In an age of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, it is nigh on impossible to view the enormity of Canterbury Cathedral with the mindset of a medieval pilgrim. Yet, even from a 21st-century perspective, it is hard not to be awestruck by the sheer size and scale of the massive stone structure, which towers over the city.


The cathedral’s 1,400-year history is equally impressive, beginning in AD 597 with the arrival of its first archbishop, St Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to England. Little remains of the original cathedral, which lies beneath the nave of the present building, or of the Norman cathedral built by its 35th archbishop, Lanfranc, after the Norman conquest. The cathedral we see today is an amalgamation of 900 years of building and extension work, undertaken at intervals since 1070.

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Visitors and pilgrims enter the cathedral precincts via Christ Church Gate, through a pair of huge 17th-century oak gates, and under the watchful eyes of stone gargoyles and angels. Sharp-eyed visitors may spot a small, naked stone hermaphrodite, located beneath a large carving of the Tudor rose.

Once inside the gate, the south-west side of the cathedral fills your vision; today it is bathed in bright sunshine. Inside, though, the thick stone walls, transported from quarries in and around the town of Caen in Normandy, offer little warmth. Subdued chatter carries up to the 82ft-high vaulted ceiling, designed by 14th-century master mason Henry Yevele. Light pours in through the more than 1,200 square metres of stained glass that fill the cathedral’s huge windows. Visitors file up the so-called ‘Pilgrims’ Steps’, heading to the eastern, most holy part of the cathedral: the site of the former shrine of St Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was brutally murdered in the north-west transept of the cathedral – the site now known as the ‘Martyrdom’ – on 29 December 1170. Worn down by the millions of pilgrims and visitors who have climbed them over the past 1,000 years, even the stone steps have a story to tell.

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From the ground up

“The medieval period ushered in a new age of faith and with it a feeling of great enthusiasm and a desire to reflect God’s glory through grand, beautiful buildings that soared up towards heaven,” says ecclesiastical and architectural historian Dr Emma Wells.

“Canterbury is typical of the large-scale Gothic cathedrals that were being built in parts of Europe during the 12th century, as a reflection of this new religious attitude.” The first of these can be found in France with the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Work here began in 1135 using designs by Abbot Suger, the earliest patron of the Gothic architectural style.

The medieval period saw a desire to reflect God’s glory through grand, beautiful buildings

Creating such huge buildings took time, money and a host of skilled workers, some of whom didn’t live long enough to see their cathedral finished.

“The length of time it took to build a cathedral varied – 100 years or so would be considered ‘quick’,” says Wells. “But in the medieval period we see the building process become much more of a community effort. From around the 12th century, the church began granting indulgences – a way of reducing a soul’s time in purgatory before being admitted to heaven – to people who had helped build a church or cathedral. Rather than going on crusade – a popular way of absolving sins in the late 11th century – people instead put their efforts into constructing a house of God.”

Building massive stone structures required huge amounts of people power. Those employed ranged from unskilled labourers to a host of master craftsmen and skilled workmen. Many workers travelled from cathedral to cathedral, sharing their expertise on building projects throughout Europe.

A monk and his mistress

“There were a number of skilled stone masons and master masons at work in the 12th century,” says Wells. “One of the first cathedral architects to be known by name was William of Sens. He was called to work on Canterbury Cathedral in 1175, and given the task of rebuilding and extending the east end after a fire in 1174. William did not live to see his work completed – he was seriously injured after falling from a scaffold and was forced to return to France where he later died. But his plans were followed by his successor, the architect and stonemason William the Englishman.

“If you look round the cathedral today, you can still see several masons’ marks – etchings and designs unique to individual stone masons. These were a way of ‘signing’ individual pieces of work. They were also used to mark how and where specific stone blocks were to be used.”

Healthy competition

Medieval cathedrals were never really completely finished. Construction and redevelopment projects were, more often than not, ongoing. Most surviving cathedrals are an amalgamation of several hundred years’ worth of building work.

Structural repairs, often a result of natural disasters, such as the earthquake that damaged much of Wells Cathedral in 1248, were frequently carried out. But, more often than not, rebuilding work was viewed as an opportunity to extend and redevelop specific areas of the building.

After a long journey on foot, the final destination would have been an overwhelmingly sacred experience

“The medieval period saw a huge increase in the number of people undertaking pilgrimages to cathedrals and shrines,” says Wells. “It was the monetary offerings and donations from visiting pilgrims that helped fund the redevelopment of medieval cathedrals and as a result, rivalry between religious sites grew.

“The cathedrals of Durham and Canterbury are good examples of two key medieval sites that competed with each other to keep pilgrims – and their money – flowing through their doors. Prior to 1170, St Cuthbert, whose shrine can be found at Durham Cathedral, was England’s most popular saint. But Becket’s death and canonisation saw a huge increase in pilgrimages to Canterbury – so much so that Durham felt compelled to find new ways of enticing pilgrims back, finishing the Chapel of Nine Altars at its east end (close to Cuthbert’s shrine) in around 1290, to increase the amount of space inside the cathedral.”

Graffiti crosses found in churches

Partly in response to the competition offered by Durham, and following the 1174 fire, Canterbury built its magnificent circular Corona Chapel to house the cathedral’s most precious relic: the crown of Becket’s skull. It has been suggested that the fire that led to the chapel’s creation may have been started deliberately. It was, perhaps, a convenient way of ensuring a new shrine for the cathedral’s most popular saint.

The pilgrim experience

From a pilgrim’s perspective, the greater the number of saints associated with a cathedral, the more likely their prayers would be answered. As well as St Thomas Becket, Canterbury also boasted shrines to St Dunstan, St Anselm and St Alphege – until 1538, when they were removed on the orders of Henry VIII during the Dissolution.

“We tend to think of medieval people making frequent pilgrimages to holy sites,” says Wells. “In fact, most people would only make such a journey once in their lifetime. For them, after a long journey of days, weeks or even months on foot, the final destination would have been an overwhelmingly sacred and sensory experience.

Thomas Becket

“Today’s cathedrals are thought of as solemn, quiet and sacred places, but in the medieval period the nave (the central part) would have been a place of community and a hub of activity. People would have congregated there, bartering would have taken place, people would be sleeping and resting. There would even have been dogs running around.

“Entering a medieval cathedral would have been a complete assault on all the senses. The smell of incense; the noise of chatter and music; the vast expanse of space above and the feel of the stonework beneath your feet and hands… it would have been very different from what pilgrims would experience in their local parish church. And, in contrast to the plain stone we see today, every inch of the cathedral would have been painted in bright primary colours, even the exterior.”

The most sacred objects related to Becket’s cult were located in the eastern end of the cathedral. Pilgrims made their way through the different, gated, sections of the cathedral, following a set route until they reached the most holy and sacred area: his shrine, where they could make offerings and pray.

Effigy of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Canterbury, Kent, England, United Kingdom, Europe

Those wishing to take away a memento could do so in the form of souvenirs. At Canterbury, pilgrims could purchase pewter flasks of holy water mixed with the blood of Thomas Becket, collected from his wound as he lay dying. Pilgrim badges were also popular and most cathedrals boasted a thriving tourist industry. Some even took a piece of the cathedral away with them, hoping that it would bring them closer to the saint’s intercessory powers. A walk around the cloisters at Canterbury reveals medieval graffiti and damage to its walls where eager pilgrims have chipped away at the stone.

During the reign of Henry VIII the glory days of the cathedral came to an abrupt end, when the dissolution of the monasteries saw many destroyed or taken over, their wealth appropriated by the crown. At Canterbury, the shrine of St Thomas was destroyed – a lit candle marks its original site – and his bones ordered to be burnt and scattered to the winds. The Civil War caused yet more damage as Puritan iconoclasts sought to ‘cleanse’ cathedrals of ‘popery’, destroying stained glass, statues and objects of beauty.

But despite several attempts to destroy them, many of Britain’s cathedrals have survived as working churches and places of community. Watching visitors filing through the gates of Canterbury Cathedral, necks craning to see to the top of its famous Bell Harry Tower, it is clear that today’s cathedrals are not so very far removed from their medieval counterparts, welcoming visitors and carrying out constant conservation and repair work. Our individual reasons for entering them may have changed but they continue to awe and inspire.

British cathedrals: four more places to explore


York Minster

Where the UK’s largest expanse of medieval glass can be seen

York Minster’s roots date back to the seventh century when the first church is recorded on the site. Today it’s the second-largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and home to the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain, including the 600-year-old East Window – the size of a tennis court.


St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney Islands

Where Britain’s most northerly cathedral stands

Work on the cathedral began in 1137 and was dedicated to Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, who was murdered on the orders of his cousin Hakon, co-ruler of the Orkney Islands, in c1115. Unlike most British cathedrals, it uses coloured stone to form patterns in its stonework, and is also the only UK cathedral to have its own dungeon, Marwick’s Hole.


Lincoln Cathedral

Where you can visit what was once the world’s tallest building

For 238 years – between 1311 and 1549 – Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building in the world, thanks to its huge central spire, which collapsed in 1549. The cathedral was commissioned by William the Conqueror after the battle of Hastings, and consecrated in 1092. It owns one of only four surviving copies of Magna Carta, sealed in 1215.


St Albans Cathedral

Where Britain’s first saint is buried

The oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain, St Albans Cathedral was built over the burial site of Alban, Britain’s first martyr. A monastery was supposedly founded at the site in AD 793, but the abbey church was rebuilt in the Norman style in the 11th century and much of its current architecture dates from this period. The shrine of St Alban was destroyed during the Dissolution but was rediscovered and rebuilt in the 19th century.

Dr Emma Wells (above) is an ecclesiastical and architectural historian. Her next book, Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals, will be published by Head of Zeus. Words: Charlotte Hodgman


This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine