It is a huge presence, and it’s history is hugely entertaining.
In 1170, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered on the alter of the Canterbury Cathedral by five knights who heard King Henry II say (in words or substance) “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” and decided that they would be the answer to the King’s question. It was a gruesome crime, according to the monk who witnessed it (and nearly had his own arm cut off). The archbishop did not die easily, it seems. And he continued to have his influence from the grave. Shortly after his death, miracles were reported in the vicinity of his crypt and he was soon canonized. Pilgrims began to flock there, some of whom are described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Henry II was also affected. A few years afterward, in penance for his part in the crime, he wore a sackcloth and walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while 80 monks flogged him with branches. Afterward, he spent the night in Becket’s crypt. English History–You can’t make this stuff up!
Here is a picture of the shrine as it now exists in the cathedral. I photographed the shadow of the hanging swords. The symbolism is obvious.
At the time of Becket’s death, there had been a Christian place of worship on the spot for around 600 years. It seems a Roman church may have existed before that. There is no question that St. Augustine, (the one who founded the church, not THE Augustine), built inside the old Roman walls of the city. And Roman brick was recycled in the walls of the abbey that once stood near the Cathedral. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the middle of the 16th Century, Augustine’s abbey and everything in it was sold off and fell into decay. Still, today there are walls that were made of Roman brick.
Speaking of Henry VIII — Wow, what a guy! I guess we all remember from our history classes that he made himself head of the church in England, supposedly because he wanted a divorce from his wife. And I vaguely remembered something about him dissolving the monasteries. But you can’t imagine what that dissolution meant until you actually travel around England and visit a few of the monasteries, priories and abbeys that were “dissolved.” The abbey started by St. Augustine at about the same time he founded the church in Canterbury is one example, but not even a very good one. What you see within walking distance of the Cathedral are the remains of walls, now only several feet above the ground except in a few places. But the expanse of territory covered by those walls reveals the extent of what was “dissolved.”
But Henry VIII did not limit himself to the dissolution. In Canterbury, worried about the shrine to Becket and the pilgrims it was still attracting four hundred years after the murder, he had the shrine destroyed and Becket’s body (bones at this point) removed from the cathedral. Of course, Kings die but Saints prove meddlesome even from the grave. The shrine was restored some years later.
Among other things, the stained glass windows are very beautiful. You could spend a long time going from window to window, taking them all in. You might need a few weeks of therapy afterward for your neck and back. But remember this while you are looking at them. When the Puritans obtained control of the English government in the middle 1600’s, they went around to the cathedrals, including Canterbury, and to other institutions and smashed those windows because they offended Puritan sensibilities of what was proper inside a house of worship. Canterbury had the added indignity of horses stabled in the nave. English history …
I don’t know about you, but the thought of medieval stained glass being smashed makes me think of the demolition of giant Buddhas in Afghanistan and of ancient temples in Syria. There may be other parallels, including between Cromwell and men running for office today, but I will spare you a rant.
God save us from religious extremists of all stripes.