CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL AND THE BEST 16 HIGHLIGHTS
Canterbury Cathedral is truly special and I fell in love with this masterpiece instantly. I was awestruck by the sheer height and length of the Nave, representing a great example of Perpendicular Gothic style. Stunning jaw-dropping slender columns rise up to form pointed rib vaulted arches above. The beauty is surreal. Canterbury Cathedral is the masterpiece of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and it must be seen to be believed. Even in this 21st century, the age of skyscrapers, it is hard not to be impressed by this expansive medieval architecture.
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the three monuments listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other two being the St Martin’s Church and St Augustine’s Abbey) and is one the oldest places of worship and longest in use (since 597 AD). The Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Usually, entrance to the cathedral precincts is via Christ Church Gate — a pair of huge oak 17th century oak gates, and under the watchful eyes of stone gargoyles and angels. However, during my recent visit, Christ Church Gate was covered in scaffold and entrance was via the Cathedral shop.
While there is much to see and enjoy at Canterbury Cathedral, this article points to 16 highlights in the best of Canterbury Cathedral, which are particularly beautiful and not to miss during your visit.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL
The history of Canterbury Cathedral spans 1400 years and begins in 597 AD with the arrival of St Augustine. Augustine was sent by Rome who brought Christianity to England. St Augustine becomes the first Archbishop of Canterbury, establishing Canterbury as his ‘seat’. The original Saxon cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, and the little that remained is buried underneath the nave of the present cathedral. Rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral began in 1070, in Norman style by the then Archbishop Lanfranc. He built it as a place of worship for a small community of monks. The rebuilding was completed in 1077, described by Lanfranc as ‘nearly perfect’.
The building continued to be expanded by the monks. A fire in 1174 led to another rebuilding project which allowed for the creation of a new shrine honouring St Thomas Becket in the Trinity Chapel. The Trinity Chapel is the highest part of the Cathedral visitors can access.
The cathedral building we see today is a construction representing 900 years of building and extension work undertaken periodically since 1070. Some parts of the Quire and some of the stained glass windows along with the area called ‘Martyrdom’ date from the 12th century.
THE BEST OF CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL — TOP 16 HIGHLIGHTS NOT TO MISS ON YOUR VISIT
1 | The Canterbury War Horse
At the eastern end of Canterbury Cathedral Precincts, stands an impressive large-scale wooden sculpture in the shape of a horse. The monumental sculpture is 20ft tall, and represents the conflict, loss of humans as well as animal lives during the First World War. It has been estimated that over eight million horses died when they travelled through Kent to the continent.
The sculpture, Canterbury War Horse (passionately nicknamed ‘Joey’ as the horse in Michael Morpurgo’s classic novel) is presented with his head bowed, in respect and in solemnity at Canterbury Cathedral, a place of quiet contemplation and reflection.
2 | The Architecture of Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral is an example of the large scale Gothic cathedrals that were built in Europe during the 12th century. The style and design of Canterbury Cathedral is unique. Inside the Cathedral are several different types of arches. The arches are used to give the cathedral strength. Canterbury Cathedral showcases a combination of Romanesque or Norman arches and Gothic arches.
The walls are enormous! Made of stone from quarries in and around the town of Caen in Normandy.
One of the most impressive sight is the Cathedral Nave. The Nave was designed in the early 14th century. The 26.5 metres (82ft) high vaulted ceiling was designed by the master mason Henry Yevele. It is used for services, concerts and degree ceremonies and it is an incredible sight.
Watch this reel on Instagram to appreciate the vastness of this monument.
3 | Stained Glass Windows
Light pours in through the huge stained glass windows throughout the Cathedral. There is around 1200 metre square of magnificently beautiful stained glass in the cathedral. The oldest stained glass in the cathedral is more than 840 years old and dates from the 12th century. ‘Adam delving’ is one of the oldest windows. The windows depict inspirational biblical stories.
Over the years, many of the original windows have been destroyed — some during the Reformation, much during the English Civil War and during the Second World War.
The stained glass windows in the Trinity Chapel are especially poignant. On the southern side of Trinity Chapel are windows known as ‘Miracle Windows’. The figures depict some of the miracles attributed to St Thomas Becket.
These beautiful windows bring colour and light creating a sense of awe and wonder at Canterbury Cathedral.
4 | Thomas Becket and the Pilgrims
Canterbury Cathedral became the most important pilgrimage centre in Europe following the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. When Becket became an Archbishop, he took his responsibilities seriously and resulted in a fall out with King Henry II. After a long disagreement, King Henry is said to have exclaimed, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Believing that this was an order, four of the King’s knights set off to Canterbury to ‘rid’ the Archbishop Thomas Becket. With a stroke of the sword so violent, Becket was murdered. It was the murder that shook the Middle Ages.
Archbishop Becket was murdered in the area, now known as the Martyrdom. His remains were buried in the Crypt the next day. Shortly afterwards, miracles were noted to take place at his tomb. A shrine was built at the spot where he was murdered in 1220. Thereafter Canterbury Cathedral became the most important pilgrimage centres.
4.1 | The Pilgrims
The pilgrims first started making the journey in 1172, from Winchester to Canterbury Cathedral. The Pilgrims Way is the historical route taken from Winchester, Hampshire to the shrine of Thomas Becket, Canterbury. This journey inspired the author, Geoffrey Chaucer to write the famous Canterbury Tales, detailing the stories of the pilgrims.
The work of the Cathedral as a monastery was suppressed in 1540 on the orders of King Henry VIII but the Cathedral continued as a place of prayer till today.
5 | The Martyrdom, and Thomas Becket
The Martyrdom is the area in the northwest part of the transept. It was here that Thomas Becket met his gruesome death on December 29, 1170. His remains were hastily buried the next day in the crypt. The Altar of the Sword Point marks the place where the tip of the sword which killed St Thomas was kept on an altar in the middle ages.
6 | Trinity Chapel Canterbury Cathedral
Trinity Chapel is located at the east of Canterbury Cathedral. It was built under the supervision of William of Sens to house a shrine for St Thomas Becket. William of Sens fell from the scaffolding while inspecting the roof. The Chapel was eventually completed by his student, William the Englishman.
A fire in 1174 allowed for the rebuilding of the Cathedral and the creation of a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel. The Trinity Chapel is the highest part of the Cathedral visitors can access.
Becket’s tomb laid to the East of the Crypt for 50 years after his murder. On Tuesday, July 7 1220, Becket’s remains were meticulously removed from the tomb and placed in an ornamented golden casket to be placed in the Trinity Chapel at the east end behind the high altar. For 350 years, the magnificent shrine in silver, gold and exquisite jewels drew many pilgrims from far and wide who sought miraculous healing. In 1538, Henry VIII ordered the shrine to be destroyed and appropriated the jewels. No one really knows what happened to St Thomas’ remains.
6.1 | The Candle
Today, a candle continuously burns at the spot where Becket’s shrine was placed. It is a place of quiet reflection.
6.2 | The Floor of Trinity Chapel
Part of the floor of Trinity Chapel, adjacent to the floor where the shrine of St Thomas Becket stood, before the Suppression is a unique magnificent mosaic pavement. When Archbishop Becket was murdered, his body rested overnight on the pavement before he was buried in the crypt.
The marble floor has intrigued scholars for centuries, and contributed to much speculation and debate. To begin with, the floor is much older than the Chapel, and that it was moved here from elsewhere. It is believed that the floor was also composed of the most expensive marble from the early 12th century, and was introduced by Archbishop Anselm who loved his native Italian architecture. The design of the marble floor has further intrigued scholars where some say that the complex design are symbols of the way to heavenly Jerusalem.
6.3 | Stained Glass Windows at the Trinity Chapel
The stained glass windows at the Trinity Chapel, known as ‘Miracle Windows’ depict scenes of Becket’s life, his death and miracles said to have happened after his death.
6.4 | St Augustine’s Chair
At the Trinity Chapel, you shall also find the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ceremonial enthronement chair made of marble. This chair dates back to the 13th century and is named after the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine.
6.5 | Tomb of the Black Prince
The tomb of the eldest son of King Edward III, Edward of Woodstock lies in the Trinity Chapel. He is better known as the Black Prince Edward Plantagenet. The Black Prince was distinctly popular as a military leader and the black armour he used is fully visible.
6.6 | King Henry IV
While most kings and queens are buried in Westminster Abbey, King Henry IV and his consort, Joan of Navarre are buried in Trinity Chapel. Henry IV wanted to be connected to St Thomas Becket.
7 | The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Time
The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of our Time was known as The Corona. It was built by the monks of the Christchurch Priory in the 12th century. The Corona is a unique structure that is almost circular and was the most sacred part of the Cathedral. It housed the crown of the Archbishop Becket skull.
8 | The Compass Rose
The Compass Rose is set in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral and represents the Mother Church. It points to the four corners of the world, embracing the wider Anglican family.
9 | The Pulpitum Steps and Crossing
One of the distinctive features of the Cathedral is the Pulpitum Steps and Arch, dividing the Nave from the Quire.
9.1 | The Pulpitum Crossing
Simply known as The Crossing, the arch is a richly carved screen with statues of royals. Completed c1450 AD, the arch leads into the Quire and the Trinity Chapel beyond.
9.2 | The Pulpitum Steps
The Pulpitum Steps are the central point of the Cathedral. The foot of the steps is the perfect place to view the Nave below and the superb Bell Harry Fan Vault above. There are two remarkable stained glass windows viewed from here — the Royal Window in the north, built c1480 and the Great South Window, built c1428.
9.3 | Bell Harry Fan Vault
Above the Pulpitum platform, is the exceptional fan vault which was designed by John Wastell and completed in 1504. The circular wooden centrepiece bears the arms of Christ Church Priory — a white cross on a blue background. It is actually a trap door of 2 metres (6.5ft) wide. Through this trap door, building materials were hoisted from the floor below. The hoist, housed inside the bell chamber was powered by the Great Threadwheel. Though not in use today but is said to be in working order even after 500 years.
The tower is 76 metres (235 ft) high.
9.4 | The Royal Window
The Royal Window was made at the height of the War of Roses (1455-1487). It was completed in 1480 and depicts Christ and the twelve Apostles. Named ‘Our Lady’s Window’ and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
9.5 | The Great South Window
The Great South Window is the most impressive and the largest in Canterbury Cathedral. It measures 7.6 metres (25 ft) wide by 17 metres (55 ft) high and dates from 1428. The window depicts the Ancestors of Christ, eighty-six of them as named in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. The windows begin with Adam and end with Christ. Notably, Abraham (second row, left), Noah (bottom row, 2nd left), Methuselah (bottom row, 5th left) who lived 969 years.
9.6 | Contrasting architecture
The contrasting style of architecture is also notable from this focal point. The Nave and the Southwest Transept are built in Perpendicular Gothic style whereas the Quire is an excellent example of the early Romanesque style (1174 – 1180).
Notice also the great width of the Cathedral. From east to west, it is 157 metres (515 ft).
10 | Bell Harry Tower and Bell Ringing at Canterbury Cathedral
The tower at the great crossing, once known as Angel Steeple of Canterbury Cathedral and renamed as Bell Harry Tower was built in the late 13th century. Bell Harry Tower is a masterpiece of medieval craftmanship and is home to more than twenty bells.
The five bells on the north west of the tower strike the quarters and the Great Dunstan, the Cathedral’s largest bell strikes the hour. In the south west of the tower are fourteen bells hung for Change Ringing.
The bells are rung in a particular way, called ‘Change Ringing’ which were developed in the early 17th century. Change Ringing produces a steady rhythm of individually sounding bells in accordance with the carefully timed swinging of the bells.
The Bell Harry Tower was the last major addition to the Cathedral and is 500 years old.
11 | The Paschal Candle
Canterbury Cathedral has a fascinating collection of Paschal Candles. These stunning candles are beautifully decorated and each decoration has meanings attached to them.
12 | The Quire at Canterbury Cathedral
The Quire is the first Gothic building in England and is a magnificent part of the Cathedral. It was rebuilt after the fire of 1174 and designed by William of Sens but was completed by his assistant, William the Englishman. The magnificent stone vault is 18 metres (59 feet) high.
The Quire is almost 850 years old and is used daily for services.
There are Quire stalls on both sides where the Cathedral choir take their place. A prominent feature is the lectern in the form of an eagle in the centre of the Quire. The eagle represents St John the Evangelist and the Bible is read from here during services.
13 | The Great Cloister and the Chapter House
Directly behind the Martyrdom are a set of large wooden doors, an access point to the Great Cloister. It is rather hidden but you can go through it. The Cloisters and the Chapter House were the most important in monastic life.
13.1 | The Great Cloister
The Cloisters are situated on the north side of Canterbury Cathedral. It is a covered colonnade that surrounds a small square courtyard. It was built in the 14th century and connected the different parts of the monastery.
Take your time to wander through the labyrinth of cloisters that are atmospheric and of immense beauty. Admire the symmetry, and look up at the vaulted ceilings for colourful heraldic shields.
From the Cloisters, access the Chapter House.
13.2 | The Chapter House
The Chapter House could almost be missed because it looks quite simply like a large unattended room. In the centre of the room is a mirror to look closely at the beautiful intricate ceiling.
The Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral is the largest of its kind in England where the monks came together to read a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict.
14 | The Crypt
The Crypt is the oldest part of the Cathedral and is located beneath the Quire and Trinity Chapel. Sturdy rounded arches, round columns and beautiful carvings adorn the crypt.
The Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft is a lovely little chapel, set aside for private prayers and quiet contemplation.
Notable in the Crypt is St Gabriel’s Chapel. Here, you shall notice the oldest Christian murals in the country, originating from the 12th century. The north wall displays frescoes of the Archangel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, aged 80.
There is a little museum showcasing historical artefacts and the Black Knights armour. Photography is not allowed here.
From the crypt, via stairs and a long corridor that was once used by the pilgrims to access Trinity Chapel, you can access the garden next to an ancient water tower.
15 | The Medieval Water Tower
The Water Tower is a Norman gem. Built in the 12th century by Prior Wibert, it is an octagonal tower located on the north side of the Cathedral, behind the Cloisters. A highly sophisticated system from the medieval era, this Romanesque tower is supported by a series of arches and continues to function today. Best viewed from the garden.
16 | The Herb Garden
The Herb Garden is a newly planted garden. The Herbarium, sits on the site of the Medieval monk’s dormitory adjacent to the original Monastic Herbarium. The garden is planted with herbs that have been used for thousands of years. An interesting feature are examples of plants monks would have grown to eat and use for medicine.
Nearby are dormitory ruins.
TTS Best tip: Join the guided tour offered by the Cathedral. These usually take place at 11:00 A.M and 2:00 P.M and are guided by knowledgeable volunteers of the Cathedral. The tour is thorough and lasts between 60 to 75 minutes. The tour costs £5.00 (2022) in addition to your entry ticket.
Address: Cathedral House, 11 The Precincts, Canterbury CT1 2EH
Opens: Monday through to Saturday from 10:00 A.M to 4:00 P.M.;
Sunday: 12:30 to 4:00 P.M.
*Give yourself at least two hours as a minimum to enjoy this outstanding heritage site.
Canterbury is served by two Railway Stations owned and managed by Southeastern Railways.
Canterbury East and Canterbury West — both stations are located within a 10-minute walk of Canterbury Cathedral.
Have a great time exploring Canterbury Cathedral.