June 4, 2018
What is the Canterbury Cathedral? What is the Pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral all about and what does it have to do with Chaucer’s Classic, “Canterbury Tales.” And who is Thomas Becket?
If you can answer those questions, read no more, skip down to the photos of the Cathedral. For others, let’s have a little review of medieval English History. William the Conqueror defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold Godwinson in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, becoming King William I of England, the first Norman king of England. Four Norman kings later Henry II is on the scene. (1154-1189) Henry II believed in centralized royal power and passed many judicial reforms. He attempted to restore the close relationship between church and state but with royal supremacy.
Thomas Becket was the son of a wealthy London merchant. Well educated, he became an agent to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him on several missions to Rome. Becket’s talents were noticed by Henry II, who made him his chancellor and the two became close friends (some historians call them carousing chums).
When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, King Henry made Becket archbishop. Henry assumed that Becket, who had served efficiently as chancellor, would continue to do so as archbishop. Becket, however, disappointed him. Once appointed archbishop, Becket transformed himself from a pleasure-loving courtier into a serious, simply dressed cleric. (a personal conversion or a power grab?) He became a militant defender of the church against royal encroachment and a champion of the papal ideology of ecclesiastical supremacy over the lay world.
Henry and Becket’s friendship was put under strain when it became clear that Becket would now stand up for the church in its disagreements with the king. On December 29, 1170, four knights, believing the king wanted Becket out of the way, confronted and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
Becket was made a saint in 1173 and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became an important focus for pilgrimage. Christians from around Europe flocked to the shrine where many miracles were happening.
Because the martyred Thomas became a saint in the eyes of the people. Henry, full of remorse, did penance imposed by the pope. He walked to Canterbury Cathedral barefoot (some say from Chilham) in sack cloth and ashes and allowed himself to be flogged by the monks.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “Canterbury Tales” in the late 14th century. It is a story of a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury and telling each other “tales” for entertainment as they journeyed together.
The pilgrimages were outlawed in 1540 by King Henry VIII. So, now we know why people walked to Canterbury; either to honor St. Thomas Becket for his service to the church and God in defiance to the king, or in need of divine intervention.
As you know, our pilgrimage started in Reigate, 100 miles to the west of Canterbury. Was it a hike? A pilgrimage? A spiritual journey? When I read the history of Thomas Becket, I could see two Becket’s. One is a man who got too big for his britches when he was appointed archbishop and defied his former friend to one-up him because Becket could never be Henry’s social equal. The other Becket is a man who came back to his faith when he was given the new assignment and was following the convictions of his heart in his communications with his God. That is the Thomas Becket I wanted to honor, a man who got a second chance and honored God before King. God before self.
At the present time Canterbury Cathedral is covered in scaffolding and my photographs will reflect that. It is still a house of worship, filled with beauty, awe, wonder, majesty and stories, stories, stories. Brian and I took two educational tours; one on Henry I and the other on Thomas Becket which intertwined history and the Cathedral with enthusiasm.
History of the Cathedral: In 597 AD, Pope Gregory sent a monk, Augustine, to England as a missionary. After converting the King of Kent to Christianity, Augustine established his seat and monastery in Canterbury and became England’s first Archbishop. The Cathedral has been the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury ever since. It is very much a working , living church where services take place every day. For millions of Anglicans worldwide, the Cathedral is their Mother Church.
We enter Christ Church Gate:
“This gate is the principal entrance to the cathedral, from whose dedication to Christ it takes its name, and forms the dramatic highlight of the Buttermarket over which it stands. Cathedral records,indicate the gate was built between 1504 and 1521 with funds provided by Priors Goldstone and Goldwell. This is despite the inscription of 1507 on the stonework “Hoc Opus constructum est anno Domini millesimo Quingentesimo decimo septimo,” – a matter of ongoing dispute between historians. It was probably built in honour of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s elder brother who married to Catherine of Aragon in 1501. He died the following year aged just 16, allowing Henry VIII to become King and marry Katherine himself in 1509. Imagine the consternation of the sculptors responsible for the heraldry trying to keep up with changing family dynamics! The original statue of Christ and the wooden gates were destroyed by the Puritan iconoclast Richard Culmer in 1643. The gates were restored by Archbishop Juxon in 1660 and still bear his arms. The original towers were torn down in 1803 by Jesse White, the surveyor to Cathedral, at the request of Alderman James Simmons. He wanted to see the Cathedral clock from his bank Simmons & Gipps, now the Lloyds Bank building on the High Street! The towers were replaced in 1937 during another restoration, this one funded by Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills (of the Wills tobacco family) and her sister. The statue of Christ was replaced in 1990 after a gap of 347 years.” Ref: CANTERBURY HISTORICAL & ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY (CHAS)
The candle is the spot where Thomas Becket’s shrine originally was.
The neighborhood around the Cathedral:
We returned to the Cathedral that at night for “Evensong,” their evening vespers. It was a sweet way to end the day with a beautiful male choir, Scripture readings from the Old and New Testament and inspiring prayer for the spiritual and physical needy in the world and their own community. I was quite moved. It completed the pilgrimage for me.
And my Canterbury Tale? While we were taking a teaching tour about Thomas Becket, a man asked the tour guide if he still sees many Pilgrims. “No, we don’t see Pilgrims any more.” I was standing right next to them and interjected. “I am a Pilgrim. My friend and I walked here today.” The guide looked at me and said kindly but dismissive, “Yes, I suppose so.” “No, I repeated again. We walked here . . .” he interrupted and said. “Yes, yes, I suppose we are all pilgrims of a sort.” By now I was speechless and quit talking. True, we didn’t see many pilgrims on the trail like on the Camino de Santiago. but we were pilgrims right here in his group and he couldn’t acknowledge it. That’s my tale.
Thanks for sharing this experience with me. Tomorrow we go to Dover before returning to the United States.