CANTERBURY, England — After nearly 1,000 years, murder in the cathedral is still luring visitors to Canterbury.
It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was killed, viciously, by four knights who thought they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine.
The homicide was the subject of “Murder in the Cathedral,” a verse drama by T.S. Eliot, and was more famously immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century work, “The Canterbury Tales,” told in now obsolete Middle English, which focused on one such journey in what became an annual spring pilgrimage:
And specially from every shires ende
Of Englande to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
It is said 100,000 pilgrims made their way to the cathedral in 1420, including, as the poem says in its last line, the sick (seeke) whom the shrine cured (hath holpen, or helped). Today, Canterbury Cathedral draws 1 million visitors a year.
Chaucer’s pilgrims made the journey on horseback; today’s visitors are more likely to arrive by plane and car, train or bus from London or Dover. With its sites, shops and restaurants, pubs and tea rooms concentrated largely in its Old Town area, Canterbury is a comfortable walking city. It is relatively small, with a population of about 150,000.
The Stour river runs through the city and at some points is navigable for small boats. Rowboats and punts (flat-bottomed boats like gondolas) can be hired, generally with a local university student serving as oarsman and guide. Kent University and other schools contribute to a large local student population.
But by far the biggest tourist attraction is Canterbury Cathedral, founded in the year 597. (There is an entrance fee for visitors.) It is a marvelous edifice on spacious property that also houses some buildings of the King’s School, a renowned secondary school.
The exterior of the cathedral, an impressive 236 feet (72 meters) high, reflects Romanesque, English Gothic and Gothic architectural styles, with round and pointed arches, blind arcades and pinnacles of the 14th-century perpendicular Gothic nave.
The Trinity Chapel was built specifically for the Shrine of St. Thomas, which stood from 1220-1538, before it was destroyed on orders of King Henry VIII. The floor of the current chapel has a set of inlaid marble roundels representing zodiac signs, months, virtues and vices. A lone candle marks the spot of the shrine.
UNESCO World Heritage sites in Canterbury include the cathedral along with St. Augustine’s Abbey (mostly the ruins of the monastery where St. Augustine’s monks lived) and St. Martin’s Church, England’s oldest working parish church. Another popular tourist site is the Norman Canterbury Castle, or at least its remains.
The castle was one of three original royal castles of Kent, built soon after the Battle of Hastings on the main Roman road from Dover to London. This was the route taken by William the Conqueror in 1066.
The medieval St. Margaret’s Church now houses “The Canterbury Tales,” an audio-visual presentation of five tales (in modern English) from Chaucer’s most colorful characters, using life-sized character models: the miller, knight, nun’s priest, wife of Bath and pardoner, with live guides at the start (Tabard Inn) and end (shrine of Thomas Becket).
There is, however, little other evidence of Chaucer in Canterbury, aside from this shortened retelling at “The Canterbury Tales” — and a pub by that name.
Another famous literary name with a connection to Canterbury is Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan poet and playwright (“Hero and Leander,” “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”) who was born in Canterbury in 1564 and attended King’s School there. The city’s modern theater house is named for him and his death is noted at the clock tower of St. George’s Church. Marlowe was baptized in the church, but its clock tower is all that survived German bombs in World War II. The house thought to be where the Marlowes lived for the early years of Christopher’s life also was destroyed in a German air raid in 1942. In front of the present Marlowe Theatre is a 19th-century statue of a Muse (Marlowe is known as the Muses’ darling) surrounded by small effigies of characters from Marlowe’s plays.
All in all, Canterbury proved itself to be a charming and comfortable small city, but it has a big history.