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The focal point of the city was the first of England's great Norman cathedrals. Nucleus of worldwide Anglicanism, the Cathedral Church of Christ Canterbury (its formal name) is a living textbook of medieval architecture. The building was begun in 1070, demolished, begun anew in 1096, and then systematically expanded over the next three centuries. When the original choir section burned to the ground in 1174, another replaced it, designed in the new Gothic style, with tall, pointed arches.
The cathedral was only a century old, and still relatively small, when Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered here in 1170. Becket, as head of the church, had been engaged in a political struggle with his old friend Henry II. Four knights supposedly overheard Henry scream "will no one will rid me of this troublesome priest?" although there is no evidence that those were his actual words—the only contemporary record has his saying "what miserable drones and traitors have
I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"
Thinking they were carrying out the king's wishes, the knights went immediately to Canterbury and hacked Becket to pieces in one of the side chapels. Henry, racked with guilt, went into deep mourning. Becket was canonized and Canterbury's position as the center of English Christianity was assured.
For almost 400 years Becket's tomb was one of the most extravagent shrines in Christendom, until it was destroyed by Henry VIII's troops during the Reformation. In Trinity Chapel, which held the shrine, you can still see a series of 13th-century stained-glass windows illustrating Becket's miracles. (The actual site of Becket's murder is down a flight of steps just to the left of the nave.) Nearby is the tomb of Edward, the Black Prince (1330–76), warrior son of Edward III and a national hero. In the corner of Trinity Chapel, a second flight of steps leads down to the enormous Norman undercroft, or vaulted cellar, built in the early 12th century. A row of squat pillars engraved with dancing beasts (mythical and otherwise) supports the roof.
To the north of the Cathedral are the cloisters and a small compound of monastic buildings. The 12th-century octagonal water tower is still part of the cathedral's water supply. The Norman staircase in the northwest corner of the Green Court dates from 1167 and is a unique example of the architecture of the times. The cathedral is popular, so arrive early or late in the day to avoid the crowds.
Cathedral Precincts, Canterbury, CT1 2EH, England
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