Founded in 597, the cathedral was completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077. The east end was greatly enlarged at the beginning of the 12th century and largely rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174, with significant eastward extensions to accommodate the flow of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. The Norman nave and transepts survived until the late 14th century when they were demolished to make way for the present structures.
St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived on the coast of Kent as a missionary to England in 597AD. He came from Rome, sent by Pope Gregory the Great. It is said that Gregory had been struck by the beauty of Angle slaves he saw for sale in the city market and despatched Augustine and some monks to convert them to Christianity. Augustine was given a church at Canterbury (St Martin’s, after St Martin of Tours, still standing today) by the local King, Ethelbert whose Queen, Bertha, a French Princess, was already a Christian.This building had been a place of worship during the Roman occupation of Britain and is the oldest church in England still in use. Augustine had been consecrated a bishop in France and was later made an archbishop by the Pope. He established his seat within the Roman city walls (the word cathedral is derived from the the Latin word for a chair ‘cathedra’, which is itself taken from the Greek ‘kathedra’ meaning seat.) and built the first cathedral there, becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Since that time, there has been a community around the Cathedral offering daily prayer to God; this community is arguably the oldest organisation in the English speaking world. The present Archbishop, The Most Revd Justin Welby, is 105th in the line of succession from Augustine. Until the 10th century, the Cathedral community lived as the household of the Archbishop. During the 10th century, it became a formal community of Benedictine monks, which continued until the monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540. Augustine’s original building lies beneath the floor of the Nave – it was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by the Saxons, and the Cathedral was rebuilt completely by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire. There have been many additions to the building over the last nine hundred years, but parts of the Quire and some of the windows and their stained glass date from the 12th century. By 1077, Archbishop Lanfranc had rebuilt it as a Norman church, described as “nearly perfect”. A staircase and parts of the North Wall – in the area of the North West transept also called the Martyrdom – remain from that building.
In 1093, a man named Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm was a quiet scholarly type, known for his wisdom and piety. But it is to him, along with the priors Ernulf and Conrad, that we owe much of the Romanesque architecture and art that survives today. Most notably, Anselm built the huge and beautifully decorated crypt beneath the east end, which still survives fully intact. An extensive choir with ambulatory, consecrated in 1130, was then built over the crypt.
Critical to the history of Canterbury Cathedral was the murder of St. Thomas Becket on Tuesday, December 29, 1170, by order of King Henry II. The king later performed penance there in 1174. On September 5 of that same year, the great Romanesque choir was devastated by a fire. The income from pilgrims visiting the Shrine of St. Thomas, which was reported almost immediately to be a place of miraculous healing, largely paid for the subsequent rebuilding of the cathedral.
The ‘Dark Entry’ is a passage which joins the Green Court and the cathedral buildings. It runs beneath the building known as the Prior’s Lodging (Image 1-3). According to a cathedral legend, made popular by Richard Barham in his Ingoldsby Legends, the passage is haunted by the ghost of Nell Cook. Nell worked as a servant girl for an elderly canon and became annoyed when he engaged in an affair. When the canon and his lover both died from poinsoned food, the finger of suspicion pointed at Nell. Her punishment was to be buried under the flagstones which pave the Dark Entry.
Canterbury History and Archaeological Society