An afternoon in the cathedral

I’ve always thought that Ken Follett’s title The Pillars of the Earth was extremely poetic and lyrical. And nothing says “pillar of the Earth” like Canterbury Cathedral. It’s old (St. Augustine — not that one, a different one — founded it as a monastery some 1400 years ago), it’s beautiful — Gothic architecture and stained glass windows galore — and it invites reflection and consideration.

I traveled to the cathedral earlier today as part of a planned outing for international students. We were split into smaller groups and escorted around for about an hour and a half. Our guide, a delightful little old man who I suspect is a retired volunteer, showed us around.

The main thing about the cathedral is that it’s immense. There’s a lot of empty space, with tall, thin Gothic columns and vaulted ceilings. It’s been steadily added onto and refurbished over the centuries. Some of the projects were completed hundreds of years ago, such as the nave refurbishment. Others are newer, such as the improved main tower, which was extended about 170 years ago. Others, such as a careful restoration of stained glass, are ongoing today.

Our guide led us through the building, from the enormous nave to the quiet, dimly lit crypt. He told us about how Thomas Becket was murdered in the church in 1170 after standing up to Henry II. A gold altar once stood where Becket’s tomb was, and pilgrims would come pray and bring gifts and ask for intercession. Henry VIII, in one of his hissy fits, plunder the altar, declared Becket a traitor and had his body burned, and, rumor has it, shot out of a cannon to prevent people from claiming pieces of it. Cathedral lore says that monks took Becket’s real remains, swapped them for another body and hid them in the crypt before Henry’s men could get to it. But, our guide reminded us, that’s a legend at this point.

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In the choir, once only accessible to the clergy, is the tomb of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales. Edward died a year before his father, Edward III, and was never king. His son became the ultimately doomed Richard II. Edward’s “achievements,” knightly prizes such as his helmet, vest and gauntlets, are on display near the door. They’re about 650 years old.

Edward was also the guy who originated the Prince of Wales’ motto. In battle, Edward faced John I of Bohemia, who insisted on fighting with his men even though he was old and blind. Shockingly, he was killed in battle. Edward, admiring his, as we say in German, Bälle des Stahls, adopted John’s three-feather emblem and motto, Ich dien, as his own. Ich dien means “I serve” in German, and is the motto of the Prince of Wales to this day.

Right across from Edward is Henry IV, the man who overthrew his son, Richard II, and started the Lancastrian line (Edward and Richard were Plantagenets). Henry IV is the only monarch interred in the cathedral.

There are other interesting people about — like the archbishop who founded an Oxford college and has the privilege of having his tomb kept up and overhauled every 50 years. It’s sparkling with color where others are worn white. Stained glass “cartoons” depict visual stories of miracles being performed. A glasswork by a Hungarian Jew whose mother died in the Holocaust celebrates the end of Nazi tyranny. Some butt-kisser snuck in a picture of Queen Victoria in the Chapter House’s front glass pane, even though she really never had anything to do with the cathedral. The tour had to stop briefly as a soothing female voice over the PA led everyone through an afternoon rendition of the Lord’s Prayer (I think in our group, our tour guide and I were the only ones who actually recited it).

Overall it was a really enjoyable afternoon. I finished it off in the town centre, sipping hot chocolate and people-watching before I picked up some groceries and came back to Woolf.

Stay tuned for Leeds Castle this Sunday …

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