Canterbury Cathedral. The ecclesiastical metropolis of England.

Canterbury, Cathedral, Kent, England, ecclesiastical, metropolis, John Tillotson
Canterbury Cathedral (c. 1860)


by John Tillotson

The ancient city of Canterbury, (the ecclesiastical metropolis of England) is chiefly remarkable for its churches, especially for its magnificent Cathedral, which is seven centuries old, and occupies the site of the first Christian edifice erected in England.

"The deep- set windows, stained and traced,
Would seem slow flaming, crimson fires
From shadowy grots of arches interlaced,
And tipt with frost-like spires."

The choir is the most spacious in the kingdom; the nave, cloisters, and chapter-house are excellent architectural specimens of the early pointed style—the central tower is 235 feet high, the length of the church is 513 feet—all of which, with many more particulars of the same kind, are duly chronicled in the guide books.

But is it not a fact that the exact height, depth, length, and breadth of great buildings conveys a very inadequate idea to the mind of what the building really is, that in looking on the time-worn towers, the fretted roofs, the graceful sweep of arches supported by clustering pillars, all exhibited to us in the l dim religious light stealing through the stained windows and flinging on the marble pavement masses of purple, gold and red, that we forget all about the dimensions of the edifice, all that guide books have to relate, all that a garrulous verger rotes in our ear.

The mind looks back—historical memories are revived—the great ones of old—priests and princes move before us; we see with the mind’s eye shadowy but stately forms, the master spirits of a bygone age—and the men of mail and mitre play out their parts before us.

Here in Canterbury Cathedral, two churchmen, divided from each other by six hundred years, are brought together. Here we think of Augustine, who came hither as missionary from Rome, and being favourably received by the Saxon King of Kent, repaired to the capital town, called Kent-wara-byrig (Cant-wara-byrig), since corrupted into Canterbury.

The missionary band entered it in procession, carrying the cross, pictures and relics, and chanting litanies, and established themselves in a church built by the Christian Britons, but abandoned in the days of persecution which followed the setting up of the Saxon government.

Here they celebrated mass and made many converts, so that Augustine wrote to the Pope, saying—”the harvest is plenteous, and the labourers no longer suffice.” Augustine accommodated himself and his faith to the habits and customs of the idolatrous Saxons.

Their temples were not destroyed but sprinkled with holy Water, and christened by saintly names; their sacrifices were not forbidden, but were to be regarded as Christian banquets to the honour of God, and not as offerings to idols; their festivals were not to be abandoned, but to be associated with the memory of saints and martyrs: everything remained as it was, only under different names.

A shrewd man of the world was this austere monk Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, a man of kindred spirit with that other Archbishop who was murdered centuries afterwards on the altar steps of the Cathedral.

Look yonder, in imagination, and conjure up a gaily attired hawking party of the twelfth century gallantly mounted, bravely attired, they ride; with hawk and hound to dark pools, where the reeds spring up long and dank. Who is it laughs the loudest, utters the wittiest repartee, whispers the softest nothings in my lady’s ear, casts off his bird and brings down the prey the readiest? It is the young Englishman, Thomas Becket, who does not seem to have in him the makings of a sanctified prelate.

But the church is the road to his preferment, and he takes it readily. A change comes over him; he is a devout looking monk, a man of vigil and fasting, of self-humiliation and self-discipline: he rises rapidly, and another change comes over him. Now he is the haughty bishop, the king’s intimate companion, surpassing the Norman courtiers in luxury and lordly pomp.

Seven hundred horsemen, the harness of their chargers embossed with gold and silver, are kept in his pay. His ambition rises higher each day, but the ascent is dangerous; the King takes alarm, murmurs, half suggests he would be rid of him, and the rest is easy. Soft and sweet rise the rich strains of music; white robed priests are sweeping past, and incense bearers swing their silver vessels and perfume the air.

Yonder stands Becket at the altar for the last time. Four armed men have struck him down, with yells and oaths have bidden him die, and have given him his death blow. They have fled on the completion of their murderous work, and crowds of people have surrounded the corpse stretched across the steps of the high altar—weeping, kissing its hands and feet, dipping handkerchiefs in the blood that covers the pavement.

So Bishop Becket becomes Saint Thomas. A crowned king whose hasty word has caused his murder, is stripped and flogged; pilgrims from all parts of England visit the shrine of the new saint: and the practice is maintained for near four hundred years. This annual pilgrimage—of which Chaucer has sung—was suppressed at the time of the Reformation

Source: Beauties of English scenery: illustrated with thirty-five engravings on steel, from designs by W. H. Bartlett, D. Cox, W. Daniell, R. A., H. Gastineau, C. Bentley, G. Shepherd, T. M. Baynes, &c. by John Tillotson (ca. 1830-1871). London: Allman & Co. 1860.