For Anglicans, the Center of the Universe

Just months after William the Conqueror successfully invaded southeastern England from Normandy, he began to build a church in Canterbury. These Normans were planning to stay.  

Some ten centuries later, I spent the morning in the cathedral that grew from this beginning. “Magnificent” doesn’t begin to describe the soaring, gigantic, yet graceful structure. Hundreds of stained glass windows, miles of delicate vaulting, tombs of notables—all housed within a structure impossibly high and somehow, though built in a dozen different styles, balanced artistically.

Canterbury was in a perfect location—temperate by blustery English standards, and several miles upstream on a river that went to the sea. So successive generations of monarchs expanded it. Eventually royal colleges were opened here. When the weavers of Tours, France were expelled for refusing allegiance to Catholicism, they came here, establishing a neighborhood and transplanting an artistic tradition. To this day, the Cathedral offers weekly services en Francais.

Of course, Henry II’s murder (the “martyrdom”) of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1170 was, ironically, what launched the Cathedral’s fame. Today I saw a chapel that listed every one of Canterbury’s Archbishops—and included, without asterisk or other fuss, Thomas Cranmer, architect of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Just another one of those incredibly powerful men who shaped the world’s history.

I saw the spot where Beckett was murdered. A flame now burns where his shrine was located for 300 years until it was destroyed by Henry VIII.

I saw the massive stone chair that has been used for investitures for a thousand years. I revisited the choir stalls where I’d been to Evensong the day before. I saw successive generations of stained glass—from medieval times, all the way to the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

My guide Liz had a special treat for me—access to the Cathedral’s library. It holds some 50,000 mostly handmade books collected over ten centuries. What had Hanna the librarian, selected to show me? A second folio of Shakespeare, complete with introductory poem by his rival Ben Johnson. And a 16th-century English translation of the Bible by William Tyndale—the first to work directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts (he spoke 7 languages). Executed for his dangerous idea that people should read the Bible for themselves rather than rely on priests, his last words were his hope that God would open the King’s eyes.

After leaving the Cathedral we walked through the ceremonial stone arch erected to commemorate the marriage between Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand & Isabella) and Arthur Tudor, eldest son of Henry VII. Only teens when they wed, Arthur died soon after, leaving his younger brother to marry his widow and become Henry VIII. Thus do worlds change.

Liz then drove us half an hour south, where we spent the afternoon in Dover Castle. I hadn’t planned to go to Dover at all, but when Liz told me several weeks ago that she had actually lived there for three years (when her high-ranking husband was assigned to be the Queen Mother’s representative in the area), it sounded like a unique opportunity. During the afternoon Liz told me of meeting Prince Philip (“charming but lecherous”), the Queen Mum (“delightful and still sharp”), and non-stop entertaining of dignitaries virtually every night (“you slept with a coat hanger in your mouth so you could smile the next day”).

Dover Castle stands on cliffs (they only look white from out at sea) at the shortest distance between England and the continent. On a site occupied since the Iron Age, Henry II began the enormous structure around 1180. I walked the same stone steps later walked by both Elizabeth and Victoria. I climbed into the main building, now furnished with replicas of medieval furniture, linen, and weapons. Even the massive kitchen is fitted with cauldrons, clotheslines, ovens, and a model side of beef.

Eventually we were back outside, walking a quarter-mile to another building in the castle complex.

Because of its strategic location, the British had built underground tunnels and fortifications here to battle Napoleon. The tunnels were used in subsequent wars, and in the run-up to WWII, the British renovated them yet again. The idea was both a defense of the Channel and a central command for both the military and government should they need to leave London.

In May of 1940, the same location that prompted the castle’s construction so long ago made it the perfect place to receive the desperate evacuation of 340,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The tunnels were the command center for the nearly-impossible operation that prevented an Allied surrender.

We took a one-hour underground tour that was heavy on audio-visuals, which made the era come alive. Talking holograms projected onto the tunnel walls, the urgent voices of Army commanders, newsreels, and contemporary maps all gave the tour an eerie immediacy. Dioramas and real equipment filled the rooms off the long corridors, and inevitably we each imagined ourselves down here for the 12-hour sun-less shifts that directed the defense of England and the rescue of 340,000 trapped soldiers.

When we finally emerged above ground after an hour, no one complained about the light drizzle or chilly sea breeze.

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