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Canterbury Cathedral and the Murder of Becket

Canterbury, England

After touring Canterbury on foot and by punt, we visit the cathedral where Thomas Becket was killed for defying King Henry II. The pope sainted Becket. Later, Henry VIII broke from Catholicism and started the Church of England (a.k.a. Anglicanism).

Complete Video Script

While Dover was of great military importance, a half-hour drive away is Canterbury — long one of England’s most important religious centers.

For centuries, Canterbury welcomed crowds of pilgrims to its grand cathedral. While these days you’ll see more tourists than pilgrims, the town is rich in history and architectural splendor. With thousands of university students and a thriving pedestrian zone, Canterbury has a lively and youthful energy. The town center is enclosed by old city walls and cut in two by its main drag. Patches of modern architecture are a reminder that much of Canterbury was bombed in World War II.

For a leisurely, water-level view of Canterbury, take a calm cruise on the Stour River. Students, propelling their punts by the traditional single pole, offer an easygoing commentary.

Rick: So this is the “Stour.”
Punting student: Great Stour River, yep. The “great” part’s important ’cause there are about six River Stours in Britain.
Rick: This is the “great” one?
Punting student: This is the great one. The Anglo-Saxons weren’t very imaginative when they named things.
Rick: Well, and their other rivers are pretty small.
Punting student: Yeah!
Rick: The water’s pretty clear.
Punting student: It’s crystal clear. It’s ’cause it’s a chalk river. Well, they say Kent is very famous for having chalky soil, with the White Cliffs of Dover, and chalk river’s — the chalk filters the water. So you get this clear, clear water.
Rick: Ah, that’s why.

On Butchery Lane, the surviving medieval buildings jut out with each floor — that was to maximize usable land as the population crowded within the town’s protective walls.

A square called “Buttermarket” — originally the dairy market — still functions as the center of the old town. The buildings here were originally designed to house and feed the pilgrims, whose money essentially built the city. For generations those pilgrims passed through this fancy gate to reach their destination, Canterbury Cathedral.

For centuries an important Roman Catholic church, the cathedral had a tumultuous path to eventually become the headquarters of the Church of England — known outside of England as the “Anglican” or “Episcopalian” Church.

Stepping inside, you’re swept away by the graceful blend of soaring Gothic lines, stirring windows, and fine stonework. The bell tower soars about 200 feet high. Gaze way up at the delicate fan vaulting at the highest point.

The finely carved 15th-century quire screen is decorated with statues of six English kings. This wall, or “screen,” separated the church into two distinct zones. One side was for the public. Then, stepping through, as if entering another world, you enter the private space of monks, where each day they’d gather to worship.

The cathedral grew in importance, and wealth, after an infamous murder back in the 12th century put it on the pilgrimage trail.

In an attempt to gain power over the Church, King Henry II appointed his friend Thomas Becket to be the new archbishop. But Becket unexpectedly took his new position and religion seriously — very seriously — and Henry was stuck with a strong church leader blocking his power.

As tensions rose, King Henry complained bitterly about Becket. Finally, his knights took action, hacking the archbishop to death as he was worshipping…on this spot. The murder shocked the medieval world. Soon word spread that miracles were occurring here, the pope made Becket a saint, and masses of pilgrims came. With the steady stream of pilgrims, the church grew bigger and more important.

Several centuries and several Henries later, Henry VIII broke away entirely from the Roman Catholic Church so he could run his affairs without popes and bishops meddling.

Implementing his Reformation, Henry VIII purged the nave of its ornate decorations and Catholic iconography. He destroyed the relics of Becket, and pilgrims stopped coming.

Henry made this cathedral the leading church of his now independent Church of England. And today Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the mother church of Anglicans worldwide.