Like every good student of English literature, I of course know much of the journey to Canterbury, care of Chaucer, but what about the town itself? Aside from the cathedral, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I took the train up to London as part of my England travels back in April. I was going there for a day-trip to visit my friend Richard who lives there (and who actually has been to visit NYC in the time I’ve taken to get to blogging this, wow, this year is going fast).
It turns out that Canterbury is very small and very charming. It still includes some of its old Roman city wall, and a canal that serpentines through its center, lined with stone bridges, riverside homes, and gardens. Richard gave me a tour of the city sites, which of course included the cathedral (he even knew the secret for getting in for free, I love touring with locals!), so I will start with that.
For some reason, I thought that since the church was so old, it would not be quite so big. Not so! It was founded in 597 (yes, you read right, not 1597, 5.9.7.), but has undergone different constructions through 1834. It is now a Gothic monolith, 515 feet in length.
Like all Gothic cathedrals, designed to give a sense of imposing awe, it feels even bigger on the inside. Canterbury Cathedral is particularly imposing, as it’s the base of the Church of England and where the Archbishop is stationed. This dates back to 597, which the monk Augustine was sent to England by Rome to reestablish Christianity. The church has continued ever since, of course not without its tumultuous times.
Here is the baptismal font against the arches in the nave, which dates to 1407.
Here is a gate with a lock design I found curious. An abstract dragon?
Burials in Canterbury go back to the 7th century, with many archbishops and royal family members. Here is an interesting epitaph on the tomb of someone named Barkley.
I love finding old graffiti, here is some that dates to 1723. I imagine many pilgrims would try to inscribe their name somewhere on the walls once they finally made it there.
And for what reason did pilgrims flock to Canterbury? Not just because it was such an important church to Christianity in England, but because of a very famous murder. In 1170, the archbishop Thomas Becket was killed by four knights. King Henry II and Becket had frequently clashed over power, and after some excommunications that riled the King, he stated something similar to (exact words have been lost): “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” The knights took this to be an assassination order and on December 29, they stabbed the archbishop to death inside of the cathedral.
As you can tell from these photos, the current shrine is not the original. That one, which was incredibly popular, was destroyed in 1538 after a bizarre trial of the then-sainted (and also long dead) Becket by Henry VIII, who declared him guilty of treason and took away all of the pieces of the shrine in carts to London. Now Becket has this more modern, less lavish, and kind of terrifying tomb with drawn swords pointed down towards his name etched in red.
I’m not sure if this is part of the Becket memorial, but this skull was carved in white marble quite close to where Becket is said to have been stabbed, although I’m bet it might be the entrance to someone else’s tomb.
But the real skull action was at this grisly tomb for Charles Fotherby, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.
After the cathedral, we did some exploring in its other buildings, including the courtyard which is lined by these beautiful arched halls.
Attached to the cloisters courtyard is the chapter house, which dates to the 1400s and has a stunning ceiling.
There’s also some amazing stained glass of important figures to the church and England, Here you can see Henry IV, Henry VIII, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
We thought we should do a photoshoot with the current archbishop in postcard form.
We exited through the main gate to the cathedral, which has a bronze statue of Jesus (I think it must be somewhat modern) flanked by angels.
We saw many other Canterbury sights in addition to the cathedral, including a lot of the old town, where there is this a strange piece of history with this ducking stool. (It looks like a diving board in this photo.) It was used as a form of punishment in which people were held under the water, but more famously as a test for witches. If she drowned after enough time underwater, hurrah, she was not a witch. If she survived, she was burned alive.
The Whitfield Monument, for John Whitfield who died in the 1600s, is behind glass in the tower of St. Mary Magdalene Church, the only structure remaining from it as the rest of the church was demolished in 1866.
This precariously leaning house was made famous by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield: “At length we stopped before a very old house bulging out over the road; a house with long low lattice-windows bulging out still farther, and beams with carved heads on the ends bulging out too, so that I fancied the whole house was leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below.”
As you can see, the space is for rent! You could open your own Dickensian curiosity shop. (I mean, shoppe.)
Here are the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey. It had its first foundation laid in 598 under the guidance of the monk Augustine (now St. Augustine). Unfortunately, like the shrine to Thomas Becket, its story ended with Henry VIII. In what is known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the king disbanded this and all other monasteries starting in 1536, and its structure was dismantled.
Richard also showed me this secret garden area by the canal. As you can see, it got a bit stormy skied late in the day.
Being a good tour guide, he did not leave out the creepy cemeteries. Here is a cemetery that has been turned into a park and the graves moved to the side, as if watching the park goers and reminding them of what the land still contains.
Here is the cemetery outside of St. Martin’s Church, which was built in some sections from Roman bricks.
It’s a rather unsettling place! Especially on a day with slight winds and dark clouds.
It came time to leave the city walls and take the train back to London. Richard recommended I take the train back to St. Pancras, and he was right, a gorgeous way to end the day. See for yourself: