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The reign of Elizabeth I: The Queen’s visit to Canterbury in 1573

Poster image reproduced with permission from the National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Author: Cressida Williams, Head of Archives and Library

The long reign of Henry VIII’s second daughter Elizabeth brought some stability to the country and indeed the Cathedral. She succeeded her half-sister Mary in 1558; Mary was a devout Catholic and had reinstated Catholicism in the country. Elizabeth was Protestant, and she made the Protestant Church of England the official church, with herself as the Supreme Governor, through a process which is now known as the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’.

Reginald Pole, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on the same day as Queen Mary. He was interred in the Corona, at the easternmost end of the cathedral, where a shrine containing a relic of St Thomas Becket’s head had stood until its destruction under Henry VIII. He was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be buried or commemorated in the cathedral until the mid-19th century. Pole’s successor was Matthew Parker, who had been a chaplain to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Parker was a scholar and collector, and he was able to acquire a large number of medieval manuscript books from the monastic libraries of the cathedral and of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, including the late 6th-century St Augustine Gospels. He gave this collection to found the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, where he had been master.

Parker’s main residence was at Lambeth Palace in London, but he rebuilt the palace in the cathedral precincts, which had been damaged by fire in 1543. It was there that he welcomed Elizabeth I in 1573 when she stayed in Canterbury. Elizabeth made regular tours of England during her reign, expecting lavish hospitality and vast expenditure on the part of those who hosted her. Her visit to Canterbury coincided with her 40th birthday, and Parker held a magnificent banquet in the palace’s Great Hall on 7 September. According to various accounts, the Archbishop’s throne was brought over from the cathedral for her to sit in, covered with a gold cloth. At the cathedral’s service to welcome the Queen, the cathedral’s own choir was joined by the choir of the Chapel Royal, which was part of the royal household and included leading performers and composers of the day. The cathedral’s accounts record the purchase of large quantities of luxury fabrics for the occasion, presumably for vestments, cushions and hangings within the cathedral itself. Elizabeth stayed in the former prior’s lodgings at St Augustine’s Abbey, which had been converted by her father into a palace.

This striking poster from the Cathedral’s collections (reference DCc/PRINDRAW/7/1) was produced by British Railways in 1952, in the year when our current Queen Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. It is one of a series of posters promoting train travel to English towns and cities designed by the artist Claude Buckle. The image represents well the splendour and confidence of the first Elizabethan age. As the poster says, history lingers in Canterbury Cathedral. Each generation has left its mark and its memories.

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