When the foundation known today as Canterbury Cathedral began, Christianity was at an all-time ebb in southern England. Although predominantly Christian at the end of the Roman period, Britain had experienced an influx of germanic settlers–a time known as the Adventus Saxonum–who brought their pagan customs to their new land. In 597 CE, Pope Gregory dispatched a bishop, Augustine (not the famous philosopher), to establish a church and to reclaim the country for Christianity.
Despite the non-Christian beliefs of many Anglo-Saxon settlers, Augustine found a warm welcome at the court of Ethelbert and his Christian Queen Bertha. An old church was given over to St Augustine’s use, whose ruins testify to the early stages of his bishopric. In subsequent centuries, the foundation at Canterbury grew to include an order of Benedictine monks, as well as an increasing administration as the responsibilities of the archbishopric grew. The building’s current magnificent appearance is a result of continuous building works, principally in the 11th century, that have continued until today.
Today, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the undisputed senior figure in the Church of England, second only to the reigning monarch in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. This preeminence, however, was contested for much of the Middle Ages. In the early centuries, for example, a second archbishopric stood in the north of England, at York, and the two sees were given roughly equal status and influence. Even after Canterbury began to claim primacy in Britain, the bishops of St David’s, in Wales, petitioned Rome in order to become an archbishopric themselves.
If Canterbury’s experiences in the wider world of ecclesiastical Britain were at times turbulent, then it should come as no surprise that the Cathedral itself has been the site of several important historical events. The most famous by far is the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett, a staunch defender of church privileges who clashed with England’s King Henry II in many debates. His murder in the Cathedral–perhaps on Henry’s deliberate orders, perhaps not–transformed him into one of England’s most popular saints overnight, and turned the Cathedral into a premier destination for religious pilgrims.
Today, the shrine is marked by a modern sculpture on the site where his death is rumoured to have taken place, but the Cathedral contains other references to his role as a saint. Panels of stained glass in the eastern end of the Cathedral portray the sick coming to Thomas’ shrine, and testify to the widely held mediaeval belief that healing could be attained through saintly intercession.
Not all of those associated with Canterbury have so saintly a reputation. The eastern end of the Cathedral is also home to the grave of Edward, the ‘Black Prince’ of Wales.
His stern, mail-clad effigy and accompanying military gear demonstrate the close links between the chivalric ethos and Christian piety, but also allude to the violent world of warfare in which Edward lived the majority of his life.
In the early modern period, the Cathedral suffered a series of reversals. First, its monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. Then, a century later, many of Canterbury’s mediaeval stained glass windows were vandalised by the Puritans. Thankfully, the main structure avoided damage in World War Two (other Cathedrals, like that in Coventry, were not so lucky), and today much of its splendour can still be appreciated.