There she is – all lightened up during the night, still magnificent and mighty during the day. Marking her presence in the middle of the town since 597, changing and growing during centuries. Rebuilt between 1070 and 1077, enlarged at the beginning of the 12th century, rebuild again in Gothic slender style fallowing a fire in 1174. She witnessed murder of Thomas Becket – the archbishop who lost his life in 1170. Thousands of pilgrims arrived after this tragic event and she was changed again to accommodate them visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket. The shape she is wearing today is a result of the last change undertaken in 14th century. Hidden in the middle of the town, lost between tiny streets so you can try a careful glance at first, as like she is ashamed of her beautiful and mighty appearance.
She was listening to the silent steps and the prayers of Benedictine monks, becoming their formal community in the 10th century, until 1540 when King Henry VIII killed it by dissolution. Henry needed money – such a simple solution to the nagging problem. He was the head of the Church in England now, he was the one who own the Bishop of Rome English assets. Why let them go to waste when the money is needed?
Her heart lies beneath the nave of the present building. She went through so many changes and been with so many people – the oldest community formed around her – mainly monks, offering daily prayers, establishing part of the Archbishop’s household.
If she could speak, she would tell you hers and her people story – especially the one of Thomas Becket, murdered here in 1170, on the frosty December night.
Was he a troublemaker? Too brave or perhaps too full of himself, confident in the power invested in him as the Archbishop of Canterbury, friend of the King, Henry II?
Intelligence, charm, education and administrative skills, perhaps being at the right place at the right time and luck made him Archdeacon of Canterbury. He was introduced to the King Henry II by then Archbishop of Canterbury – Theobold in 1154. Similar personalities and mutual understanding made them best companions ever – Thomas became King’s Chancellor.
With the death of Theobold the opportunity of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury arose, The Pope accepted and simple omit of Thomas never ordained was quickly fixed – he became a priest, next day a Bishop and the same afternoon – 2 June 1162 – Archbishop of Canterbury.
Was Becket clever, shifting his allegiance from the court to the Church? By ignoring new law, which allowed the King to regain control over felonious clerics in the court of justice not under Church jurisdiction, he made a stand against the King. Was he too full of himself, believing there will be no consequences? But he knew he was not safe, he fled to France and reminded there for six years.
The former friends met again in Normandy and it seemed back then they made a peace – in November Becket was back to Canterbury. But while in France Becket did everything to gain more enemies – he excommunicated the Bishop of London and Salisbury. His stubbornness did not let him absolve the Bishop. Henry II, still in France, full of anger, shouted: “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest.”
Four knights sailed to England with a cruel mission – to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. They found him in the altar where he tried to hide and cut his skull with their swords…
The King did not approve, the knights fell into disgrace. Thomas Becket became a martyr, quickly canonized. The King spent the night in the martyr’s crypt, he walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and let eighty monks flogged him with branches.
What lost Thomas? The faith he could rule the King, the belief the Church is more powerful or his character? We are never going to find out the truth.
Today’s cathedral is a magnificent building with so many stories to tell, where many people prayed and found a peace, where faith is still strongly present and the nativity scene is build each year around Christmas time, outside the building.
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the places worth visiting during Christmas, keeping herself beautiful night and day, year after year, insensitive to the ever changing surroundings.