The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Appendix

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MOST authorities are agreed it is unlikely that any remaining portions of the Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury are now to be seen above ground. The eleventh-century Canterbury monk and historian, Edmer, writing a Life of Archbishop Breogwine (Anglia Sacra, Vol. II, p. 187) 3 in recounting the story of the fire which consumed the Cathedral in 1067, says that

"the whole was consumed, and nearly all the monastic offices that appertained to if, as well as the church of the blessed John Baptist, where the remains of the Archbishops were buried."

Another early Canterbury historian, however, Osbern, in his Miracles of St. Dunstan, printed by Mabillon, Ada Sanctorum Ordinis S. Benedicti (Vol. VII, p. 695), qualifies the above by stating that

"two houses indispensably necessary to the existence of the brethren, remained unhurt the refectory namely, and the dormitory as well as so much of the cloisters as enabled them, (i.e. the monks) to pass from one house to the other."

As if to show the utter destruction of the Cathedral and its domestic buildings, Edmer, in several of his Lives of the Archbishops and other works, states that for three years the ruin was left undisturbed until the time of Lanfranc (1070), who, when he was appointed Archbishop and came to Canterbury,

"found that his church was reduced to almost nothing by fire and ruin; he was filled with consternation. But although, the magnitude of the damage had well nigh reduced him to despair, he took courage, and neglecting his own accommodation, he completed in all haste the houses essential to the monks (sic). He therefore pulled down to the ground all that he found of the burnt monastery, and having dug out their foundations from under the earth, he constructed in their stead others, which excelled them greatly both in beauty and magnitude. … As for the church, which the aforesaid fire, combined with its age, had rendered completely unserviceable, he set about to destroy it utterly and erect a more noble one. And in the space of seven years he raised the new church from the very foundations, and rendered it nearly perfect."

Edmer goes on to say that during the demolition, the altars, bodies of the Archbishops, saints and relics were all removed from the ruined Saxon Cathedral, to which he says he can bear a faithful testimony, as he was an eyewitness of all that was done.

In the face of such evidence as that given above it is difficult to believe that any portion of the Saxon Cathedral Church of St. Austin can be found above ground. It is doubtless true that materials used in the construction of the early church, if uninjured by the fire, would be re-used by subsequent builders; and that accounts for the curious mixture in the walls still to be found at the west end of the crypt.

If any portion of the early church is above ground it is possibly only core, and it will be found under the present central tower, and in the walls at the west end of the crypt. This was certainly the opinion of "A Committee appointed to make an antiquarian investigation of the Cathedral" in 1888.[1] It consisted of such well-known names as Canon F. C. Routledge, Dr, J. B. Sheppard, and Canon W. A. Scott-Robertson; and inter alia they came to the conclusion that

"the west wall of the crypt was probably pre-Norman and that the plaster on the lower part of this wall was before 1070; that the ashlar work of Caen stone in the upper part of the wall was Lanfranc's; that the lower portion of the wall was part of the pre-Norman crypt, and that the character of the plaster seemed to suggest the possibility that it may have formed part of the original building, granted to St. Augustine by King Ethelbert."

Reference to the text will show in what way I have ventured to disagree with these findings.

The vergers of the Cathedral have for at least forty years stated that this wall was the west wall of St. Austin's crypt, but whether the tradition dates from the investigation of the above committee or whether earlier, it is difficult now to ascertain. With regard to the foregoing evidences of a general destruction, it may be mentioned that the wall on the west side of the present library garden, which is continuous with the west wall of the library, is part of the original wall of the dormitory and is separated from the refectory by the east alley of the present cloister. If these buildings were on the site of those erected by St. Austin, this old garden wall might also be St. Austin's work, and might be part of the buildings recorded by Osbern above mentioned as being unhurt. This wall is well worth an examination and will be found to consist of courses of large rough field flints, set diagonally, herringbone fashion and courses of tufa; all with very wide joints filled with mortar. Much as one would like to believe that this wonderfully early piece of walling was the work of St. Austin, careful consideration leads one to the conclusion that though it may be the work of Saxon workmen it was performed probably under the direction of Lanfranc, the first Norman Archbishop after the fire of 1067. But there is, however, another piece of early walling that probably escaped the fire, the presence of which goes far to prove that the present domestic buildings and great cloister are built on the site of the Saxon ones. It is that forming the west wall of the west alley of the great cloister, which also formed the east wall of the cellarer's lodging in Lanfranc's day.

Professor Willis believed that this wall was rebuilt by Prior Chillenden (1390-1411), but this is clearly a mistake on his part, as the masonry of this particular wall is of an earlier and ruder character than that of Lanfranc's day, and would seem to be undoubtedly a portion of the Saxon buildings. It can be studied from the interior of the cloister, but better from the garden of the Archbishop's Palace, where the wall is exposed for its entire length.

After examining carefully the historical statements concerning the result of this disastrous fire already brought forward, we are compelled to admit that with the above exception, nothing of the Saxon Cathedral or of the domestic buildings remain above ground.

It is now necessary to call attention to the details of the Saxon Cathedral Church as described by Edmer early in the twelfth century, bearing in mind that he drew his recollection of it from the days when he was a boy at the monastery school and what he remembered of it when he was of mature age; also a few words must be said in explanation of the method of entry into the crypt of the Saxon Cathedral which has been adopted in the text, and which has been a matter of controversy since the problem was first attempted to be solved by Professor Willis in 1845.[2]

"This was that very church (asking patience for a digression) which had been built by Romans, as Bede bears witness in his history, and which was duly arranged in some parts in imitation of the church of the blessed Prince of the Apostles, Peter; in which his holy relics are exalted by the veneration of the whole world.

"The venerable Odo had translated the body of the blessed Wilfrid, archbishop of York (sic), from Ripon to Canterbury, and had worthily placed it in a more lofty receptacle, to use his own words, that is to say, in the great Altar which was constructed of rough stones and mortar, close to the wall at the eastern part of the presbytery. Afterwards another altar was placed at a convenient distance before the aforesaid altar, and dedicated in honour of our Lord Jesus Christ, at which the Divine mysteries were daily celebrated. In this altar the blessed Alphege had solemnly deposited the head of St. Swithin, which he had brought with him when he was translated from Winchester to Canterbury, and also many relics of other saints. To reach these altars, a certain crypt which the Romans call a Confessionary, had to be ascended by means of several steps from the choir of the singers. This crypt was fabricated beneath in the likeness of the confessionary of St. Peter, the vault of which was raised so high, that the part above could only be reached by many steps.

"Within, this crypt had at the east an altar, in which was enclosed the head of the blessed Purseus, as of old it was asserted. Moreover, the single passage (of entrance) which ran westward from the curved part of the crypt, reached from thence up to the resting-place of the blessed Dunstan, which was separated from the crypt itself by a strong wall; for that most holy father was interred before the aforesaid steps at a great depth in the ground, and at the head of the saint stood the matutinal altar. Thence the choir of the singers was extended westward into the body (aula) of the church, and shut out from the multitude by a proper enclosure."

The matter contained in this tract is fully dealt with in the text, but here it only remains to draw attention to the mode of entry to the crypt referred to in Edmer's own words:

"Sane via una, quam curvatura criptæ ipsius ad occidentem vergentem concipiebat, usque ad locum quietis beati Dunstani tendebatur, qui maceria forti ab ipsa cripta dirimebatur."

We have seen how those words which I have put in italics in the above have been translated by Willis:

"Moreover the single passage (of entrance) which ran westward from the curved part of the crypt, reached from thence up to the resting place of the blessed Dunstan, which was separated from the crypt itself by a strong wall."

The late Sir William St. John Hope, in his illuminating article on The Plan and Arrangement of the first Cathedral Church of Canterbury, printed in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, April, 1918, refers to Mr. G. G. Scott's translation of Edmer's description:

"Enclosed within the curved portion of the crypt extended westward a single passage-way leading to the resting place of the blessed Dunstan, which was separated from the crypt itself by a strong mass of masonry."

He then refers to Professor Baldwin-Brown's conjecture that "The form of the crypt was evidently that of a curved passage following the line of the apse and communicating with a chamber or confessio at the eastern limit" … "The passage followed the inner sweep of the apse"; he goes on to suggest that at Canterbury the two ends of this curved passage were joined by a straight passage forming the chord of the arc, but the position of the stair or stairs of access was not indicated.

Professor Baldwin-Brown's conjectures that there were north and south ways of access which were within the transept, leading direct to the straight passage.

Sir William St. John Hope doubted the correctness of Willis's translation, and he is supported by unquestionable authorities; he gives the passage thus:

"An unbroken passage-way, which upon its western edge the curve of the same crypt bounded, extended as far as die resting-place of blessed Dunstan."

Whichever way the translation of this piece of Latin is taken, it can only mean that a passageway ran round inside the curve of the apse, and turned westwards to the tomb of St. Dunstan which had the matutinal altar at his head.

It is true that Edmer does not mention the existence of a polyandrium at Canterbury. It is possible that as the bodies of the Archbishops were to be buried at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Austin did not contemplate such an adjunct to his Cathedral; though from the presence of a confessio or crypt chapel it is implied that he intended in due course to have some precious relic deposited there in an altar. In this he was following the plan of the crypt which Edmer tells us was fabricated beneath the old church of St. Peter at Rome, which had not only a polyandrium which was entered by ways north and south within the transept, but it had also a confessionary or crypt chapel, access to which was by means of a flight of steps down in front of the High Altar. In Rome, in the thirteenth century, Innocent III had these steps removed, for he was afraid as the body of St. Peter was buried in the confessio lest some German Emperor or Antipope should be tempted to steal so valuable a relic (Willis), and so he had this opening in the confessio walled up. On the other hand Canterbury had a passageway as described by Edmer (for the use of worshippers), and we know that a crypt chapel occupying the whole of the area of the apse would be extremely unlikely in the seventh century.

  1. Arch. Cant., Vol. XVIII, p. 253.
  2. Willis, Arch. Hist. Cath. p. 9. Extracted from "De Reliquiis S. Audoeni, etc., in Opuscula Edmeri Cantoris." Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.