Canterbury Cathedral - History and Facts | History Hit

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury, England, United Kingdom

Canterbury Cathedral has a prominent history dating back to the 6th century and was the site of the infamous murder of Thomas Becket.

Lily Johnson

30 Mar 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral is one of England’s most famous cathedrals, both because of its prominent history dating back to the 6th century, and due to the famous murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket that took place there.

Canterbury Cathedral history

In 597, a missionary called St Augustine travelled to Kent from Rome, having been sent by the Pope to convert the English to Christianity. Settling in Canterbury, he soon established a seat or ‘cathedra’ there within the Roman walls, marking the beginning of Canterbury Cathedral. The remains of this original incarnation of the Cathedral lie underneath its current nave.

In Norman times, the community of Canterbury Cathedral became a Benedictine monastery, and in 1070 was completely rebuilt following a fire. A century later in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral became the site of an infamous crime – the murder and martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Becket, who had been made archbishop in 1162 by King Henry II, soon began to clash with the monarch, particularly as to whether his loyalty lay with the King or the Church. Frustrated at Becket’s refusal to bow to his will, the King famously said ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ Having overheard the King, four of his knights took his outburst quite literally and murdered Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral’s north-east transept. Becket was later canonised.

Canterbury Cathedral continued to operate as a monastery until 1540, when Henry VIII disbanded it as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He also destroyed the shrine to Thomas Becket, a place of pilgrimage now symbolised by a lone candle.

Over the next few centuries, Canterbury Cathedral was renovated, rebuilt in parts and underwent many changes. Some of these were due to damage, such as that caused to the building during the English Civil War.

Canterbury Cathedral today

Today Canterbury Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with some of its oldest parts – such as its crypt – dating back to the 12th century. Guided tours and audio guides are available at the site, however visitors are also free to explore its many mysteries at leisure.

A memorial to Thomas Becket is marked by a striking sculpture of two daggers descending downwards, with their shadows making up the four blades used to attack the Archbishop. Many notable figures are also buried in the Cathedral, including King Henry IV and Edward the Black Prince, whose detailed effigies offer a glimpse into what the medieval figures may have looked like.

Looking up, the Cathedral’s magnificent ceilings may be admired featuring stunning fan-vaulted designs and colourful detailing, while its  stained glass windows are also a marvel. Outside the cloisters may be explored, as well as the Cathedral’s picturesque gardens.

Getting to Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral is located in Canterbury in Kent, and is easily reached by both the M20 and M2. There are a number of car parks in the centre of the city, with St Radigund’s Car Park a 6-minute walk away, while a Park and Ride service is also available into the centre. Both Canterbury West and Canterbury East train stations are around a 10-minute walk away, while Canterbury bus station is a 5-minute walk away.

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