Canterbury Cathedral: Holy Survivor

Four  things  make  this  cathedral  a  mustsee destination: its Gothic architecture; its status as the Church of England’s mother church; its starring role in the English language’s first masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales;  and  the  treacherous  murder  of Thomas  à  Becket  in  1170.  The  first  three factors  may  not  grab  your  kids,  but  the fourth will.

Canterbury is one of those places where layers of history pile atop each other. Britain’s  earliest  settlements  flourished  in  this southeast  corner,  the  closest  area  to  the European continent, and there was a town here  well  before  the  birth  of  Christ.  When the Romans came to Britain, this became a major  center,  Durovernum  Cantiacorum. When Pope Gregory I sent St. Augustine to Britain  to  convert  the  pagan  Saxons  to Christianity, Augustine built his abbey here. But  what  really  established  Canterbury  as England’s religious capital was the murder of  Thomas  à  Becket,  archbishop  of  Canterbury,  who  was  killed  on  December  29, 1170,  by  four  knights  who  thought  King Henry II wanted him out of the way. Henry denied  he  ever  issued  such  orders,  and even  if  he  did,  the  scheme  backfired—Becket’s   tomb   immediately   became   a shrine,  visited  by  faithful  worshipers  from all over, and the murder victim was named a Catholic saint.

Four years after the murder, a mysterious  fire  leveled  the  monastic  church.  It was  replaced  by  the  magnificent  early Gothic choir section, England’s first major example  of  that  architectural  style.  Like most   medieval   cathedrals,   Canterbury was a work in progress that spanned centuries; the nave, the long main body of the church, wasn’t completed until the 1300s. By  1388,  when  Geoffrey  Chaucer  portrayed  a  motley  crew  of  pilgrims  in  his Canterbury  Tales,  this  was  England’s major  tourist  destination.  The  cathedral has several noteworthy medieval tombs, including  those  of  King  Henry  IV  and  the renowned warrior Edward the Black Prince (loaded down with armor and weapons).

When  Henry  VIII  decided  to  split  England  from  the  Roman  Catholic  Church,  in 1538  he  had  Becket’s  shrine  destroyed and its treasures carted off to line his own coffers.  As  a  result,  the  interior  looks remarkably restrained and pure, with pale stone  surfaces,  pointed  arches,  soaring spires, high ceilings, subtle gargoyles, and exterior  supporting  arches  (called  flying buttresses).  One  thing  Henry  left  was  the lovely  stained-glass  windows.  In  1941, when Nazi Germany began bombing Great Britain, Canterbury’s officials removed the precious  glass  for  safekeeping.  During  a German air raid in 1942, the replacement windows were blown to bits. The originals were safely put back after the war and you can see them here today.

Elsewhere in Canterbury, you can walk along  what  remains  of  the  medieval  city walls,  explore  such  quaint  medieval-relic streets  as  Mercery  Lane,  and  perhaps visit the Museum of Canterbury on Stour Street   or   the   excavated   Canterbury Roman Museum on Butchery Lane.