Spectacular Canterbury Cathedral is a must-see when visiting Kent, the “Garden of England”. This UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular attraction is most famous for being the site of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, an event that still fascinates visitors and pilgrims. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket was at odds with King Henry II, who, in a blatant abuse of power, ordered a group of his most trusted knights to commit the crime. To this day, standing on the exact spot where Becket was murdered remains a chilling experience.
Christ Church Gate, Canterbury
Official site: www.canterbury-cathedral.org
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1 The Footsteps of Walk in History: The Cathedral Grounds
There’s no better way to start your visit than by walking around the perimeter of Canterbury Cathedral, observing the many historical figures who walked here before you, including kings and queens, archbishops and writers. Walking the length of the building not only gives you perspective in terms of its sheer size, it is also a chance to view the many different architectural styles, including the Norman arches, late Gothic nave and towers. This will be money well spent.
2 A grand entrance
Entering the cathedral through the Southwest Porch you will be immediately struck by the grandeur of the high, light nave and aisles with their truss posts, Gothic tracery windows and ornate ribbed vaults. Pay particular attention to the west window with its extraordinary tracery and 15th-century stained glass windows.
3 The choir
The row of pillars on the north side of the nave leads past the font (17th century) and pulpit to the chancel screen of 1411. The beautiful stone is work decorated with angels with shields and the crowned figures of six monarchs: Henry V, Richard II , Ethelbert of Kent, Edward the Confessor, Henry IV and Henry VI.
4 The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
The Northwest Transept is the site of The Martyrdom , the scene of Thomas Becket’s assassination on December 29, 1170. It is also home to the Altar of the Sword Tip , named after the sword with which Becket was killed and which broke through the force of the battle. The beautiful glass northwest window dating from 1482 shows Edward IV and his family at prayer.
5 Where Archbishops Are Comforted: The Ambulatory
Inside the Ambulante are sections of the original Norman walls, along with some of the original medieval glass windows. A faded fresco, a remnant of the colorful murals that once adorned the cathedral, tells the story of St. Eustachius. The Choir Stalls were made in 1682, the Archbishop’s Throne in 1840. The St Augustine’s Chair, on which the Archbishops of Canterbury are traditionally enthroned, dates from the 13th century.
6 Naked Corpses: The Cathedral Tombs
Canterbury Cathedral has an impressive collection of beautiful tombs. One of the best is that of Archbishop Henry Chichele , founder of All Souls College, Oxford. The archbishop is represented twice in effigy: first in the full splendor of his robes, and again as a naked corpse, a symbol of the transience of earthly possessions. Just a few steps away is the marble tomb of Cardinal Thomas Bourchier (died 1486), staunch supporter of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses.
7 The Black Prince of Trinity Chapel
Trinity Chapel was the site of the Golden Shrine of St Thomas Becket (1220-1538). The heavy lid was lifted to allow pilgrims a glimpse of the gem-encrusted coffin containing his remains. The chapel today houses the alabaster tomb of Henry IV (died 1413) and his wife Joan of Navarre (died 1437). Another famous tomb is that of the Black Prince, aka Edward of Woodstock, the eldest son of King Edward III. A knight in the truest sense of the word, the Black Prince was famous for his pursuit of the English cause during the Hundred Years’ War.
8 Miracles and Stained Glass Windows
The walls of the Chancel on both sides of the Corona (the circular chapel at the end of the Far East) are embellished with beautiful stained glass windows from the late 12th and 13th centuries. Known as the Miracle Windows , they depict scenes from the life of Thomas Becket and are part of a larger series featuring Old and New Testament subjects (they are also considered the most important medieval stained glass series in England). The Corona itself (aka “Becket’s Crown”) once held a reliquary containing a severed fragment of the saint’s skull.
9 St Michael’s Chapel en The Archbishops ‘Tombs
St Michael’s Chapel houses many tombs from the 15th to 17th centuries including that of Lady Margaret Holland (1437) with the Earl of Somerset and Duke of Clarence at her side, and Thomas Thornhurst (1627). Here you will also find the tomb of Cardinal Odet de Coligny, the Archbishop of Toulouse, who was poisoned by a Catholic servant during a visit to England in 1571. Opposite Archbishop Hubert Walter (died 1205) on whose shoulders much political responsibility rested in the days of Richard the Lionheart and King John.
10 Tales from the Crypt
The large Norman crypt from the 12th century is the oldest part of the cathedral . In addition to traces of Romanesque wall paintings, the pillars with their beautifully carved Norman capitals and decorated shafts are also of interest. The striking variety of motifs (animals, plant decorations, demons) reveals influences from Lombardy, Byzantium and the Middle East, among others. Then, complete your tour with a look at the early 15th century chapter house with its beautiful Irish bog oak barrel vault, the original setting for TS Eliot’s 1935 “Murder in the Cathedral”.
Touring Canterbury Cathedral
The Guided Tour of the Cathedral lasts 40 minutes and an optional section on the Great Cloister and Chapter House takes another 20 minutes. Audio tours are available from the kiosk in the Nave for a small fee. Tours are also available daily. Available from the Welcome Center , tickets for the tours cost £5 for adults, £4 for children or £10 for a family.
Tips and Tactics: How to make the most of your visit to Canterbury Cathedral
The following tips and tactics will help you get the most out of your visit to the cathedral:
- Buy a guidebook: There are some excellent guidebooks to buy. These include a step-by-step short tour, a 48-page souvenir guide, and a 96-page comprehensive guide.
- Meals: The Coffee Kiosk in the South Precincts is open April through September and serves snacks, sandwiches and beverages.
- Staff: Clerics are on duty at certain times and a priest is always available – just ask.
- What is going on? Visit the cathedral’s events page for more information on possible closures or events that may be of interest during your visit.
Getting to Canterbury Cathedral
- By Rail : Southeastern Railway operates high-speed rail services from London St Pancras to Canterbury West (approximately one hour), as well as regular services from London Victoria and London Charing Cross to both Canterbury East and Canterbury West stations, each just a short walk from the cathedral . Online discounts are often available, as are special 2-for-1 offers for Kent attractions, including Canterbury Cathedral.
- In Style : Luxury steam train and rail links are sometimes offered from London to Canterbury. Visit https://www.steamdreams.co.uk or https://www.orient-express.com for more information.
- By coach: Canterbury is served by Stagecoach East Kent from Canterbury bus station, a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral. National Express offers regular coach services from London’s Victoria Coach Station.
- By road: Canterbury is well served by the M20 and the M2.
- Parking: Car parks are located in the center of Canterbury, and an excellent Park and Ride scheme runs every few minutes from designated areas on the outskirts of the city.
- Summer: Mon-Sat, 9am-5:30pm; Sun, 12:30-2:30 p.m
- Winter: Mon-Sat, 9:30am – 5:00pm; Sun, 12:30-2:30 p.m
- Children (under 18), £7
- Children (under 5), free
- Families, £48 (2 adults and 3 under 17)
Canterbury Cathedral forms part of the Pilgrim’s Way , a route for pilgrimages all the way to Winchester via Rochester. In recognition of this still important religious undertaking, priests offer pilgrimage blessings to those who set out and prayers of thanks for those who arrive. Please contact the cathedral in advance to make arrangements or ask a member of staff upon arrival.
For a truly unique experience, plan a stay at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. Owned by the Cathedral, it combines stunning views of beautiful gardens and the Cathedral, as well as exclusive access to the Cathedral Precincts .
As well as exploring all the fantastic attractions Canterbury has to offer (everything from fantastic museums to Roman ruins and beautiful medieval architecture), the city is a great base to explore other parts of Kent. Dover and the spectacular white cliffs overlooking the English Channel are just a few miles away, as are the coastal towns of Folkestone, Margate and Ramsgate. Also nearby is Ashford, most notable as the main terminus in Kent for the Channel Tunnel and rail routes to Paris and other European destinations.