapel, was appointed in his stead.

     After Bell Harry, the next place in our admiration is due to the Norman staircase-turret, somewhat farther east, with arcading so fine and decorative as to remind us of arabesque. This turret, with its fellow on the north side, and the ruined staircase in the Green Court, are Norman work unsurpassed anywhere. The firelight Decorated window of St. Anselm's Chapel is believed by well-qualified judges to be the most beautiful instance of early fourteenth-century tracery in the country. It is, of course, much later than the chapel, and was inserted, in 1336, by Prior Eastry, whose account states the cost at £42, or about £650 of our money, all given by himself and his friends.

     On our walk to the Norman turret and St. Anselm's Chapel we notice, under the east window of the Warrior's Chapel, a projection like a low buttress. It is the foot of Stephen Langton's tomb. He lay there in the open ground, when the chapel was built on to the transept; so they placed the altar over his head, and left his sleep undisturbed.

     As we move along the Precincts we are treading on the dust of the Cathedral-builders. For all this southern side was a graveyard – of the laity as far as St. Anselm's, and of the monks and clergy beyond. The two were divided by a wall, in which was set as gateway the gabled Norman arch which is now the entrance to the Bowling Green in front of us. It is a curious reflection that, in those days of primitive transport, these walls and towers were brought stone by stone from the quarries at Caen in Normandy. The barges crossed the Channel and were unloaded at Fordwych, about two miles from Canterbury. Formerly the tides came up the river in considerable volume, and Fordwych was a flourishing port with its Mayor and Corporation; and still has its queer little town hall, its ducking stool for scolds, and its prison, though only a tiny hamlet of one hundred and fifty people. When Louis VII of France made his annual grant of 1600 gallons of wine to Christ Church Priory, a fee was paid to the Mayor of Fordwych for the use of his crane in lifting the barrels from the boats. Not many years ago, at an audit of the Chapter Accounts, a yearly item of forty shillings was identified as this very fee, which has been regularly paid for centuries, after the "Wine of St. Thomas" had been consumed, discontinued, and forgotten. Whether this odd survival will more interest the historic, or shock the financial, sense of our American visitors is a question of psychology.

     The nave was not built till the end of the fourteenth century, and is therefore one of the latest parts of the ,church. Of the two western towers the northern stood, as built by Lanfranc shortly after the Conquest, till 1834. During the excavations preparatory to the present structure it is said that the skeletons of a man and two bullocks were found in an upright position, as they had sunk into the marsh in Norman times. All this side was very marshy, and the crypt of the choir was frequently flooded. The ground-level has risen during the last few centuries, but is still only some 20 or 30 feet above the sea.

     Above the outer entrance of the south-west porch is a bas-relief, blackened with age, of the altar which, after Becket's murder in the Martyrdom, was erected at the spot where he fell. It was called the Altar of the Sword's Point; and the fragment of Richard the Breton's sword, which dealt the last fierce blow, and was shivered on the pavement, is seen here at the foot of the altar. Above it is a crucifix with the figures of St. John and the Virgin. The pilgrims used to offer their gifts and prayers at three holy places in succession, at the "Sword's Point ", in the Martyrdom; then at the earlier tomb of Becket in the crypt; and lastly at the shrine in the Trinity Chapel.

     Inside the porch, when Erasmus was here (1513), there were three stone figures of the murderers in full armour, "enjoying", he says, "the same sort of fame as Judas, Pilate, and Caiaphas". In Saxon times the porch served not only as entrance to the church, but also as courthouse and muniment room, where the Kings of Kent did justice and judgment. Of course is much later, but both porch of the ancient church which had no choir, but like I Roman basilica,

     Let us enter, and having looked at the great west window, filled with thirteenth-century glass from other parts of the Cathedral, let us face eastward, with the vast piers and lofty arches on either hand. We see the long flight of steps up to the choir, and perhaps get a glimpse, through the door in the screen, of the farther and higher flight up to the Holy Table. This long vista, with its double ascent, is said to have greatly impressed the mediaeval pilgrims, as indeed it still impresses us. There is nothing, I think, elsewhere quite like it; and it was doubtless intended to symbolize and accentuate the idea of "going up to" the shrine, which was in the exalted Trinity Chapel as in a throne-room. Incidentally this unusual elevation of the eastern floor of the church made possible one of the finest crypts in existence, which for space and dignity is a church in itself.

     As we go forward to the choir steps, and stand below the screen and under the central tower, there is much to observe. Overhead are the carved stone "struts" or crosspieces with which Prior Goldston buttressed his piers, and distributed the strain of the tower's enormous weight. Their date is marked by the rebus of the builder's name T and P (for Thomas, Prior), and between the letters a gilded stone. A similar rebus is in the crypt on Cardinal Morton's monument – a mort or hawk perched on a tun or barrel.

     The great window in the south transept on our right, belongs to the fifteenth century, but is filled with magnificent glass brought from the choir clerestory, and 200 years older than the mullions which frame it. The corresponding north transept window was filled with splendid glass by Edward IV; the scriptural figures in the topmost tracery, some borders, and the panels representing the King with his two sons who perished in the Tower, and his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, with her daughters, still remain. The eldest girl is Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII, and so ended the feud of York and Lancaster. The rest of the glass, which illustrated the life of the Virgin, and the miracles of St. Thomas of Canterbury, was smashed by the pike of the Puritan miscreant Culmer, who gloried in having "rattled down Becket's glassy bones". It is strange that he spared three of the unique thirteenth-century Becket windows in the Trinity Chapel. It is said that, as he was at work on his ladder, a townsman below enquired what he was doing. "The work of the Lord," was the reply. "Then if it please the Lord I will help you," and an adroit boulder was flung at his head. This may have cooled his zeal; but, alas! there is room for misgiving that he ducked his head in time. So the happiest hopes of history have sometimes miscarried.

     On our right, again, is the entrance from the south transept into St. Michael's, or the Warriors' Chapel, where the honoured grave of Langton, the Magna Charta archbishop, is half inside and half outside, the wall striding over him by an arch so that his head should lie under the altar. This chapel contains, and was probably built to contain, the extremely fine monument of Lady Margaret Holland and her two husbands, which is a perfect study of the armour and dress of the early fifteenth century. The first husband was Earl of Somerset and half-brother of Henry IV, and the second was, curiously, nephew of the first and brother of Henry V. The lady outlived-them both and placed their effigies here with her own between them. She was the stepdaughter of the Black Prince.

     On our left again, in the north transept, is the far-famed Martyrdom, the spot where Becket died and became St. Thomas. Here is the ground on which the hunted prelate, powerful in body as in mind, caught up Tracy in his full armour and flung him at full length. Here is the door from the cloister through which Becket came for sanctuary, and which he refused to bar against his assailants come for murder  – "The Church must not be turned into a Castle." Here is the place where the slain Archbishop lay, his head "four feet from the wall", where afterwards was erected to his memory the Altar of the Sword's Point.

     From hence he was carried to the tomb in the crypt, where he lay for fifty years until the Translation to the Shrine in Trinity Chapel in 1220. It is not for me in this brief sketch to tell what has been told so dramatically by Stanley in his Memorials, and with such historical insight by Green in his History. It was a duel between the Civil and the Ecclesiastical sovereignties, represented respectively by Henry II and his Archbishop; both of them, for all their genius, too haughty, violent, and headstrong to bring a difficult controversy to a close, or even to a lasting truce.

     Before we leave the Martyrdom we must notice the oldest monument in the Cathedral, that of Peckham, Edward I's Archbishop, who died in 1292, and beside it that of Wareham, the last archbishop before the Reformation, who half yielded to Henry VIII and repented of yielding, and in a few months died, partly perhaps of the sore perplexity and trouble of the time. A comparison of the two canopies will mark for us the advance in decorative art between the thirteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. The door into the cloister has its brighter as well as its dark memory. For here, at the entrance of what was then deemed the most sacred enclosure in the land, was Edward I, that great, stern, tender-hearted King, married to Margaret of Anjou, nine years after he had lost the wife of whom he wrote: "I loved her tenderly in her life; I do not cease to love her now she is dead".

     The pilgrims were usually conducted from the altar in the Martyrdom to the "Tumba" or first resting place of the "holy blissful martyr", which was in the crypt. The whole of the crypt was dedicated to the Virgin, and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Undercroft, though now dark and deserted, is still enclosed by the lovely stone tracery placed round it by the Black Prince as a memorial of his marriage. When Erasmus was here he said it was "so loaded with riches" as to be "a more than royal spectacle ", and he added: "It is shown but to noblemen and particular friends". Doubtless though the treasures were hidden from the common pilgrim, the altar was always accessible to his devotion. Cardinal Morton desired to he buried near the image of Our Lady of the Undercroft, and his tomb is close by. He may be remembered as the minister of Henry VII and author of Morton's Fork. It was an eminently successful method of finance, which may remind us of a modern Budget. Its principle was that those who spend much can obviously afford to pay, and those who spend little can well afford the taxation of their savings.

     Under the south choir transept is another memorial of the Black Prince. It is the double chantry exacted by the Pope as the price of a dispensation to marry his cousin. He came to Canterbury himself, met the prior and the mason, and gave orders for the work, which perhaps included the sculptured face of his beautiful wife in one of the bosses of the roof. The chantry, with its two apses for the mass priests, is now the Chapel of the French Protestants, who have had services here since the royal permission in 1575. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, the refugees are said to have numbered three thousand, and to have gained for Canterbury a large trade in silk-weaving and paper-making. Their descendants are now merged into the English population, but their names and the weekly French service still survive.

     There have been two comparatively recent discoveries in the crypt. One is the well which probably supplied the water for the "ampulles" or leaden bottles of the pilgrims, the other is a stone chest containing bones which many believe to be the remains of Becket. They are certainly those of a tall man, placed in a receptacle which was not their original coffin, and there is certainly the mark of violence on the skull. It has been cogently argued by Dr. Moore, a canon of this Cathedral, and Principal of St. Edmund's Hall, Oxford, in a lecture which will, I hope, be printed, that as the bones of Dante at Ravenna, and of Cuthbert at Durham, were removed from their shrines to avoid violation, and others substituted to avoid discovery of the removal, so the bones of Becket were removed and hidden by the monks in the interval of suspense before the King's final orders arrived. They remain where they were found, and the slab above them, though it bears no inscription, will be readily pointed out by a guide. Before we bid farewell to the crypt we must call to mind one of the earliest and greatest of all the pilgrims. In 1174, not quite four years after the murder, Henry II, as a barefooted penitent, laid his head on the tomb of Becket between those two slender pillars, and gave his back to the scourge of the monks and clergy. How far this suffering and humiliation, which brought on a serious illness, was dictated by penitence and how far by policy will never be known. But urgent dangers were closing round the King, which were immediately afterwards dissipated in a series of triumphs which he may have thought due to miraculous interposition.

     Following the track of the pilgrims, we leave the crypt on the south side, emerge into the transept, and ascend, along the south choir aisle, by steps worn hollow by penitential knees (for it was a kind of scala santa – a sacred stair) to the Trinity Chapel, the sanctuary of the martyr's shrine. Let us try to recall what this was like. It stood in the centre of the now vacant space beneath the crescent in the vaulted roof. Three steps led up to a platform figured with a kind of mosaic. The lowest step, worn by pilgrims' knees, and three of the inlaid "roundles" form part of the present pavement. On the platform three arches sustained the body of the saint in a gilded and richly wrought coffin. Two of these arches, with their columns, were hung with the precious offerings of those who had sought or received benefit by the saint's intercession. Through the third, suppliants were allowed to pass, that by contact with the pillars they might derive some virtue from the relics. The whole was enclosed in an elaborate oaken case, which was let down and drawn up by ropes and pulleys from above. One of the monks had charge of the proceedings the Mystagogus or Master of the Mysteries, as Erasmus, with a touch of mockery, calls him – and when a sufficient concourse had assembled he drew up the cover and revealed to the wondering throng all the splendour of gold and gems.

     Within thirty years of Erasmus's visit every vestige of this magnificence was swept away; and so completely were all memorials of Becket destroyed that only one representation of the shrine survives. This, perhaps, was overlooked, for it is a small panel of stained glass, and may be found in the highest group of the central of the three thirteenth-century windows on the north side of the Trinity Chapel. St. Thomas is mitred and in full canonical vestments, leaning from or coming out of his shrine, above a figure lying on a bed or couch below. It is a pictorial record of a vision of the saint which is related by Benedict, his historian, as having appeared to himself. The inscription is Prodire Feretro, which fails in grammatical construction, but probably is intended to mean Issuing frown the Shrine.

     It should be noted that the casket or coffin portrayed elsewhere in these windows, is not the great shrine in the Trinity Chapel, but the earlier "tumba" at which Henry II did his penance in the crypt. The determination of Henry VIII to obliterate everything which could minister to the cult was probably due not merely to zeal against superstition, but was part of his policy of stamping out the resistance of the clergy to common law; for in the history of Becket, and in the honour paid to his remains, was the chief support of their claim. This throws light on the extraordinary legal process by which, more than three hundred years after his death, "Thomas Becket, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury", was summoned, tried, and condemned for treason, contumacy, and rebellion.

     The summons was solemnly read by the shrine, and when, after thirty days, no voice or presence had issued from it, the case was formally tried at Westminster, sentence pronounced, the bones of the defendant were adjudged to be publicly burned, his treasures confiscated to the Crown, and his name blotted out of every service-book. Strange as the trial of a dead man may seem to us, it was not without precedent. So had the dead Wycliffe been cited, and his bones burned. So did Queen Mary to the dead Bucer. It is pleasanter to think of the Emperor Charles V by the grave of Erasmus. A courtier proposed that he should exhume and burn the great scholar "who laid the egg which Luther hatched"; the Emperor's fine reply was: "I war not with the dead".

     Long before these changes and troubles, when the Chapel of the Shrine was the most honoured of the high places in the Cathedral, the Black Prince was laid here as the most honoured of its dead; and it is a testimony to the tenacious affection of the nation for his memory, that no desecrating hand has ever been laid, even in turbulent times,, on his grave. The armour of the beautiful effigy has lost the gilding which once made him a golden knight, but it is fresh and clear in its outlines as it was in the fourteenth century. His helm, surcoat, gauntlets, shield, and scabbard still hang above him; round his resting place is the railing with its six tall iron posts for the great candles, which were lit on the anniversaries of his death. What tragedies and tumults would have been arrested by his strong hand, had he lived, we cannot tell; but a more impressive monument to a more beloved memory does not perhaps exist.

     A few yards away lies the man who wrested the throne from the Prince's son, Richard II, while Canterbury nave was building. Visitors sometimes recognize in the portrait-statue of Henry IV, as he lies beside his Queen, Joan of Navarre, a curious family likeness to King Edward VII, witnessing to the persistence of Plantagenet blood. When the vault was opened in 1832 its occupant was found to be in a singular state of preservation, with a little simple cross, of two twigs tied together, laid upon his breast. The monument is of rare artistic merit, as is the chantry close by, which he built for "twey preestes" to say masses for his soul.

     The next monument eastward of the Black Prince's is Archbishop Courtenay's (1396); and beyond this a mean brick mound without inscription but not without a history. Here lies Odet de Coligny, brother of the great admiral. Though a prince, a cardinal, an inquisitor, and a bishop, his sympathies were with the Huguenots, and he undertook a mission on their behalf to Queen Elizabeth. In the canonical house, formerly known as Master Homor's, at the southeast corner of the Precincts, he was poisoned by his servants, whether or not by foreign instigation is not known. Those were days when the murderer's hand reached far and freely, especially in causes political and religious. He was laid here and rudely bricked over, in expectation of his removal to France; but the French wars of religion left men no leisure to care for their dead. Against the south wall is a tomb without inscription and long unidentified. When opened in 1889 there was found, in full pomp of episcopal vestments, pastoral staff, chalice and paten, wearing a ring graven with strange Egyptian symbols, Hubert Walter, acclaimed archbishop on the field of Acre and afterwards the faithful chancellor who kept the kingdom and raised the ransom for Coeur de Lion. Beside him was a collecting box, perhaps for Peter's Pence, or for the King's ransom. These relics are kept under glass in Henry IV's chantry.

     East of Trinity Chapel is the circular space called Corona, or Becket's Crown, either as the head or crown of Becket's church, or, as Dr. Cox thinks, because here by the altar to the Trinity was a silver bust of Becket containing the fragments of his skull cut off by Richard the Breton's sword. The three most famous objects in the Cathedral are the site of the Shrine, the Black Prince's monument, and the chair of St. Augustine; and here is the last of the three. In this seat of Purbeck or Bethesda marble have been enthroned from time immemorial the Archbishops of Canterbury. If some critics say that it is no older than the thirteenth century, others say that it was in existence in the sixth century, when Augustine arrived, and that Kentish kings were crowned on it. It has always a place in the triple enthronement of an Archbishop of Canterbury. He is seated on the throne in the choir as Diocesan Bishop, in the chapter house as titular Abbot, and in St. Augustine's chair as Primate of All England.

     The pilgrims were conducted from Trinity Chapel back to the nave, along the south choir aisle, where the steps still show the marks of the two iron gates which divided the ascending from the descending stream. We. however, will, take the north choir aisle, which was strictly reserved for monks, clerics, and officials, and find our way into the choir. The pavement is still that of Lanfranc or Anselm, for, when any part of it is taken up, bits of lead are found which fell melted from the roof, in the great fire of 1174. Facing east by the archbishop's throne we see the monuments of six archbishops. Nearest on our right is Cardinal Kemp, who was with Henry V at Agincourt; then Stratford, the opponent of Edward III; and lastly Simon Sudbury, who built Westgate and lost his head. Nearest on our left is the gorgeous tomb of Chicheley, who, in old age, was stricken with remorse for having instigated Henry V's French campaigns in order to distract attention from Lollard schemes for confiscating Church property. He founded All Souls College, Oxford, to pray for the souls of those who fell in the wars, and the Warden still renews, when needed, the colour-decoration of his monument Then Howley, who crowned Queen Victoria, and finally Bourchier, who crowned Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII, and, by wedding the latter to Elizabeth of York, terminated the Wars of the Roses.

     In Canterbury Cathedral have been buried some fifty archbishops, the Black Prince, Henry IV, two queens, and many others of royalty or distinction. Of the old monuments only about eighteen are left. The great fires of 1067 and 1174, the violence of men, and the ravages of time have all taken their toll.

     Of the architectural history of the Cathedral, deeply interesting as it is, little can here be said. It may be summed up as a happy alternation of destructive fires and vigorous priors, aided by munificent archbishops and master masons of genius. There is no history of the first Christian settlement in these islands; but we dimly descry a Roman, and on its foundations a Saxon building which lasted till the Conquest. Then came a fire, and with it Lanfranc's opportunity. He had driving power, and in the brief period of seven years (1070-7) built a stone Cathedral on the Roman and Saxon ground plan, adding a short choir and western towers of which one remained till 1834.

    Only twenty years after Lanfranc, Anselm, greatly daring, pulled down most of his work, and with his prior, Ernulf, began a slightly wider and much longer choir, extending about as far as the present Holy Table. This came to be known as "the glorious choir of Conrad", from the name of the prior who completed it. Anselm's or Ernulf's work still remains as part of the present crypt. In l174, a hundred years later, the year of Henry II's penance at Becket's tomb, the whole church was ruined by the most devastating fire in its annals. How severe was the blow, both to monks and people, we may learn from Gervase, who was an eyewitness and one of the fraternity. The people "tore their hair and beat the walls and pavement of the church with their heads and hands, blaspheming the Lord and his Saints"; the monks "wailed and howled rather than sang their daily and nightly services" in the roofless nave.

     French William, the designer of the Cathedral at Sens in Normandy, was chosen for the restoration; and the mark of his handiwork is plainly to be seen in the resemblances between the two churches. Genius transforms hindrances into triumphs. French William's difficulty was that the side chapels of St. Andrew and St. Anselm, built on the arc of the old apse, were too near together to admit of the full width of his new and longer choir. He kept the chapels, contracted the choir at their nearest points and then expanded it into the Trinity Chapel, with the remarkable effect which strikes every observer.

     When his work was partly accomplished, and he was on the scaffolding to prepare for the turning of the vault, he fell with a mass of timber and stone from a height of 50 feet, and was disabled for life. He chose for his successor another man of genius, known as English William, one of his staff, "small of body, but in many kinds of workmanship acute and honest", who added to his master's design the great uplift of the floor of the Trinity Chapel and completed that and the Corona or Becket's Crown. Since 1185 no substantial alteration has been made in the eastern half of the Cathedral.

     If the reader desires to know the chief sources of our information about the early history of Canterbury Cathedral, the reply is in itself a picture of the times. Eadmer was a boy in the convent school before the Conquest, and singer or precentor in Lanfranc's choir of monks. He also lived through the rule of Anselm.

     Gervase was a monk of Christ Church when Becket died in the Martyrdom. He witnessed the fire of 117J0 the desolation it left behind, and the immortal achievements of French William and of his English namesake. Eadmer and Gervase have both left us narratives, not umixed with monkish legend, but faithful and full of curious information.

     It is not easy for us to understand the veneration paid to relics; yet from that veneration sprang all the glories of the Cathedral. And when we read in these old chronicles, translated from Latin in Willis' Architectural History, of the desperate, almost agonized labours of the monks to save from fire, weather, or dishonour the remains of their buried saints, we shall withhold our scorn for their superstition, and find less surprising the immense sums paid in the Middle Age for the arm or skull of a dead man.

     The earlier Saxon archbishops were laid in the ground of St. Augustine's Abbey, which thus accumulated a store of sanctity which roused the sore jealousy of their Christ Church brethren. Accordingly in the eighth century Cuthbert obtained a secret permission from the Pope to be buried in the Cathedral. His death was not divulged until he was safely interred, and when the monks of St. Augustine's came to demand as usual the body of the dead archbishop, they were met with derisive shouts, and the brandishing of the Papal decree. Thus Gervase records that Cuthbert, "being endowed with great wisdom, procured for Christ Church the right of free sepulture ".

     There are at least two "secret chambers" in the Cathedral for the hiding away of relics or of treasures. One is accessible only by a door opening 6 feet above the floor of St. Andrew's Chapel, requiring therefore a ladder as means of approach. The other is the Chapel of St. Gabriel in the crypt. The entrance was through a hole which was entirely concealed by an outside altar. This chapel was so successfully hidden that the monk Gervase was evidently ignorant of its existence in the twelfth century; and its roof is covered with very curious painting of that date, which the darkness (for there is no window) has kept in remarkable preservation.

Click the icon to continue to
the next chapter of Canterbury.