When one steps through Canterbury’s Westgate, the last remainder of several gates that adorned the medieval city wall, one feels like taking a trip back in time. Along St. Peter’s Street, High Street, the Parade and lastly St. George’s Street – a stretch of pavement that cuts through the old town centre from north-west to south-east – you’ll find yourself in the midst of a pretty ensemble of medieval houses and bridges, which transport you back into the olden days, regardless of what the likewise beauty-struck passengers, that wander in flocks next to you, may look like.
Canterbury is one of the most beautiful cities of southern England and well worth a lenghty stay, especially since its walls and buildings ooze history on every corner. Centerpiece and gem of the town is Canterbury Cathedral. It can easily be reached when you turn from High Street into Butcher’s Lane and enter Buttermarket Square. That’s when you’ll stop short in front of the marvellous Christchurch Gate, which marks the entrance into Cathedral territory. You won’t get by unless you’re willing to pay the entrance fee of 7,50 Pounds, but even though that’s far from cheap, the investment is well worth it.
Step through the gate and behold the first stunning view of a gothic cathedral, its green surroundings and additional buildings that embrace the church. The cathedral, like many other places of prayer in Europe stands on the remains of buildings that served older cultures for rites and rituals. The construction of the building that can be seen today, commenced in the late 11th century, and it is certainly one of the most beautiful gothic churches in Europe.
I admit that time constraints, which resulted from only 12 days allocated for travels around parts of southern England left me with only one afternoon dedicated to exploring Canterbury, but having the benefit of insider knowledge from my generous hosts, little escaped my city-search, though it was easily agreed on that I shall have to return to Canterbury.
All medieval history comes with its share of tales around treason, murder and penance and due to my own propensity torward dramatic literature and poetry I cannot deny that my venturing into the cathedral wasn’t at least in part owing to the search for traces of bloodshed, even centuries after the crime. For, after all, no modern crime serial or movie even comes close to the drama that took place in some of those dark alleys, damp crypts or gloomy backwoods that medieval times provided ample space for.
When it comes to Canterbury, Thomas Becket’s murder is a story that cries out for telling and after a leisurely stroll through the vast complex of the cathedral, I found myself searching for the scene of the crime. For those of you who are not familiar with the drama, I’ll try to give a brief narrative of the facts (or hearsay, myth and legend respectively): Thomas Becket (c.1120-1170) was a friend and confidant of Henry II., king of England at the time. Henry (1154-1189) cunningly sought to strengthen his position within the, then catholic, church, which led him to conclude it would be best to promote his buddy Thomas to Archbishop of Canterbury. Only he miscalculated and instead of following Henry’s orders, Thomas Becket engaged in a series of legal bouts over the position and power of the catholic church in England. After a particularly aggravating argument, Henry is supposed to have exclaimed the following sentence: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?“ (or at least a variation thereof), which quickly found a following of four fearless fellows (I would have written ruthless, if it wasn’t for the beautiful alliteration…) or honorable knights – whichever way one wants to look at it – who were more than ready to excecute Henry’s will.
So on December 29th 1170 the qualified quartet ventured into Canterbury Cathedral and confronted the bishop, who was getting ready for evening prayers. Thomas wouldn’t budge, which led the four brutes to brutally bludgeon him, finally splitting his scull with their swords’ blows (whoever wants the even bloodier details, head on over to Wikipedia).
After a very speedy canonisation of Thomas Becket in 1173 and an increasing flow of pilgrims visiting his relics, Henry found himself tormented by guilt and finally had to do penance in 1174. Back then rituals like these definitely had more of a demonstrative character, which is why Henry found himself naked except for a sinner’s shirt, walking barefoot all the way to the cathedral where he then had to beg forgiveness on his knees and to make things a little more memorable was afterwards flogged by the entire group of monks (some 80), bishops and abbots, who were present to bear witness to Henry’s remorse. He was then allowed to spend the night in the crypt, praying and fasting (more information can be found here).
Another Henry finally did away with the increasing stream of pilgrims, the 8th in the order of Henrys – due to some „private troubles“ – had decided to end catholic domination in England and simply pronounced himself head of the church of England. He had Thomas’ shrine and remains destroyed, the place where they once rested is now marked by a simple candle.
If anyone by this time needs peace and quiet I would recommend taking part in one of the informative Historic River Tours, that take you and your rowing guide along the river Stour and will complete the day of exploring Canterbury in a relaxing, humorous mood.
Of course all these events couldn’t but inspire the literary talents of the country, of which England has so many to offer, and who were one of the main reasons I decided to travel to England. As for Canterbury there’s certainly Geoffrey Chaucer, who – though born in London – immortalised the town in his Canterbury Tales. Its greatest son is probably poet and spy Christopher Marlowe, who found his life involuntarily ended in London (another grisly tale…).
Not much more remains to be said, after all I only spent an afternoon in Canterbury, but in the few hours that I found myself wandering the town, it didn’t take long for me to decide, that I shall quite like to return, some day.
Next Stop: Brighton
Getting there from London: by train search via Nationalrail, round-trip will cost around 40 Pounds or more, the cheaper version is taking the bus which can get you to Canterbury and back to London for 10 Pounds (search Nationalexpress for fares)
Helpful information about Canterbury can be found on the official website of the city, which will also provide advice on accommodation, sights &c.
Historic River Tours of the Stour will take about 40 minutes and cost you 7 Pounds, a great deal for an entertaining alternative to the regular type of sight-seeing.
Susanne, July 5 2009