His­tory explorer: cathe­drals

Char­lotte Hodg­man and Emma Wells explore Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral in Kent, a mag­nif­i­cent Gothic struc­ture that is of­ten de­scribed as ‘Eng­land in stone’

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Dr Emma Wells (left) 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

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.

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 hermaphro- dite, 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.

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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

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.

“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.

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.

A view from the Choir of Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral look­ing to­wards Trin­ity Chapel, which was built in the 12th cen­tury to house the re­mains of Thomas Becket

A 14th-cen­tury pil­grim badge in the shape of St Thomas Becket’s head

A mod­ern bronze fig­ure of Christ sits above the en­trance to Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral precincts, re­plac­ing a statue that was de­stroyed dur­ing the Civil War

This roof boss on the ceil­ing of Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral is be­lieved to be the face of Henry Yevele, who de­signed the nave

The Precincts, Can­ter­bury, Kent CT1 2EH can­ter­bury-cathe­dral.org

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