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Have You Been To Canterbury Cathedral? December 29, 1170, a red-letter date in English history

For those of you who have been on Rick Steves' Southern England tour, you certainly remember your visit to Canterbury Cathedral, and you may remember the event that happened on today's date in 1170, at Canterbury Cathedral.

On December 29, 1170,
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated inside Canterbury Cathedral by followers of King Henry II; he subsequently became a saint and martyr in the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church.

Thomas Becket had been a member of King Henry II's court, and one of his best friends. The two drank together, and sometimes went hunting and to brothels together. When the elderly Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry saw it as a chance to put a friend into his position, someone who would not oppose him on various issues. Beckett was made Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II. Shortly thereafter, Becket sided with the Church and the Pope on issues, throwing Henry into a fury. Beckett took his office seriously, became a pious and holy man, communicated with the Pope, and took a stand against Henry and his unholy lifestyle. Henry saw this as a betrayal.

During one of his drunken rages Henry asked "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" His barons and knights heard this and went to Canterbury, where they put Thomas and his deputy, Brother John, to death. Henry declared that he was drunk, and did not mean for his old friend to be killed. Henry arranged for himself a penance by whipping at the hands of monks. He arranged for Thomas Becket to be canonized a saint.

This event in English history is (loosely) depicted in the movie, "Beckett", starring Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and John Gielgud.
"Beckett" (1964) was filmed at Alnwick Castle, Bamburgh Castle and Bamburgh Beach in Northumberland, England, all worthy travel destinations.

Canterbury Cathedral is a must-see for any visitor to England who loves English history, with its beautiful interior, stained glass windows, and exterior. A sculpture of crossed swords marks the spot near the altar where Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed.

For those of you who have been to Canterbury Cathedral, do you remember seeing this spot?
What are your memories of Canterbury Cathedral?

Posted by
3457 posts

We spent a full day there in 2014 , on our trip to the UK that year . As we are avid readers of history , we did a great deal of preparation before leaving . Not only on the cathedral , but all the locations we visited . Interesting , as this strangely foreshadowed Henry VIII 's relationship with The Church .

Posted by
2933 posts

Steven, glad to hear you visited Canterbury Cathedral and knew the history!

"Interesting, as this strangely foreshadowed Henry VIII 's relationship with The Church."
Kings often did as they pleased, regardless of the rules of the church or what the Pope thought about their wild lifestyles.

Posted by
9682 posts

That is such a beautiful cathedral and the stone in the floor with the name Thomas where he allegedly fell was very poignant.

Thanks for the reminder. I did not remember the date.

Posted by
2933 posts

For anyone who is interested in more history about Henry II...

Henry II was the first king of the House of Plantagenet. This English house of kings continued until the death of Richard III in 1485.

King Henry II of England (and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine) had three sons who became King of England:
Henry the Young King,
King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart),
and King John of Magna Carta fame.

This family story is the basis of the movie "The Lion in Winter" with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. It is the story of the family coming together at Christmastime, with the sons fighting over who will become king after their father is dead some day. Henry and Eleanor bicker over which son will inherit The Aquitaine.
(The Aquitaine was/is a region of France that was Eleanor's dowry and passed into the hands of the English king upon their marriage.)

"The Lion in Winter" is frequently aired on TCM channel around Christmastime here in the USA.

Posted by
2933 posts

Pam, thanks for sharing your memories of being there!
Yes, very poignant.
Such a lovely place, and to think of that day, when all that violence took place there.....

Posted by
2933 posts

Thank you. This will certainly keep me busy!
"The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wycliffe to Calvin, 1300 - 1564"
The sixth volume by Will Durant.

This one also looks interesting:
"The Age of Reason Begins: A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558-1648."
and this one:
"The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304 -1576 AD"
By Will Durant.

Posted by
2933 posts

Steven, just noticed this one.
"The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization (Christian, Islamic, and Judaic) from Constantine to Dante, A.D. 325--1300"

"The fourth volume in Will Durant's Pulitzer Prizewinning series,'' The Age of Faith'' surveys the medieval achievements and modern significance of Christian, Islamic, and Judaic life and culture. Like the other volumes in the' Story of Civilization' series, this is a self contained work, which at the same time fits into a comprehensive history of mankind. It includes the dramatic stories of St. Augustine, Hypatia, Justinian, Mohammed, Harun alRashid, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, Maimonides, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and many others, all in the perspective of integrated history. The greatest love stories in literature of Héloise and Abélard, of Dante and Beatrice are here retold with enthralling scholarship. "

Posted by
1796 posts

I knew the story but did not remember the date. Thank you! I was there in March, 2015, and toured the Cathedral but, like jaimeelsabio, my favorite memory was the evensong service I attended separately. I spent 3 nights in Canterbury.

Posted by
2933 posts

Travelmom, you're welcome! I wanted to mark the date so that people would think of poor old Thomas Beckett today for a moment.

Very wise of you to have stayed in Canterbury for three nights instead of being in a hurry to move on.
I'm glad you had a chance to see Canterbury Cathedral and to enjoy the Evensong service!

Posted by
3457 posts

Rebecca , As I'm sure you have gathered , these books are all of a series by Will and Ariel Durant . When I was a teenager , my parents purchased a set of them as a Book of the month club selection . ( popular in the 1950's ) I began reading them here and there , and as my interests deepened , I found myself returning to them time and time again . To this day , I frequently go to them to brush up on a regular basis . They are always to hand on a nearby bookshelf . A bit of information on the authors -

Posted by
2933 posts

Steven, thanks again. A great series.
I will enjoy them, I'm sure. Yes, good reference.
Thanks for the link.

Posted by
5250 posts

I visited Canterbury Cathedral in 1963, which I don't remember much about, and in 2008, which I remember well. The guide pointed out how the shadows on the memorial sculpture evoked the three swords used on Becket. The Black Prince is buried there, along with probably others like him. The vault over the crossing is one of the highest around, well up into the tower, and the proportions of the cathedral are very good.

Fun fact: Peter O'Toole played Henry II in both "Beckett" and "The Lion in Winter," both discussed above, both good movies with good casts (including a young Anthony Hopkins). Don't know which role came first, but it must have informed the other.

Posted by
2933 posts

Dick, so glad you went to visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1963 and again in 2008.
Parts of the movie "Becket" were filmed there in 1963.

Peter O'Toole played Henry II in both "Beckett" and "The Lion in Winter".
Yes indeed.
"The Lion in Winter"--1968.

Other cast members of "The Lion in Winter" are:
Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine
Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart, their eldest son
John Castle as Geoffrey, their middle son
Nigel Terry as John, their youngest son
Timothy Dalton as Philip II, King of France

Cast members of "Beckett" (other than Peter O'Toole) include:
Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury
John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France
Edward Woodward as Clement

These two movies are good to watch one right after the other, almost as a set, with "Beckett" first.

Posted by
2933 posts

For anyone who is browsing the forum and getting interested in visiting Canterbury, you can get there easily from London by train or by bus.
For anyone who is browsing the forum and thinking of choosing a Rick Steves tour for 2022 or 2023, take a look at this tour which begins in Canterbury:
Best of South England In 13 Days tour:

For 2022 you can get on a Waitlist, or there is one tour date that has opened up.