#35 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Canterbury
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Canterbury actually comprises three sites; Canterbury Cathedral, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church. Often referred to as ‘the cradle of Christianity’, the town’s inclusion in the World Heritage List reflects the fact that developments in Canterbury were instrumental in reintroducing Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon world after its practice had largely lapsed in Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans. The key criteria for the sites’ inclusion are:
- The architecture of the Cathedral, especially including its ancient stained glass
- The far reaching influence of the scholarship undertaken at St Augustine’s Abbey
- The fact that the three sites were instrumental to the introduction of Christianity in this part of the world
Canterbury’s story started with the missionary Augustine, later St Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome in 597 AD to convert the Anglo Saxons to Christianity. Kent was chosen for this mission because King Ethelbert’s bride was a Christian French Princess, Bertha, so Kent already offered protection to Christians. Bertha had established a ‘church’ in Canterbury, dedicated to St Martin of Tours. In reality it was probably an earlier Roman building which was simply being used as a church. There is still a church on the site, although it has been rebuilt and changed over time. Nevertheless, St Martin’s is proud to be “the oldest church in continuous use in the English speaking world”.
St Augustine held his first services at St Martin’s and as the congregation grew, King Ethelbert agreed to convert and was baptised. After this, land was granted to Augustine and he founded both the Abbey and the Cathedral, becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The present Archbishop is the 105th in succession from St Augustine.
The Abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540 so consequently none of its original buildings are intact although some walls remain as ruins and it is possible to see the floor plan. Wandering around the site, it is clear that this was a very large monastery indeed. Originally it was the burial place for the Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent, and also held the relics of many saints.
Canterbury Cathedral itself has also been rebuilt, extended and adapted over the centuries. The present nave dates from the 1400s although much of the Cathedral’s original stained glass was damaged during the Civil War in the 1600s. Despite this, the Cathedral’s collection of medieval stained glass is still the greatest in Europe. The event for which Canterbury is truly famous however, was the murdered of the then archbishop, Thomas Becket, in the northern transcept in 1170 ostensibly on the orders of King Henry II. After St Thomas’ canonisation two years later, Canterbury became a significant site of pilgrimage.
Set inside its own walled precincts, the approach to the Cathedral through the narrow cobbled streets takes you back in time, leaving you feeling perhaps a little as a pilgrim would have done.
The Cathedral today is certainly an impressive place to visit. I was lucky enough to be there at a time when all the seating had been removed from the nave, so saw the space as it would originally have looked.
Although the visually impressive part of the architecture is the soaring nave, for me it was the Crypt with its quiet tranquillity which was my favourite space. At the time of my visit, some of the famous stained glass had been removed for conservation and some panels were displayed at ground level. The colours and detail were simply stunning. It’s hard to imagine that the windows are over 700 years old.
As far as Cathedrals go though, my heart belongs to Winchester, and despite taking a two hour guided tour there was very little about Christ Church Cathedral that I fell in love with. It is undoubtedly beautiful but this was not a World Heritage site that has engaged me in the same way as some of the others I’ve visited.