The Travels of A Middlesaxon: How A Murder At Canterbury Cathedral Led To The Birth of Tourism In The Land of The Kentish

As my slow train made its way towards Canterbury, the thinly veiled sunlight of a South London morning in late-January slowly gave way to a damp Kentish mist hanging like a thick silver curtain over brown mud churned fields lending a claustrophobic feel to the chill of the day.

Here I was on a dull Saturday morning entering the County of Kent – the Gateway To or Doorway Out of England – depending on your perspective.  For World War 2 troops and their families – The White Cliffs – scene of heart-breaking goodbyes and tearful home-comings.  For escapees from countries destroyed by the brutality of war, the end of a traumatic journey in the back of a lorry .  For tourists, the home of the Oast House , The Garden of England, a County with more than it’s fair share of dramatic castles and even it’s own Oyster Festival.

From my train window I watched the landscape change from rural to urban and back again. Tinges of the ugly modern world clearly visible in the grey industrial warehouse units outside Ashford International Station but interspersed with dashes of English eccentricity at unexpected points along the way in the form of a solitary sculpture in a field just outside Hedcorn and the well preserved hand operated old signal levers at Wye Station – surely featuring in the fevered dreams of many a railway enthusiast.

My train clattered through towns full of mobile phone shops and apple stores (not the fruit variety).  These towns are still retaining traditional old English pubs marking the end point of many a Sunday afternoon amble along sign-posted footpaths – the organic ale tasting and consumption of roast with trimmings giving the natives the option of some different physical activity from shopping or a gym workout.

I sensed a County stubbornly clinging protectively to it’s unique character, but at the same time bowing to changes that it is powerless to resist.

The First Archbishop of Canterbury

I wondered if Saint Augustine would have felt similarly on his arrival in The Land of The Kentish in AD597.  Augustine was dispatched from Rome by Pope Gregory to Kent to keep an eye on Christian Queen Bertha who had married the Pagan Saxon King Ethelbert and to convert the marauding masses to Christianity and the wider influences of the Roman world.

He (Augustine) had his work cut out as the English (Saxons) were not easily persuaded being particularly fond of their Paganism – in fact, it was not proved that Ethelbert himself ever fully converted.  However, he must have liked and respected Augustine as he gave him his own Church of St Martin’s and eventually helped him build and establish Canterbury Cathedral becoming the first ever Archbishop.

Ethelbert at Canterbury Cathedral


Ethelbert’s statue on the
exterior of the Cathedral building






Gargoyle on Cathedral exterior



Canterbury Cathedral has many stories to tell from those early days of Christianity in England, but in this post we are going to fast forward 600 years to the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) to focus mainly on the murderous deeds which occurred in the interior in of the Cathedral which ignited the consciousness of travel as a form of discovery and self-enlightenment.  This pivotal moment in history was covered in the most fascinating way in the afternoon tour of the Cathedral I joined that Saturday afternoon in Canterbury.

The Murder That Shocked Medieval England

In 1154 England was just emerging from a period of Civil War and Henry was determined to bring law and order to the Country by restoring some of the power and land to the throne which had been lost during the reign of the previous monarch Stephen of Blois.  One area that was ripe for reform was that of the Church.  At that time any clergy who was arrested had the right to go before a Church Court rather than a Royal Court.  These Courts were presided over by fellow clergymen who often gave light punishment or let the accused off altogether.  As a result some clergy were literally able to get away with murder as the Church would not impose the death penalty.  When Henry tried to change the rules on criminal clergy, the Church accused him of trying to take away its holy and ancient privileges.

Upon the death of the 40th Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec in 1161, Henry saw an opportunity to place a man that he could influence in the role in the form of his friend and ally Middlesaxon Thomas Beckett.  Beckett was born around 1119/1120 in Cheapside, Middlesex into a privileged family – his father being a former Sheriff of London.  Beckett was sent to Paris for his education and then to join the household of Theobald where the ambitious young Middlesaxon worked his way up the Church hierarchy from humble clerk to become Archdeacon of Canterbury.  Beckett so impressed Theobald that this led him to recommend Beckett to Henry II for the role of Lord Chancellor.

Even the obstacle of Beckett not being a Priest was not enough to stop Henry getting his friend into the top church position – ensuring that Beckett was fast-tracked from Priest to Bishop in a matter of days and finally to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.

Though Henry may have thought he could influence Beckett, this was to prove far from the case.  Upon Beckett’s appointment he appeared to have undergone some sort of religious conversion and from then on wore a sackcloth shirt which was said to be infested with lice, ate a very sparse diet and drank only water.

In 1163 when a Canon accused of murder was aquitted by a Church Court, Henry tried to bring the accused before the King’s Court but Beckett took a stand against the King and succeeded in stopping the trial.  He also refused to accept the King’s changes to the law to extend his court’s jurisdiction over the clergy.  This angered the King who demanded to know what Beckett had done with large sums of money that had passed through his hands as Chancellor.  Fearing for his life, Beckett fled to France where he lived in exile for 6 years.

The pair appeared to reconcile in 1170 having met in Normandy and Beckett was sufficiently confident of his safety to return to his post in Canterbury.  However, this was to prove a fatal misjudgement on his part. At the height of the dispute with Henry, Beckett had excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for their support for the King. Henry, who was still in France at the time of Beckett’s return to Canterbury had expected Beckett to absolve the bishops upon his return.  When informed of Beckett’s refusal to comply with this wishes, Henry was alleged to have shouted “What sluggards, what cowards have I bought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord.  Who will rid me of this meddlesome Priest!”  This outburst was thought to have inspired 4 knights to sail to England to track down the annoying Priest who was found at the altar of the Cathedral whereupon he was hacked to death with such feriorsity that his skull as split open.

Today the spot where Beckett fell – located where the medieval altar originally stood – is marked by a plaque bearing the name THOMAS below a modern sculpture known as the Altar of the Sword’s Point (so-called because a knight’s sword broke on the stone floor  with the force of the blow).  In addition, a candle still burns where his shrine once stood between 1220-1538 before it was destroyed by Henry VIII.


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Henry II was so shocked when he heard of Beckett’s death that, as an act of penitence he donned a sack-cloth and ashes and starved himself for 3 days.

The Earliest Form of Tourism in England

Beckett was immediately hailed as a martyr and canonised in 1173.  His shrine became a destination for thousands of pilgrims who travelled from far and wide to pay their respects.

After Beckett’s murder a succession of miracles was said to have occurred and been recorded at Canterbury.   Local people had managed to obtain pieces of the cloth soaked in his blood and it was said that when touched by the cloth people were cured of blindness, epilepsy and leprosy.

Monks at Canterbury Priory began selling small glass bottles said to contain Beckett’s blood to visitors.  The keeper of the Thomas Beckett’s shrine would also give each pilgrim a metal badge that had been stamped with the symbol of the shrine.

Pilgrims spent their money in the local ale houses and, in idol self expression, left a small part of their persona in the Canterbury crypt in the form of graffiti which can still be seen on the walls today.

The experiences of the pilgrims were famously captured by Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales written between 1387 and 1400 about the various stories a group of 30 travellers shared on their pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Other Canterbury Cathedral Highlights

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The Great Cloister



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One of the 800 shields in the Great Cloister



The vaulted ceiling of the Great Cloister with it’s 800 shields donated by contributors to the rebuilding of the Cathedral and Cloisters.  A shield from the City of London, Middlesex (not shown in this post) is amongst the collection.  For anyone who wants to find out more about the shields, the Canterbury Cathedral Archives hold a record of the images and brief information on each of the shields.

There are many other stunning vaulted ceilings throughout the Cathedral.  Below are examples of the English Fan vaulting and Lierne French vaulting

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Fan vaulting





Lierne vaulting



The Tomb of Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376).   The Black Prince was considered one of the most able generals of the medieval period.

It is rumoured that the term “Black Prince” either refers to the colour of his armour or the cruelty he inflicted on the French during the 100 years war.

The Black Prince died in 1376 at Westminster Palace, Middlesex.

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One of many beautiful stained glass windows in the Cathedral



All too soon the weak winter daylight faded into the glare of neon street lights.  On the train journey home I sipped my coffee from my cardboard cup and reflected on the day’s events.   My train glided past the heavy black bulk of country cottages, narrow suburban houses with a solitary light bulb hanging from the ceiling behind an upstairs window and empty black fields broken regularly by the harsh yellow lighting of station concourses. Platforms of people waiting patiently for the train to the big city – London – to meet friends, lovers, make their fortune, discover new things or in the opposite direction towards the rest of the world probably for the same reasons.   I wondered why people bother to travel as those coming home are usually looking for the same things as those leaving.  It seems to me that travel is often more about the experiences people have on the road rather than the destination – although travellers often convince themselves that it is the opposite – and those experiences may from time to time be challenging.

Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer must have tought this too as he wrote mainly of the stories shared by the pilgrims travelling on the road to Canterbury and beyond and made the observation ““Life is short. Art long. Opportunity is fleeting. Experience treacherous. Judgement difficult”.  With that thought in mind, I vowed return as soon as I could to this fascinating corner of The British Isles while I still have the opportunity to do so and it remains such a special place.






– A building traditionally used in Kent for drying hops for beer.

– Some land was held by the Abbey of Bec which in those days also included some of the areas which we now traditionally think of as Middlesex such as Kingsbury, Ruislip and Kempton.

Travelling to Canterbury by Rail: Trains from St Pancras or Victoria – see National Rail Enquiries
By Road: M20, M2
Coach: National Express from London Victoria Coach Station

For information on opening times, ticket costs and guided tours visit Canterbury Cathedral Website













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