Canterbury Cathedral is alive with history and fascinating stories. The information below gives a brief insight into the history of this magnificent building.
St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived on the coast of Kent as a missionary to England in 597 AD. He came from Rome, sent by Pope Gregory the Great. It is said that Gregory had been struck by the beauty of Angle slaves he saw for sale in the city market and despatched Augustine and some monks to convert them to Christianity. Augustine was given a church at Canterbury (St Martin’s, after St Martin of Tours, still standing today) by the local King, Ethelbert whose Queen, Bertha, a French Princess, was already a Christian. This building had been a place of worship during the Roman occupation of Britain and is the oldest church in England still in use. Augustine had been consecrated a bishop in France and was later made an archbishop by the Pope. He established his seat within the Roman city walls (the word cathedral is derived from the the Latin word for a chair ‘cathedra’, which is itself taken from the Greek ‘kathedra’ meaning seat.) and built the first cathedral there, becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Since that time, there has been a community around the Cathedral offering daily prayer to God; this community is arguably the oldest organisation in the English speaking world. The present Archbishop, The Most Revd Justin Welby, is 105th in the line of succession from Augustine. Until the 10th century, the Cathedral community lived as the household of the Archbishop. During the 10th century, it became a formal community of Benedictine monks, which continued until the monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540.
Augustine’s original building lies beneath the floor of the Nave – it was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by the Saxons, and the Cathedral was rebuilt completely by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire. There have been many additions to the building over the last nine hundred years, but parts of the Quire and some of the windows and their stained glass date from the 12th century.
By 1077, Archbishop Lanfranc had rebuilt it as a Norman church, described as “nearly perfect”. A staircase and parts of the North Wall – in the area of the North West transept also called the Martyrdom – remain from that building.
The work of the Cathedral as a monastery came to an end in 1540, when the monastery was closed on the orders of King Henry VIII. Its role as a place of prayer continued – as it does to this day. Once the monastery had been suppressed, responsibility for the services and upkeep was given to a group of clergy known as the Dean and Chapter. Today, the Cathedral is still governed by the Dean and four Canons, together (in recent years) with four lay people and the Archdeacon of Maidstone. During the Civil War of the 1640s, 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. In the early 19th Century, the North West tower was found to be dangerous, and, although it dated from Lanfranc’s time, it was demolished in the early 1830s and replaced by a copy of the South West tower, thus giving a symmetrical appearance to the west end of the Cathedral. During the Second World War, the Precincts were heavily damaged by enemy action and the Cathedral’s Library was destroyed. Thankfully, the Cathedral itself was not seriously harmed, due to the bravery of the team of fire watchers, who patrolled the roofs and dealt with the incendiary bombs dropped by enemy bombers.
Today, the Cathedral stands as a place where prayer to God has been offered daily for over 1,400 years; nearly 2,000 Services are held each year, as well as countless private prayers from individuals. The Cathedral offers a warm welcome to all visitors – its aim is to show people Jesus, which we do through the splendour of the building as well as the beauty of the worship.
- St Augustine arrived in Kent and soon established the first Cathedral
- Cathedral rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc
- New Quire built over a Crypt (present Western Crypt)
- Thomas Becket murdered in the Cathedral
- Quire rebuilt. Eastern Crypt, Trinity and Corona Chapels added (all as seen today)
- Becket’s body placed in new Shrine in Trinity Chapel
- Lanfranc Nave demolished and rebuilt as seen today; Cloister vaulting inserted
- Pulpitum Screen constructed
- Bell Harry Tower extended and the Cathedral largely complete as seen today
- Becket’s Shrine destroyed by Henry VIII
- Monastery dissolved by royal command
- New Foundation of Dean and Chapter established
- Repair and refurbishing after Puritan damage
- North West tower rebuilt
- Library rebuilt, repairing War damage
- Altar of the Sword’s Point (Martyrdom) restored
- Compass Rose placed in the Nave
- International Study Centre (Cathedral Lodge) opened in the Precincts