This great abbey, marking the rebirth of Christianity in southern England, was founded shortly after AD597 by St Augustine.
The spectacular building houses many stunning features, including a Romanesque crypt, a perpendicular nave and beautiful medieval stained glass windows. It is the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Cathedral is often described as ‘England in stone’ as its history is intrinsically linked to the country’s history. Canterbury Cathedral’s history is as rich as it comes.
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) by the local King, Ethelbert. This building is the oldest church in England still in use.
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. 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.
Canterbury’s role as one of the world’s most important pilgrimage centres in Europe is inextricably linked to the murder of its most famous Archbishop, Thomas Becket, in 1170. When, after a long lasting dispute, King Henry II is said to have exclaimed 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' four knights set off for Canterbury and murdered Thomas in his own cathedral. A sword stroke was so violent that it sliced the crown off his skull and shattered the blade’s tip on the pavement.
The work of the Cathedral as a monastery came to an end in 1540, when the monastery was closed on the orders of King Henry VIII. Its role as a place of prayer continued, as it does to this day.