Many of the Roman legionaries were Christians, and they had built two churches at Canterbury, which were still standing when Augustine arrived at the court of the king of Kent. Every one knows how Gregory the Great, enchanted with the beauty of the Anglo-Saxon children in the slave-market where they were exposed for sale, despatched Augustine on a mission of conversion to Britain. He (Augustine), decided on going to Canterbury first, because Ethelbert's queen, the lovely Bertha of France, was a Christian, and had stipulated when she married for the free exercise. of her religion, and for a chaplain and some minor ecclesiastics to perform mass for her; the missionary was consequently sure of a welcome from the royal lady and her priests. With great pomp, and in solemn procession, Augustine and his forty attendant monks presented themselves to the King and Queen of Kent. Ethelbert received them courteously, and appointed them a residence in his chief city, Canter bury. Very soon the king became a convert to Christianity and gave liberty to the monks to preach freely and build churches throughout his kingdom, and Pope Gregory declared that hereafter the Church of Canterbury was to be paramount over all others in England, " for," said the good Pope, "where the Christian faith was first received, there also should be a primacy of dignity."
On the death of Ethelbert the infant Church was exposed to great perils. Ethelbert's son and successor, Eadbald, was a pagan and a persecutor; the enemies of Christianity ruled in Kent, and the bishops of London and Rochester, who had been appointed by Augustine, fled from the country, forsaking their sees in order to save their lives. Bishop Lawrence, Augustine's successor, was about to fly also, when he was stayed by a miracle, real or pretended.
The night before his intended departure Lawrence slept in the church, and dreamed that the Apostle Peter appeared to him, and reproaching him severely for his cowardice in forsaking the flock entrusted to his care, proceeded to beat him severely with his pastoral staff. Lawrence awaking in pain, found that a portion of his dream had been a reality, for he was stiff with bruises and weals, and his shoulders were severely lacerated.
The bishop at once proceeded to the palace, asked to see the apostate king, and laying bare his wounded shoulders, told Eadbald the vision. The king became from that hour convinced of the truth of the Christian religion, for be could not suppose that Lawrence would have willingly inflicted such injuries on himself. If he had, or if he had ordered one of his monks to do it, the pious fraud had greater success than it deserved, for the king of Kent now supported the church he had persecuted.
Canterbury was sacked in after years by the Danes, who massacred the archbishop and all his monks-for the church was also a monastic institution, and the archbishop an abbot. Canute, to atone for this cruel sacrilege, repaired the church and restored the body of the murdered archbishop to his monks. But in the time of the Norman Conquest the church was completely burned down, and not a single fragment remains of St. Augustine's Church.
Lanfranc rebuilt it and Anselm built the choir in such splendid style that according to William of Malmesbury, "it surpassed every other choir in England," in the transparency of its glass windows, its beautiful marble pavement and the painting of the roof. Prior Conrad completed the chancel, and the magnificent cathedral was dedicated in 1130, in the presence of Henry I. of England, David, king of Scotland, and all the bishops of the English Church.
In 1170 Becket was murdered in this church, and it was in Conrad's choir that the monks watched his body the following night.
It is a sad story - a few hasty words spoken by the king, who had certainly been greatly tried by the haughty prelate, and four knights, Reginald Fitzurse, William Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito set out to rid Henry of his foe.
On the 29th of December they proceeded with a number of followers and citizens to the Monastery of St. Augustine, the abbot of which was loyal to the king; from thence they proceeded to the archbishop's palace, and entering his apartment abruptly at about two in the afternoon, seated themselves on the moor without saluting him in any way. There was a pause : then Becket asked what they wanted; they did not answer immediately, but sat gazing on him with haggard eyes. At length Reginald Fitzurse spoke: "We come," he said, "that you may absolve the bishops you have excommunicated ; re-establish the bishops you have suspended; and answer for your own offences against the king."
Becket replied with boldness and great warmth, saying that he had published the papal letters of excommunication with the king's consent; that he could not absolve the Archbishop of York, whose case was heinous, and must be brought before the Pope alone; but that he would remove the censures from the two other bishops if they would swear to submit to the decisions of Rome.
"But of whom, then, do you hold your archbishopric," asked Reginald - "of the king or the Pope?"
"I owe the spiritual rights to God and the Pope, and the temporal rights to the king," answered Becket.
"How! Is it not the king hath given you all?"
Becket replied in the negative; "and the knights furiously twisted their long gloves."
Becket then reproached three of them, who had been his liegemen in the days of his vainglory and prosperity, for forsaking him, and said that it was not for such as they to threaten him in his own house, adding that if he were threatened by all the swords in England he would not yield.
"We will do more than threaten," replied the knights, and departed. When they were gone Becket's attendants blamed him for the rough and provoking tone in which he had replied to his adversaries. He answered that he had no need of their advice; he knew what to do. The barons, who seem to have wished to avoid bloodshed, finding that threats were useless, armed themselves and returned to the palace, but they found the gate had been shut and barred by the servants. Robert de Broc endeavoured to break it in with his battle-axe, and his blows rang on the air.
Becket's servants, greatly alarmed, besought him to escape, but he refused even to take sanctuary in the church, perhaps from fear of the holy place being contaminated by crime and bloodshed, but at last, as the bell tolling for vespers reached his ears, he said he would go to the service, and making his cup-bearer precede him with the crucifix uplifted, he passed through the corridor with a solemn and measured pace, and entered the church. His servants wished to barricade the doors, but Becket forbade them. "No one," he said, "should be debarred from entering the house of God."
The terrified monks, as the noise outside became greater, fled to hide themselves; only three-Canon Robert of Merton, Fitz Stephen, and the faithful Gryme remained with him. He was ascending the steps that lead to the choir when Reginald Fitzurse appeared at the west end of the church, waving his sword and shouting, "Follow me, loyal servants of the king." The other conspirators followed him closely; four mailed figures gleaming, whenever a faint light from a shrine fell on their armour. But the shades of evening were closing in the short December day, and the vast church was in obscurity. Becket might easily have escaped and hidden himself in the intricate crypt underground, or in the chapel beneath the roof, and the monks urged him to do so, but he refused, and boldly advanced to meet the intruders, preceded by his cross-bearer, Edward Gryme, or Grim, a German monk.
A voice shouted, "Where is the traitor? " Becket made no reply; but when Fitzurse said, "Where is the archbishop?" he answered, "Here am I, an archbishop, but no traitor, ready to suffer in my Saviour's name."
Tracy pulled him by the sleeve, saying, "Come, thou art our prisoner."
He pulled back his arm so violently that he made Tracy stagger.
"They advised him," says Knight in his "Pictorial History," "to flee, or to go with them; and on a candid consideration it seems to us that the conspirators are entitled to a doubt as to whether they really intended a murder, or were not rather hurried into it by his obstinacy and provoking language."
It does, indeed, seem as if Becket desired what he considered martyrdom. Turning to Fitzurse he said, "I have done thee many pleasures, why comest thou with armed men into my church?" They told him he must instantly absolve the bishops. "Never, till they have offered satisfaction," he replied, and he addressed a foul term to Fitzurse.
"Then die," exclaimed Fitzurse, striking at his head ; but the faithful Gryme interposed his arm, which was nearly cut off, and the stroke only just reached the primate, and slightly wounded him. Another voice cried, "Fly, or thou diest!" but still Becket did not move. With the blood running down his face, he clasped his hands, and bowing his head exclaimed, "To God, to St. Mary, to the holy patrons of this church and to St. Denis, I commend my soul and the Church's cause."
Blow now followed blow, and one from De Tracy brought him to the pavement; another was given with such force that the sword broke against the stone flooring. The blow had cleft his skull, and the brains were scattered about. Hugh of Horsea, one of their followers, then put his foot on the archbishop's neck, and cried, "Thus perishes a traitor."
The conspirators then left the church in safety, and went their different ways.
There are memorials of Becket's assassination in the cathedral itself. There is the Transept of Martyrdom ; the door by which the knights entered the church ; the wall in front of which the archbishop fell, and there is reason to believe (antiquarians tell us) that the pavement in front of the wall is the same now as then. It is of hard Caen stone, and a small square piece has been cut out of it, probably as a relic.
The steps up which pilgrims to the shrine of St. Thomas climbed on their knees still remain ; and the indentations in the stones from wear yet tell of the pious multitudes that sought from him protection or pardon.
In 1174 Canterbury Cathedral was on fire, and the whole of the choir was destroyed. It was restored by William of Sens, and William Anglus, i.e. English William, under whom the choir and other buildings were completed, 1184. Prior Challenden took down Lanfranc's nave, and erected a new one with transepts, and Prior Goldstone added the great central tower.
In 1692 Canterbury suffered with all the other cathedrals. The centre of the great window of the north transept, in which Becket was painted robed and mitred, was demolished by a Roundhead.
The present cathedral, consisting of the different buildings thus erected, combines specimens of all classes of pointed architecture-transition, Norman, and perpendicular. The interior is much finer than the exterior. It is in the form of a double cross, and consists of a nave and aisles, a short transept with two chapels, a choir and aisles elevated above the nave by a flight of steps, another and larger transept with two semicircular recesses on the east side of each, and two square towers to the west.
East of the choir is Trinity chapel, which contains Becket's shrine and the corona, with the monument of Cardinal Pole.
Canterbury is distinguished from all other cathedrals by the choir rising so high above the nave. It is reached by a stately flight of steps, and this magnificent approach (with the massive piers rising like a forest of stone) is one of the chief beauties of the great cathedral.
Pilgrimages to the shrine of Becket (who was canonised) were frequent during the Middle Ages, and to them we owe the chief poems of our first English poet, Chaucer, the "Canterbury Tales." The murder of Becket and his following canonisation, were indeed most important events in the history of the cathedral. To him it owed its fame and wealth and artistic decorations.
The great window of the north transept was, as we have said, destroyed by a Roundhead, named Richard Culmer or Blue Dick, with his pike; the destructive Puritan, however, narrowly escaped with his life, for a loyal fellow-townsman threw a stone at him with so good an aim that, if Blue Dick had not ducked, he might have laid his bones there.
There is still existing a grace cup, believed to have belonged to Becket, and legends and initials confirm the ancient possessorship. Round the lid is the motto Sobrii estate, with the letters T. B. support ing a mitre. Round the cup is chased Vinum tuum bibe cum gaudio. Round the neck is the name " God Ferare," probably the name of the goldsmith. The cup of ivory probably did belong to Becket, but the setting is not earlier than towards the close of the fifteenth century.
It is in the possession of the Arundel family.