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.