Considered to be an integral part of England's history, Canterbury has been synonymous with Christian worship since Roman times. At the end of the 6th century, King Ethelbert of Kent was baptised by St Augustine in a Romano British church that stood on the site of the present cathedral. It was possibly the same early church that the King granted to St Augustine when he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Damaged extensively by the Danes, then destroyed by fire in 1067, the first church was quickly replaced by a Norman cathedral. Within seven years Archbishop Lanfranc had completed the cathedral, and a Benedictine abbey to accommodate some 100 monks.
Building, extending and remodelling of Canterbury Cathedral continued until it was again gutted by fire in 1174. Only fragments of this work survive in the crypt and the choir, but the small Norman tower on the south east transept remains in tact. Four years prior to the fire, the terrible murder of Thomas a Becket had ensured that Canterbury Cathedral would be a significant landmark in medieval history. After Becket's canonization in 1173, increasing numbers of pilgrims eager to visit the shrine of this great martyr, gave Canterbury Cathedral a financially secure future. Now was the time to construct a church worthy of St Thomas, and of Canterbury, an important centre of Christianity.
The 'Two Williams' were largely responsible for the magnificent structure seen today. William of Sens, a renowned French architect, began the construction, and William the Englishman completed it in 1184. Over the next 300 years Canterbury Cathedral underwent major re-building programmes, had new towers erected, additional chapels constructed, and was given a sympathetic Victorian restoration. It is a marvellous, living museum of architecture. The slender columns of the Perpendicular nave give an exaggerated sense of height and length, as the unsuspecting visitor looks through the choir towards the narrowing eastern end of the church.
A massive crypt treats the visitor to a splendid display of traditional early Norman vaulting, springing from sturdy columns with intricately carved Romanesque capitals. Three chapels, a chantry, and an ambulatory make up the largest undercroft complex in England, spanning the area from the choir to the corona at the easternmost end of the church. A rare find in St Gabriel's Chapel is a well preserved, early 12th century wall painting. At the heart of the crypt lies The Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft and this shows how the original Norman work was given an ornate makeover in the 14th century. The site of Becket's tomb can also be seen in the ambulatory and, immediately above in the Trinity Chapel, the site of his shrine. An early 13th century marble pavement laid in front of the shrine still exists today.
A mass of stained glass windows can be seen throughout Canterbury Cathedral, and much of the colourful medallion glass has survived from the 13th century. All around there are intricate stone carvings, richly decorated woodwork, wonderfully vaulted ceilings, and lavish tombs. This magnificent church exudes wealth and splendour.