This marks the beginning of the second half of the pilgrimage. Instead of thinking of it as the beginning of the end, I will opt for thinking of the next few days as the beginning of our exploration of the southern half of England. If you ask those in the north they would say that the southern part of the country is different, not just in landscape but in the manner and nature of the people. The northerners pride themselves on a slower lifestyle and an outgoing hospitable nature, so I look forward to see if their observations are accurate.
Today we head east to the county Kent and visit one of the centers of Anglican pilgrimage in Canterbury Cathedral. I was particularly looking forward to our day in Canterbury because of its central importance to the history and tradition of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member church. To be able to travel and spend time in our “mother church” had me really excited and I know that many of my fellow pilgrims also shared in that excitement.
We arose that morning and had a wonderful spread of traditional English breakfast items, though we did not have beans like the Novotel in York served but nevertheless it was still a great way to start the day. I filled up on coffee and croissants and we all boarded the bus to make the hour and a half ride to east. One thing I have learned from this trip so far is that Google maps lies when it tells us how long it will take to get from one place to another. Well, it doesn’t lie per se, but because we are a coach and not a small car zipping in and out of traffic we have taken a little bit longer to get places than originally thought. We adapted and adjusted accordingly. We arrived in the center of the town of Canterbury right on time and began our walk to the cathedral.
As we approached the towers grew larger and larger until we found ourselves standing before one of the main gates into the cathedral grounds. We passed through the gates and there it was…Canterbury. We had at last come to one of the holiest and historical sites in our tradition and in doing so have followed in the footsteps of millions upon millions of other pilgrims.
Founded in 597 as a Benedictine monastic community by Augustine, the cathedral was completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077. The east end was greatly enlarged at the beginning of the twelfth century, and largely rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174, with significant eastward extensions to accommodate the flow of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. The Norman nave and transepts survived until the late fourteenth century, when they were demolished to make way for the present structures.
A pivotal moment in the history of the cathedral was the murder of the archbishop, Thomas Becket, in the north-west transept when he was murdered on Tuesday, 29 December 1170, by knights of King Henry II. The king had frequent conflicts with the strong-willed Becket and is said to have exclaimed in frustration, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights took it literally and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. After the Anglo-Saxon Ælfheah, Becket was the second Archbishop of Canterbury to be murdered. The posthumous veneration of Becket as a martyr made the cathedral a place of pilgrimage. This brought both the need to expand the cathedral and the wealth that made it possible. As a center of pilgrimage it brought in a hefty revenue which would later be confiscated by Henry VIII.
We had arrived early enough that as we waited for our tour guides Fr. David provided some context of his own experiences of Canterbury especially as he was on Archbishop Rowan’s staff. Since most of the times he had been there before was for business he was experiencing it for the first time as a pilgrim, and I hope had a better experience than before. Before long our tour guides found us and we split into two groups to begin our tour.
We started in the nave. The nave is over 600 years old and its vaulted ceiling reaches 82 feet high. At the west end of the cathedral is an absolutely huge stained glass window, much of which is over 800 years old, and depicts people from the Old Testament. There are many memorials along the wall, much like at Saint James, including memorials to statesmen, soldiers, clergy, and musicians.
From there we ascended the steps towards the stone screen that was behind the first altar in the area under the tower known as the crossing, or transept. For a long time non-ordained people were only allowed in the nave and the stone screen kept the laity out of the the area where the choir and high altar were located. Carved into the stone screen are six Royal statues and they would have been painted in bright colors. there used to be twelve more statues for the disciples but they were destroyed during the Civil War when the church lost much of its art at the hands of puritanical Protestants. Above this spot is the fan vaulted ceiling of Bell Harry Tower. The tower was the last major addition to the cathedral and is about 500 years old. The tower itself is over 230 feet tall!
We passed through the stone screen without incident because clearly the doorkeeper must have been on break, and entered into the area for the choir and before us stood the high altar and behind that the Archbishop’s throne, also known as Saint Augustine’s Chair.
The quire, as this area is called, is also over 800 years old having been rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1174 and is one of the oldest Gothic buildings in Britain. The dark brown choir stalls date back from the Victorian era and just beyond the stalls is a golden lectern in the shape of an eagle and beyond that is the high altar.
The Archbishop’s throne is set above the platform of the high altar and just behind it is Trinity Chapel where the shrine to Saint Thomas a Becket was located until it was removed in 1538. Henry VIII summoned the dead saint to court to face charges of treason. Having failed to appear, he was found guilty in his absence and the treasures of his shrine were confiscated, carried away in two coffers and twenty-six carts. All that remains is a single burning candle that is set on the beautiful mosaic tile floor where the shrine used to be. Along the sides of the chapel is the tomb of the only monarchs buried in Canterbury, Henry IV along with his wife. Edward Plantagenet’s tomb, also known as the Black Prince, is also along the side of chapel but he was never king.
From the main area of the church we began to explore the other areas around the cathedral including a great hall where the once vibrant monastic community would have heard chapters of the Rule of Saint Benedict read aloud, the cloister, and the crypt. There are several chapels down in the crypt including the Jesus Chapel from which we broadcasted our Mass.
After an amazing morning with tours, prayer, and our own Mass in the cathedral we broke up into small groups for lunch and further exploration of the city and some shopping.
We gathered for one last group shot in front of the cathedral and then started the walk back to the coach. It was an intense day filled with beautiful and prayerful moments. I wish it could have lasted longer and I can not wait until I am here again.
We arrived back at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katherine, had another delicious dinner, and then we all went to rest our heads to prepare for our final full day in London.