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Canterbury Cathedral

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Canterbury Cathedral, St. Augustine's Abbey, and St. Martin's Church
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Canterbury Cathedral from the southwest.
Country Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, vi
Reference 495
UNESCO region Europe
Inscription history
Inscription 1988 (12th Session)

Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England and forms part of a World Heritage Site. It is the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its formal title is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury.


Foundation by Augustine

Canterbury Cathedral's first Archbishop was St. Augustine of Canterbury, previously abbot of St. Andrew's Benedictine Abbey in Rome. He was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in AD 597 as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons. The cathedral was founded by Augustine in 602 AD and dedicated to St. Saviour.

The Venerable Bede The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Archaeological investigations under the nave floor in 1993 revealed the foundations of the original Saxon Cathedral, which had been built across a former Roman road.

Augustine also founded a Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and Paul outside the city walls. This was later rededicated to St. Augustine himself and was for many centuries the burial place of the successive archbishops. The abbey is part of the World Heritage Site of Canterbury, along with the ancient Church of St. Martin.

View from the north west circa 1890-1900 (retouched from a black & white photograph).

Later Saxon and Viking periods

A second building, a baptistry or mausoleum, was built on the same axis as the cathedral by Archbishop Cuthbert (740-758) and dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

Two centuries later, Oda (941-958) renewed the building, greatly lengthening the nave.

During the reforms of Archbishop St. Dunstan (c909-988), a Benedictine Abbey named Christ Church Priory was added to the cathedral. But the formal establishment as a monastery seems to date to c.997 and the community only became fully monastic from Lanfranc's time onwards (with Monastic Constitutions addressed by him to prior Henry). St. Dunstan was buried on the south side of the High Altar.

The Saxon cathedral was badly damaged during Danish raids on Canterbury in 1011. Lyfing (1013-1020) and Aethelnoth (1020-1038) added a western apse as an oratory of St. Mary.

Priors of Christ Church Priory included John of Sittingbourne (elected 1222, previously a monk of the priory) and William Chillenden, (elected 1264, previously monk and treasurer of the priory). (A list of priors may be found at here.) The monastery was granted the right to elect their own prior if the seat was vacant by the pope, and - from Gregory IX onwards - the right to a free election (though with the archbishop overseeing their choice). Monks of the priory have included Æthelric I, Æthelric II, Walter d'Eynsham, Reginald fitz Jocelin (admitted as a confrater shortly before his death), Nigel de Longchamps and Ernulf. The monks often put forward candidates for Archbishop of Canterbury, either from among their number or outside, since the archbishop was nominally their abbot, but this could lead to clashes with the king and/or pope should they put forward a different man - examples are the elections of Baldwin of Exeter and Thomas Cobham.

Norman period

After the Norman conquest in 1066, Lanfranc (1070-1077) became the first Norman archbishop. He thoroughly rebuilt the ruined Saxon cathedral in a Norman design based strong on the Abbey of St.Etienne in Caen, of which he had previously been abbot. The new cathedral was dedicated in 1077.

Archbishop St. Anselm (1093-1109) greatly extended the Quire to the east to give sufficient space for the monks of the greatly revived monastery. Beneath it he built the large and elaborately decorated crypt, which is the largest of its kind in England.

Though named for the 7th-century founding archbishop, The Chair of St. Augustine may date from the Norman period. Its first recorded use is in 1205.

Image of Thomas Becket from a stained glass window.

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket

A pivotal moment in the history of Canterbury Cathedral was the murder of Thomas Becket in the north-east transept 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?" The knights took it literally and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. Becket was the second of four archbishops of Canterbury who were murdered (see also Alphege).

Following a disastrous fire of 1174 which destroyed the entire eastern end, William of Sens rebuilt the choir with an important early example of the Early English Gothic design, including high pointed arches, flying buttresses, and rib vaulting. Later, William the Englishman added the Trinity Chapel as a shrine for the relics of St. Thomas the Martyr. The Corona ('crown') Tower was built at the eastern end to contain the relic of the crown of St. Thomas's head which was struck off during his murder. Over time other significant burials took place in this area such as Edward Plantagenet (The ' Black Prince') and King Henry IV.

The Black Prince

The income from pilgrims (including Geoffrey Chaucer's in "The Canterbury Tales") who visited Becket's shrine, which was regarded as a place of healing, largely paid for the subsequent rebuilding of the Cathedral and its associated buildings.

The 12th century monastery

A curious bird's-eye view of Canterbury Cathedral and its annexed conventual buildings, taken about 1165, is preserved in the Great Psalter in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. As elucidated by Professor Willis, it exhibits the plan of a great Benedictine monastery in the 12th century, and enables us to compare it with that of the 9th as seen at the abbey of Saint Gall. We see in both the same general principles of arrangement, which indeed belong to all Benedictine monasteries, enabling us to determine with precision the disposition of the various buildings, when little more than fragments of the walls exist. From some local reasons, however, the cloister and monastic buildings are placed on the north, instead, as is far more commonly the case, on the south of the church. There is also a separate chapter-house, which is wanting at St Gall.

The 12th century choir.

The buildings at Canterbury, as at St Gall, form separate groups. The church forms the nucleus. In immediate contact with this, on the north side, lie the cloister and the group of buildings devoted to the monastic life. Outside of these, to the west and east, are the halls and chambers devoted to the exercise of hospitality, with which every monastery was provided, for the purpose of receiving as guests persons who visited it, whether clergy or laity, travellers, pilgrims or paupers.

To the north a large open court divides the monastic from the menial buildings, intentionally placed as remote as possible from the conventual buildings proper, the stables, granaries, barn, bakehouse, brewhouse, laundries, etc., inhabited by the lay servants of the establishment. At the greatest possible distance from the church, beyond the precinct of the convent, is the eleemosynary department. The almonry for the relief of the poor, with a great hall annexed, forms the paupers' hospitium.

The most important group of buildings is naturally that devoted to monastic life. This includes two Cloisters, the great cloister surrounded by the buildings essentially connected with the daily life of the monks,---the church to the south, the refectory or frater-house here as always on the side opposite to the church, and farthest removed from it, that no sound or smell of eating might penetrate its sacred precincts, to the east the dormitory, raised on a vaulted undercroft, and the chapter-house adjacent, and the lodgings of the cellarer to the west. To this officer was committed the provision of the monks' daily food, as well as that of the guests. He was, therefore, appropriately lodged in the immediate vicinity of the refectory and kitchen, and close to the guest-hall. A passage under the dormitory leads eastwards to the smaller or infirmary cloister, appropriated to the sick and infirm monks.

Eastward of this cloister extend the hall and chapel of the infirmary, resembling in form and arrangement the nave and chancel of an aisled church. Beneath the dormitory, looking out into the green court or herbarium, lies the "pisalis" or "calefactory," the common room of the monks. At its north-east corner access was given from the dormitory to the necessarium, a portentous edifice in the form of a Norman hall, 145 ft (44 m) long by 25 broad (44.2 m × 7.6 m), containing fifty-five seats. It was, in common with all such offices in ancient monasteries, constructed with the most careful regard to cleanliness and health, a stream of water running through it from end to end.

A second smaller dormitory runs from east to west for the accommodation of the conventual officers, who were bound to sleep in the dormitory. Close to the refectory, but outside the cloisters, are the domestic offices connected with it: to the north, the kitchen, 47 ft (14 m) square (200 m2), surmounted by a lofty pyramidal roof, and the kitchen court; to the west, the butteries, pantries, etc. The infirmary had a small kitchen of its own. Opposite the refectory door in the cloister are two lavatories, an invariable adjunct to a monastic dining-hall, at which the monks washed before and after taking food.

The buildings devoted to hospitality were divided into three groups. The prior's group "entered at the south-east angle of the green court, placed near the most sacred part of the cathedral, as befitting the distinguished ecclesiastics or nobility who were assigned to him." The cellarer's buildings were near the west end of the nave, in which ordinary visitors of the middle class were hospitably entertained. The inferior pilgrims and paupers were relegated to the north hall or almonry, just within the gate, as far as possible from the other two.

Plan of Canterbury Cathedral showing the richly complicated ribbing of the Perpendicular vaulting in the nave and transepts.

14th-16th centuries

Prior Thomas Chillenden (1390–1410) rebuilt the nave in the Perpendicular style of English Gothic, but left the Norman and Early English east end in place.

Lanfranc's Norman central tower, the 'Angel Steeple', was demolished in the 1430s. Reconstruction took place over 50 years later, beginning in 1490, and completed in 1510, with a height of 297 feet (90.5 m). This new tower is known as the named 'Bell Harry Tower', after Prior Henry of Eastry who organised the work, and was once called 'the finest tower in Christendom'. The bell still tolls 100 strokes, from about 8:55 p.m., to sound the city's curfew.

Dissolution of the monasteries

The cathedral ceased to be an abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries when all religious houses were suppressed. Canterbury surrendered in March 1539, and reverted to its previous status of 'a college of secular canons'.

The Norman north west tower prior to demolition (coloured from an engraving, 1821).

18th century to present

The original Norman northwest tower was demolished in the late 1700s due to structural concerns. It was replaced during the 1830s with a Perpendicular style twin of the southwest tower, currently known as the 'Arundel Tower'. This was the last major structural alteration to the cathedral to be made.

The Romanesque monastic dormitory ruins were replaced with a Neo-Gothic Library and Archives building in the 19th century. This building was later destroyed by a high-explosive bomb in the Second World War, which had been aimed at the Cathedral itself but missed by yards, and was rebuilt in similar style several years later.

The cathedral is currently sponsoring a major fundraising drive to raise a minimum of £50 million to fund restoration.

The Foundation

The Norman crypt.

The Foundation is the authorised staffing establishment of the Cathedral, few of whom are clergy. The Head of the Cathedral is the Dean, currently the Very Rev'd Robert Willis, who is assisted by a Chapter of 24 Canons, four of whom are Residentiary, the others being honorary appointments of senior clergy in the diocese. There are also a number of Lay Canons who altogether form the Greater Chapter which has the legal responsibility both for the Cathedral itself and also for the formal election of an archbishop when there is a vacancy-in-see. By English law and custom they may only elect the person who has been nominated by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Foundation also includes the Choristers, Lay Clerks, Organists, King's Scholars and a range of other officers, some of these posts are moribund, such as that of the Cathedral Barber. The cathedral has a full-time work force of 250 making it one of the largest employers in the district.

Organs and organists


Details of the organ from the National Pipe Organ Register


  • 1407 John Moundfield
  • 1420 William Stanys
  • 1445 John Cranbroke
  • 1499 Thomas Chart
  • 1534 John Wodynsborowe
  • 1547 William Selby
  • 1553 Thomas Bull
  • 1583 Matthew Godwin
  • 1590 Thomas Stores
  • 1598 George Marson
  • 1631 Valentine Rother
  • 1640 Thomas Tunstall
  • 1661 Thomas Gibbes
  • 1669 Richard Chomley
  • 1692 Nicholas Wotton
  • 1697 William Porter
  • 1698 Daniel Henstridge
  • 1736 William Raylton
  • 1757 Samuel Porter
  • 1803 Highmore Skeats
  • 1831 Thomas Jones
  • 1873 William Longhurst
  • 1898 Harry Perrin
  • 1908 Clement Palmer
  • 1937 Gerald Knight
  • 1953 Douglas Hopkins
  • 1956 Sidney Campbell
  • 1961 Allan Wicks
  • 1988 David Flood
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