Canterbury Cathedral: Piety, Murder & Beauty

Canterbury Cathedral has a menacing beauty.

The seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England and global Anglican Communion – there are few more holy places in England than Canterbury Cathedral.

Canterbury isn’t just one of the oldest or best-known of England’s fine fleet of Cathedrals, it’s also the one with the best stories.

And the most shocking story of them all is that of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Canterbury Cathedral’s Beginnings

Canterbury Cathedral: Piety, Murder & Beauty 1
Saint Augustine

The original church at Canterbury was founded in 602 by Saint Augustine. Only 30 metres long, the church had nothing on the Cathedral it would later be consumed by.

The real significance of Christ Church, as it was then known, lay in its setting.

With the Church of St Martin, the oldest church in England, and the Abbey of St Augustine nearby, Augustine’s Christ Church became part of a significant monastery – a mini Rome – from which Roman Christianity in England flourished.

By 1066 Christ Church had blossomed into a Cathedral more befitting its staggering track-record of 15 archbishops canonised as saints.


Conflict and martyrdom go hand in hand and the holy men of Canterbury Cathedral have always had to fight.

When the Normans invaded England Christ Church was completely destroyed, only to be rebuilt less than a decade later by the new Norman Archibishop, Lanfranc who used the abbey of St-Etienne in Caen as his blueprint.

Lanfranc may have had Christ in his heart but he also had money on his mind and he set about forging the church’s charters to take control of surrounding lands. Canterbury quickly became the richest and most populous monasteries in the country.

The next Archbishop, Anselm, used the church’s bulging treasury to rebuild the east end of the church so that the building was now 133 metres long and featured some of the finest stone carving ever seen.

Sadly, or miraculously, this incredibly grand addition was completely destroyed in a fire that ravaged the church in 1174.

Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket

But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. Thomas Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1162, appointed by his friend King Henry II.

Thomas was a man of lowly birth, had never entered a monastery and had spent his time up to this appointment either in battle or at court.

Any hope Henry had that he could control Thomas and through him exert greater control over the Church as a whole were dashed as Thomas suddenly became incredibly pious.

Wearing a hair shirt and spending hours in prayer each day, Thomas insisted that the Church was above the state, the monarchy, any worldly institution at all and soon won the support of the people as a defender of the Church.

Who Will Rid Me…

Canterbury Cathedral: Piety, Murder & Beauty 2
Henry II

Henry was furious. This man, who Henry had personally elevated to a station so far removed from his background as to be ludicrous, had humiliated him.

Ranting about Thomas‘ treachery at court the King went as far as to ask who would avenge him and in that utterance the act was all but committed.

Four of the King’s knights entered the church with a small army in tow, probably intending to imprison Thomas.

Thomas refused to be taken by the men and the situation quickly escalated. In front of a crowd of onlookers one of the knights struck Thomas so hard that he split his skull.

Knowing there was no way back from this violence he finished the job he had begun by standing on Thomas’ neck, scattering his brains and blood across the stone floor.

Immediately the crowd clambered forward, not to accost the knights or make sure Thomas was dead, but to dip their fingers and clothes in Thomas’ blood.

A story soon circulated that one man who had doused his clothes in Thomas’ blood returned home and washed his wife, who was paralysed, in water mixed with the dead archbishop’s blood.

The wife experienced a miraculous cure and the enduring cult of St Thomas was born.

Thomas Becket’s Murder: The Aftermath

Thomas Becket Murdur in Canterbury Cathedral

Bishops around the country lamented Thomas’ death, drawing parallels between the Archbishop and Jesus Christ.

Pilgrims from all over England made the journey to Canterbury to be cured of what ailed them.

By kneeling in the spot where Thomas was murdered, standing where Thomas’ body lay before the alter and touching Thomas’ tomb people suddenly regained their sight and hearing or were cured of incurable illnesses.

The death of Archbishop Thomas Becket and the cult of martyrdom that succeeded it actively informed the architecture of Canterbury Cathedral.

Not only that, the cult of Thomas spread so far that before he was even canonized, chapels were being dedicated to him.

As far as Sweden, Iceland, Sicily and Aragon, churches bore Thomas’ name and his childhood home and parish church became sites of pilgrimage in their own right.

Henry had blood on his hands but despite his role in Thomas’s death he jumped on the bandwagon of his martyr cult with a combination of lip service and carefully orchestrated stunts.

Henry had Thomas canonized almost immediately, appointed a friend of Thomas’ as Archbishop then walked through the streets of Canterbury barefoot, squeezed his head into an opening in St Thomas’ tomb and allowed each of the eighty monks of Canterbury to ever so gently flog him.

Henry had escaped the worst of the public’s displeasure at Thomas’ murder but divine judgement was still to come.

Just two days after the new Archbishop was formally appointed, on 3rd September 1174, the east end of cathedral burned to the ground.

Cathedral Renovations

Canterbury Cathedral interior

A new stonemason, William of Sens, was immediately hired to renovate the Cathedral’s east end in the revolutionary gothic style. William also went ahead and extended the east end with an entirely new structure, the size of a small church in itself.

Here St Thomas Becket’s tomb could sit at the centre of a sizeable underground hall, looked over by the new Trinity Chapel that extended behind the high altar. Thomas had been murdered just a few years earlier and yet Canterbury Cathedral was already completely remade as an homage to his sainthood.

Moving through the Cathedral itself feels like a pilgrimage with each flight of stairs taking visitors higher and further east, seemingly passing through one church after another and culminating in the circular chapel of the Corona.

Further Conflict

Canterbury Cathedral has always been a place beseiged by conflict.

The events that took place over a few grisly seconds one December night in 1170 reverberated through the centuries, marking this Cathedral as a place that would be defended with blood.

The church fought it out with Kings and Popes throughout the middle ages, monks and archbishops fought amongst themselves and the Cathedral fought mother nature, surviving fires and earthquakes.

No amount of fighting spirit could stand up against the sweeping force of the English Reformation and by 1540 Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries reached Canterbury.

The monastery closed but its role as a place of prayer continued and has done so to this day.

The Cathedral was badly damaged during both the 17th century Civil War and more recent Second World War but still remains standing, more glorious and proud than ever.

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