An Anglo-Saxon man may get down to first principles in Canterbury. He reaches the dividing point in England between the old faith of Pagans and the new religion of Jesus the Christ. The founder of the new gospel had been dead five hundred years when England accepted Him, and acceptance came only after the Saxon King Ethelbert had married Bertha, daughter of a Frankish prince. Here in Canterbury Ethelbert held his court. Bertha, like her father, was a Christian. After her marriage, Bertha herself for some years held Christian services here alone in little St. Mar-tin’s Church, but Ethelbert still loved his idols; indeed, for many years, he continued to worship Odin and Thor. St. Patrick had been in Ireland a full century before this.
Bertha as a Christian stood almost alone in Saxon England, but her persistence at last so wrought upon Ethelbert that he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory the Great, asking that a missionary be sent to England. This was in the sixth century. St. Augustine and forty monks were dispatched by Gregory to the English shore. Today I have seen the church where this great missionary preached. It still contains the font from which he baptized his many English converts. In this church King Ethelbert himself embraced Christianity, and so it was that the union of Church and State was here effected. Canterbury then became the mother of the Church of Englanda title she has retained through all succeeding years.
Few towns in England can interest an educated man more. Its foundation dates from years before the Christian erahow long before no man knows. It is rich in history, secular as well as ecclesiastical. The Black Prince, beloved and admired as few princes ever were, had a strong attachment for it, and here lies buried. Opposite his tomb sleeps Henry IV, the king who dethroned Richard II, son of this same Black Prince. Thomas a Becket, and those marvelous pilgrimages that followed his murder for three hundred years, have given it lasting renown. The “father of English poetry” has still further immortalized it in his “Tales.” In-deed, there are few towns possessing so many claims on the attention of the churchman, the antiquarian, and the man of letters.
One of the densest fogs I ever knew settled upon the ancient town the morning after my arrival. It was impossible to see clearly across streets. This fog increased the gloom which long ago came over these ancient monuments and seemed to add some-thing unreal to the air of solemn greatness that appeared in every street and corner. Chance threw me into Mercury Lane. Here at once was historic ground. On a corner of the lane stands the very old inn that is mentioned by Chaucer as the resort of the pilgrims whose deeds he has celebrated. It is now used by a linen-draper. The original vaulted cellars and overhanging upper stories still remain.
Pressing onward, I soon reached a Gothic gate-way, handsomely carved, but sadly old and decayed. It led into the grass-covered cathedral yard. Through the thick fog could now be distinguished some of the lofty outlines of the majestic cathedral. Its central tower, which is among the best specimens of the pointed style in England, could be seen faintly as it rose ponderously into the clouded air. No picture, no figures, no mere letter, can place before the reader’s mind this enormous edifice. Its total length is 520 feetWestminster Abbey is more than 100 feet less. As we enter, the immensity of it grows. It is a beautiful theory that these great Gothic churches, as outgrowths of the spirit of Christianity, in their largeness and in the forms of their windows and aisles, were meant to represent the universality and lofty ideals of the Christian faith. Pagans worshiped largely in family temples which none but the rich could build. The new faith opened its temples to all men, and it built churches large enough for all classes and conditions to enter and find room.
Two styles of architecture are shown in the interior of Canterbury, Norman and Early Gothic. In the former style are the transept, choir and Becket chapel, each with its noble series of lofty columns and arches. Beneath the choir and chapel is a crypt, also Norman and the oldest part of the cathedral, some of it undoubtedly dating from St. Augustine’s time. He is known to have built a church soon after his arrival upon ground formerly occupied by Christians in the Roman army, and this is believed to be its site. The crypt, in a splendid state of preservation, extends wider the entire Norman portion of the building.
When the Gothic style came into vogue, succeeding the Norman, the remainder of the present edifice was added. Either partNorman or Gothicwould in itself make a large church. One will meet few grander naves anywhere than this Gothic nave in Canterbury, formed of white stone and wonderfully symmetrical in all its outlines. A screen, richly wrought, divides the Norman from the Gothic part. Two flights of stone steps lead from one to the other. It will not be easy to forget the impression made that dark December morning when I entered the little doorway of this cathedral and first walked down its long, gray, lofty nave to this flight of steps. The chanting in the choir of the morning service which echoed throughout the vast edifice gave profound solemnity to a scene that can never pass from recollection.
When the service had closed, an intelligent verger acted as my guide. New chapels and aisles seemed to open in all directions. Before we had completed the circuit, it seemed as if we were going through another Westminster Abbey. In one cornear is the “Warrior’s Chapel,” crowded with the tombs of knights whose effigies, in full armor, lie recumbent on elaborate bases. Henry IV. and his second queen lie in the Becket Chapel under an elegant canopy, between two immense Norman pillars. On the other side, between two other pillars, lies the Black Prince, with recumbent statue in full armor. Suspended above the canopy are his coat of mail and the helmet and shield he wore at Cressy.
In the center of this chapel, and between these two monuments, formerly stood Thomas a Becket’s famous shrine. The chapel was added to the cathedral for the express purpose of receiving his remains. At the height of the pilgrimages, about 100,000 people are said to have visited it every year. The steps that lead to it show how they were deeply worn by pilgrims, who ascended in pairs on their knees. Where stood the shrine the pavement has also been worn deeply down to the shape of the human knee by pilgrims while in prayer. Each pilgrim brought an offering, and nothing less than gold was accepted. Not alone the common people, but princes, kings and great church dignitaries from foreign lands came with gifts. Erasmus was here in 1510 and wrote of the Becket shrine that it “shone and glittered with the rarest and most precious jewels of an extra-ordinary largeness, some larger than the egg of a goose.”
The brilliant duration of these pilgrimages came finally to a sudden end. During the Reformation, Henry VIII. seized and demolished the shrine. The treasure, filling two large chests, and which eight men could with difficulty carry, was seized, and on the adjoining pavement the bones of the saint were burned. Not a single relic of Becket now re-mains in Canterbury. With no ordinary feeling does one stand amid the scene of this most interesting and curious chapter in church history. Not far from the shrine is the place where the murder of Becket was committed. You are shown the actual stone that was stained with his blood. A piece of this stone, about four inches square, was cut out of the pavement at the time of the murder and sent to Rome, where it is still preserved. Among many interesting tombs not already referred to are those of the great St. Dunstan; of Admiral Rooke, the hero of Gibraltar; of Stephen Langton (immortal with Magna Charta), and of Archbishop Pole, of Mary Tudor’s time, who died the same day as that queen, and thus made clear Elizabeth’s path to a restoration of Protestantism.
After the cathedral, the most interesting place in Canterbury is St. Martin’s Church. With few exceptionsincluding, perhaps, a very early and well-preserved church in Ravennait is doubted if an older Christian church now remains in Europe. There certainly is none that can claim more interest for Englishmen and for descendants of Englishmen in the New World. St. Martin’s is somewhat removed from the town, where it stands alone on a sloping knoll, and is very simple in form. The tower that rises over the doorway is built of plain Roman brick and broken flint stones, and has occasionally a piece of drest stone on corners. The tower is square and rises about ten feet above the roof. Almost any mason could have built this church. A luxuriant growth of ivy covers nearly all its parts. Rude in outline and finish are all its parts, ivy has added to St. Mar-tin’s the only beauty it could possibly claim.
The interior bears heavier marks of age than do the walls outside. The chancel has walls built almost entirely of Roman brick, and the nave is without columns. The old fontcertainly one of the first constructed in Englandstands in the chancel. It was probably from this font that King Ethelbert was baptized. Both chronicle and tradition say good Bertha was buried here. A recess in the wall of the chancel contains an old stone coffin, which is believed to contain the dust of England’s first Christian queen. Standing with-in this ancient structure, one feels that he has reached the source for Anglo-Saxon people of this modern faith, Christianity, and the civilization it has given to the world. A new race of pilgrims, as numerous as those who went to Becket’s shrine, might well find as worthy an object of their gifts and their journeys in this ivy-mantled relic of ancient days.