Saturday, June 10, 2006


Canterbury Cathedral was one of those "must visit" places for me when I knew I was coming to the UK study. When I was in college at Holy Cross, I had the good fortune to take a number of excellent Medieval History classes with two professors in particular who had seen literally everything Medieval in western Europe and beyond (or at least it seemed they had). They both used a whole host of slides to show the places they were describing, and both of them covered Canterbury Cathedral at different times in different courses. It was hard for me to get a picture in my head of how it was placed or what it really looked like inside, but all of that was easily straightened out by my own visit there.

All Cathedrals have their assortment of famous dead people in them. You never quite know who you are going to find until you get there, and then when you see the tombs, your first thought is always "oh, yeah, I remember that guy...". The most impressive collection of dead folks must be in Westminster Cathedral, where, of course, you can't take any pictures. In Canterbury, I came across the tomb of Edward III's son, the Black Prince. Apparently, he was either a rather humble guy or he just didn't want hundreds of people to gawk at him after he died, so he requested to be buried in the crypt underneath the cathedral building. The monks thought this was improper for a man of his status and reputation, so they put him here, on the north side towards the back, and next to the shrine of Thomas Becket. His colored shirt of armor, his gloves, and his sword were never stolen (unlike other grave goods, especially in the Reformation), and they are on display on the wall nearby while reproductions of the originals are hanging above the tomb. Even Oliver Cromwell, Puritan extraordinaire, respected the Black Prince enough to carry his sword in battle against the Royalists.

The inside of the cathedral is rather impressive, as are all of them. Lots of arches, columns, and windows. This Cathedral can get a little dark inside, especially behind the altar here where the choir stalls are. A lot of the columns here, instead of the huge Norman versions in Durham and Norwich, are lighter, sometimes trefoiled, and in many cases, made of smooth marble. This interior space is behind a very large, carved stone screen, which served to separate the laity from the activities of the monks and priests.

The outside of the cathedral was a little difficult to get a full look at because it was obscured by a set of buildings right in front of it (unlike York, whick exists almost on its own in the middle of a square, and the front is viewable for several blocks). Like Norwich, the cathedral is behind a set of gates and is very much like part of a complex. The towers are very ornately done and unlike York, the statues by the doors at the front and sides under the towers are still there today (in York, they have been removed and some are in the museum) but they have certainly been repaired or replaced in one form or another. However, it is pretty impressive to walk around. Like Norwich, there is a cloister attached to it, but there is additional evidence of different monastic buildings that have been left to ruin. The limits of the complex were bordered by walls, which may have also been the case at one time in Norwich, too, but they no longer exist there.

The biggest point of interest at Canterbury is, of course, the shrine of Thomas Becket. Becket had apparently been rather close to Henry II before being appointed, through this friendship, Archbishop of Canterbury. The biggest point of disagreement between them had to do with the prosecution of churchmen. Prior to this time (the mid 12th century), there was a separate law for offending churchmen that was notoriously lax in punishing offenders. Becket sought to preserve this right and tradition while Henry wanted members of the clergy to be prosecuted according to secular law. Henry presented his demands in the Constitutions of Clarendon, which Becket refused to sign. Becket, regardless of his friendship with the king, did not back down on the issue, which led to all sorts of complications for Henry. At one point, Becket was exiled (or willingly exiled himself), and he had a host of well known and well schooled supporters amongst the English and others, such as John of Salisbury, his student and aid.

Unfortunately for Becket, regardless of his return to England, his vigilance to his cause was the author of his end. Famously, Henry was said to have exclaimed in frustration "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?!" which prompted four of his knights to launch an assasination attempt on Becket. They killed him in the entrance to the quire in the Cathedral at the celebration of vespers on December 29, 1170, apparently giving him a blow to the head to finish the act (this is the best source for the description of his murder). He was cannonized quickly, in 1173.

There isn't anything left of his shrine or relics today. Henry VIII took everything, along with the treasures associated with them, during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Today, as you can see, there is a single lit candle where the shrine once stood on the marble floor panels at the back of the cathedral. The simplicity is actually surprisingly impressive--maybe even more so than the ornate elements that no longer exist. It's quiet and completely blocked off from immediate access. Even the floor is amazing--the smooth marble tiles are all colored and inlaid. The light from the windows also adds to the effect. The back of the cathedral arches around in a semi-circle, with more accessible windows--meaning windows at the level of the viewers--than anywhere else in the cathedral.

The stained glass windows themselves are also a very unique element in Canterbury Cathedral. My own photograph does not do it justice, but the picture you see here of the window is what is called the "Donor's Window" or the window illustrating those guilds that donated either labor or money to the creation of different parts of the Cathedral. Each circle shows a different trade-in-motion. In fact, in the picture of the Becket shrine above, you can see the "Donor's Window" straight ahead, immediately behind the candle at the back. To see a layout of some of the cathedral windows and what they depict, this is a good resource, but unfortunately pictureless. For some other details, but without an in depth description, try this, these pilgrims, and this miracle.

Unlike in other Cathedrals, or churches for that matter, there is a lot of original stained glass at Canterbury. It's one of the few places that retains it after the zealous English turnover to Protestantism. It isn't all in tact, however. There are a few places here and there where the panes are all clear or partially clear--notably parts of some of the larger windows in the trancepts, for example--in fact one of the trancepts has mostly new windows with the other has bands of 14th and 15th century windows with clear panes between them. Again, it is at the back where Becket's shrine is where you can really get up close to the original stained glass. Most of the windows have themes. There are two that tell the story of Becket's life and martyrdom and another window dedicated to the miracles associated with his influence after his death. As I mentioned above, the donors are also featured in their own window. Some of it has been restored, naturally, but without adulterating the original form or figures. In some of the other pictures above, you can see peeks of the other stained glass windows, and it really gives you a feel for what the other cathedrals in England would have looked like in their hayday. Today, most of them are clear, which makes the cathedrals brighter, but it is deceiving to the historical eye.

I wasn't in Canterbury for long--it was a stop on the train on the way to Dover where I was staying overnight. However, when I did see it, I was very disappointed that I hadn't planned to stay there. It is very much like York in how it is mainly a walking city dominated by a large Cathedral, but smaller than Norwich. I did also get to see the city walls, many of which are still in tact on the south side of the city, and St. Augustine's which is outside of the city, and apparently, the first church in England. St. Augustine's, which is a ruin today, would have been a smaller version of Canterbury Cathedral, but it has a history that goes back much farther, which makes it disappointing to see the state it is in. St. Augustine himself was buried there at one time, but his, like Becket's, relics were removed by Henry VIII. However, other figures mentioned in Bede, notably the bishops that followed Augustine, are all buried there in a section that has maintained it's Anglo-Saxon feel. There are also four of the kings of Kent also buried there, and many other figures that were significant to the history of the abbey. The audio tour there is absolutely fantastic and very informative.

I would certainly like to return to Canterbury for a longer stay. It is hard for me to rate it first, because my stay was so short, and second, because it was your typical cloudy, rainy (maybe the adjective "English" is best here....) day there. I will give it a 7 and 1/2 with the potential for an upgrade if I make it back there and if the weather is cooperating.


steve martin said...

What beautiful architechture! It looks breath-taking!

steve martin said...

What beautiful architechture! It looks breath-taking!

LightYears2Venus said...

I linked over here from Vicky's journal (thinkingaboutit) and very much enjoyed reading all of your beautifully written and entertaining entries. How wonderful to be studying in England!
Please, please you must tell me what camera you use--digital? automatic or manual? Your low-light shots inside the cathedral (especially the stained glass) are amazing. Thank you so much if you would be so kind--I am gathering ideas from lots of photographers whose work I admire. Do you use a particular photo-editing tool?

slskenyon said...

I do use a digital is an Olympus Camedia C-370 zoom with 3.2 megapixel. However the editting goes to Picasa photo edits. It's a great program, free on the web through google, that my friend at school put me on to--thank you SparkyC. If you want the link and can't find it, just let me know and I'll find it in my e-mails and put it up.

Thank you for your kind words!

Peter Matthes said...

Wow Steve ... I loved you in "The Jerk" and when you were with SNL.

(Just pulling your leg Steve)

These are great pictures for that level of megapixel.

England is to rain, as hockey is to fights.

Gem said...

So Americans constantly tell me...As I've never noticed that much rain, I can only assume it is a case of our expectations of what a place is like determining the apparent climatic conditions ;).

Never been to Canterbury, myself, but I might be going for a conference later in the year, so nice to get a foretaste of that. The pictures are excellent, Steph, thanks for those. People tell me that there is a distinct difference between York and Canterbury, but when I ask further they always mutter something vague about 'atmosphere' - did you find this?

slskenyon said...

Hmmmm....well, perhaps "atmosphere" is a good way to put it. The city has a more "busy" feel and certainly seems to be more "presumptuous" and concerned in its own historical reputation than York. York, while indeed historical, seems to leave that to lie as it is rather than trumping it up. Canterbury is indeed the opposite of that. I did like Canterbury as a city--meaning its layout, its appearance, etc., but there are a lot of things York and Canterbury have. You'll certainly like it, I think.

Ravenbajan said...

Very nice pictures. I would love to visit Canterbury some day. Hell, I would love to visit the U.K someday period!

I like reading the history you've included with your pics.