The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 1

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Plan of Durovernum.png

Plan of Durovernum
(After the sketch by T. Godfrey Faussett in The Archæological Journal, Vol 32)



AS the Kentish Stour takes its course through the hills and along the beautiful and fertile valleys in East Kent, it reaches the site of Durovernum, a Roman town situated in that part of the county where the valley, widening out, becomes about two miles in breadth, and the river itself divides into two main streams with several islands among its branches; this is some eight or nine miles from its entry into what was anciently called the Wantsume, at Stourmouth.

At Tonford, rather less than a couple of miles above this anastomosis of waters in the valley referred to, the stream is single and fordable. This was convenient for reaching the British oppidum at Bigbury, a stronghold in all probability of pre-historic times, but of the date of its occupation there is no certain evidence.

A couple of furlongs below Durovernum, at Coldharbour (a term of Saxon origin signifying a "place of shelter by the side of an old road"), the waters are again found to be gathering together, whilst a quarter of a mile lower down at the Pool below Barton Mills a single stream is formed which flows on to Stour-ey (at Starry) and the ford, at Fordwich.

Here, then, at Durovernum, where the river widens out, forming the two main streams and its confluent branches, it can be realized that in early days much of the land between them and on their borders was marshland or bog. Nevertheless, at this spot, on account of the shallowness of the river, there had been constructed the most important ford hereabouts in Roman times; for at this place the great Roman roads from the coast fortresses at Reculver, Richborough, Dover, and Lympne, met to cross the first obstacle on the way to London. Probably for a thousand years before the Roman occupation there had been a ford here, used by the ancient inhabitants of Britain, who were in the habit of travelling along what is now called the "Pilgrim Way"; but which is, in reality, an ancient British or Celtic track. The accessibility and convenient situation of this ford was probably the original reason for the four Wents being directed to this spot, and was the only cause which brought the locality into any kind of importance as a "mansio" or rest station, for Roman soldiers.

Romano-British Church Built

Here it was that some time early in the fourth century a body of Christians, Romans or British or both, determined to build a place in which to worship according to their newly emancipated Faith. The site chosen for such a building in this not very important military station was where it might be expected to be placed, without the walls of the Roman City, but close to one of its gates, that of the north or Staple Gate as it was called from the presence of a market for buying and selling just outside. This was the chief commercial centre, and the resort of the merchants with their merchandise from all parts, including the Continent, and amongst those frequenting it were doubtless many who professed the Christian religion. For this reason the building must have been of considerable size, very much larger than the tiny oratory[1] which Bede tells us was also in use during the Roman occupation, which was situated upon the slope of a hill to the east of the city by the side of the Roman road leading to Richborough, afterwards dedicated to St. Martin.[2]

The church at the Staplegate Market was barely a furlong from the right bank of the eastern branch of the river, a little below the ford over the shallows and practically on the edge of the marsh. Through this marsh the road from the city's north gate led past Coldharbour to the islet on the Stour, Stour-ey, where the road bifurcates, its northern branch passing direct to Reculver. Its eastern branch, called the Dun Street, goes over the hill to the ferry, ford, or wading-place at Sarre for the Isle of Thanet and thence over the Downs looking away southwards to the Roman landing place or wharf on the Wantsume, called Watchester (now. Minster). Thence it passes on to the high land at the eastern part of the island to the sea at Ruimsgate (the gate of Richborough Isle), now Ramsgate, where was an outpost or Look-Out not far from "the Cantium " (the North Foreland) of Ptolemy.

At the time under consideration, the north gate of the city is supposed to have occupied the spot where the south-west porch of the Cathedral now stands, and the Reculver and Thanet Road passed over where in later years Lanfranc built the western towers of the early Norman Church. Such was the marshy character of the ground at this spot that at times of flood it must have become a dangerous slough or bog, for when, in the early years of the nineteenth century, Lanfranc's north-west tower was taken down, and foundations were dug for the new tower, built to match its fellow on the south, the skeleton of a man and two bullocks were discovered in an upright position not many feet below the surface, they evidently having been overwhelmed whilst crossing this portion of the road over the marsh, and sinking into the bog.[3]

Three Cathedrals Built upon the Same Site

It was hereabouts that these Early Christians built their church. Its position probably occupied what is now the middle third of the present nave of the Cathedral, and was, presumably, of sufficient distance from the edge of the marsh to allow of reasonable stability being given to the building. That the site was considered suitable and convenient, is proved by the fact that upon this early constructed nucleus three cathedrals have been successively built and rebuilt.

Of these three cathedrals, nothing of the earliest, except possibly a few fragments of its materials, is to be found above ground. But of it an account has fortunately come down to us, written by a monk named Edmer, who had been a boy at the monastery school, afterwards a member of the convent and precentor, and an eye-witness of its destruction by fire in 1067. His account, with those of others, will be discussed in Chapter II, but we must begin our investigations by first referring to a short but highly important notice, which was written rather more than 300 years earlier by the Venerable Bede, to be found in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church.

The Coming of St. Austin

This work Bede probably finished about the year A.D. 730. After describing the coming of St. Austin and his company and their reception by King Ethelbert in A.D. 597, Bede goes on to describe how St. Austin obtained a building, which he had been told had been built by "faithful Romans," and "in the same place he (Austin) established a dwelling for himself and his successors."[4] This building, formerly without the walls of the Roman city, was at this time within the city by the extension of the city walls to the north. It is likely, as before stated, that all three cathedrals occupied the same site; and the same may with reason be said with regard to "the dwelling for himself and his successors," which St. Austin established.

It is not my present intention to deal with the question of St. Austin's domestic buildings, but merely to suggest that there is strong reason to believe that they occupied the same relative position with regard to his Cathedral Church with those of Lanfranc and all subsequent builders, down to the time of the dissolution of the Priory in 1540, In this connection it must be borne in mind that St. Austin was a Benedictine monk and that many of his forty companions were members of the same order, certainly all those described by Bede as "servants of God."

Abbey of Sts. Peter and Paul Built for St. Austin's Monks

For these, without doubt, the building of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul (afterwards called St. Austin's), outside the walls of the City, was taken in hand with all convenient speed, to provide lodging and accommodation for the monks proper, as well as to provide a suitable place of sepulture for the Kings of Kent and the Archbishops.[5]

St. Saviour's Monastery Built for the Secular Clerks or "Familia" of St. Austin

For the rest, the secular clerks, the interpreters, etc., would be provided for at St. Saviour's monastery, as St. Austin came to call the Cathedral foundation which he began to build about the year A.D. 602.

It is certain that the familia of the Archbishop, down to the time of the Conqueror, was governed by a "Dean"; the Archbishop being, as it were, Abbot; but "Dean" practically meant "Prior" in those days. Two of these Deans were afterwards Archbishops, namely Ceolnoth in A.D. 830, and Ethelnoth in A.D. 1020. It was the last Dean, at the time of the Conquest, Henry, who took the title of Prior by order of Lanfranc,[6] by which they were afterwards known to the time of the Dissolution.

According to a letter sent by Pope Boniface IV (608–615) to King Ethelbert, it might appear that monks were introduced here as early as 615, and the St. Austin's Abbey historian, Thomas of Elmham (1414), is emphatic that monks were here in that year; but he probably made that statement on the strength of the Pope's letter.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle monks formed the familia of the Archbishop till A.D. 832. In the time of Archbishop Wulfred (807–832) a pestilence is said to have carried off all the monks but five; his next successor but one, Ceolnoth, then introduced a number of secular clerics to fill their places, whom Archbishop Ethelred (871–889) is stated to have expelled, and made up the number of the monks again.

On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that these seculars were not expelled till the time of Elfric (995–1005), and the Chronicle of Thomas Sprott (edited by T. Hearne) records that monks were introduced on the expulsion of these seculars about 1006. All this is very confusing, but the Very Rev. J. A. Robinson, Dean of Wells, has dealt very clearly with this subject in the April number for 1926 in the Journal of Theological Studies, where he suggests that the statement about the plague is probably pure fiction, as the existence of a plague at this date is otherwise unrecorded; and he goes far to prove from Gregory's letters to Austin, that the arrangements suggested for the carrying on of the Mission implied a secular staff at Christ Church. There has been so much controversy over the constitution of the Archbishop's familia from the time of St. Austin till the Conquest, that a re-statement of the matter seems to be called for. J. M. Kemble in The Saxons in England says: "Probably it (Christ Church) had never been monastic from the very time of Austin," and Stubbs in Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents thinks that "some kind of attenuated monasticism may possibly have survived, or that the word Monachus may have gone the way of Monasterium and have become applicable to a community of clergy living a more or less common life." The Dean of Wells shows how it was necessary after St. Austin had been consecrated Bishop, that things should be altered to meet the new conditions of a clergy with pastoral duties to perform, and that "all, whether under monastic vow or not, were to live the life of monks as far as was practicable, together with the Bishop himself." That this was probably the case is evidenced by the charter of Archbishop Wulfred (807-832) to the familia of Christ Church, rather more than 200 years afterwards; this is a grant dated 813, permitting the familia to enjoy certain houses which they themselves had built upon the re-edifying of the Monastery. Wulfred describes how in the seventh year of his Episcopacy, led by Divine and fraternal piety and the love of God, he had restored and renewed the Holy Monastery of the Church of Canterbury with the aid of the "Presbyters and Deacons and all the Clergy of the same Church serving God together," etc. These words seem quite adverse to the supposition that monks were at Christ Church at that time; and he goes on to say that though the familia are thereby permitted to enjoy the above, yet the having of them should not prevent their resort to the Church for prayers at the Canonical Hours, from the
Plan of the Romano-British Church Silchester, Hants.png

Plan of the Romano-British Church at Silchester, Hants
(After G. E. Fox and W. H. St. John Hope in "Excavation on the Site" in Archæologia, Vol. 53, Part 2, 1892)

common refectory for their food, nor from the common dormitory for their bed. This Charter therefore, executed at a time mid-way between the era of St. Austin and the Conquest, is of considerable interest in this connection.

The comments of Stubbs[7] in regard to this matter are worth quoting at length:

"It is to be observed that with the exception of the mention of the rule of monasterial discipline compelling the use of a common refectory and dormitory, there is no expression in the document that would lead us to consider the clergy as monastic, whilst there is much that is inconsistent with Benedictine rigour. It seems natural to conclude that the inmates of the Monastery, all of whom are spoken of as Clerks, now retained scarcely even the name of monks, and were in a condition far more resembling that of Canons."

… "The name of Canons as applied to Cathedral Clerks has not yet occurred in documents of English origin; and yet the custom of monachism has apparently become extinct in this, their original seat, for although the Canterbury tradition (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Anno 870) placed their extinction under the pontificate of Ceolnoth (833), they are evidently obsolete under Wulfred (813). We are unable to say whether the Cathedral Monastery at Canterbury originally contained both monks and secular priests, the latter of whom may have gradually edged out the former; or, all the inmates, clerical and lay, were monks, in which case the decay of monastic discipline proceeded from internal causes simply, but it is clear from the advice of Alcuin to the brethren (in 797) as to dress and behaviour, that the spirit of monachism, if not the name also, was rapidly vanishing; whilst the canonical rule, except so far as may be gathered from the charter of Wulfred, met with no acceptance."

There appears to be little doubt, that soon after St. Austin had built the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, the monastic element would be settled in the monastery, under the appointed Abbot; and that the community at St. Saviour's, or Christ Church, at the Cathedral would continue as a community of Clerks under the Archbishop as their Abbot, with whom they lived a common life, as it would have been an entire innovation at that time for monks to have formed the familia of a Cathedral Church.[8]

Saxon Invasions

It will be remembered that for about 150 years before St. Austin arrived in Britain, successive bodies of Saxons, Angles and Jutes had made descents into the country. Up to the first of these invasions, Christianity had been established in the Roman Province and elsewhere in the land; and it was only when the pagan invaders—after the Roman population had left—with fire and sword had driven the Celtic inhabitants to the western part of the Island, that Christianity had given way to Saxon heathendom. Christianity still flourished in Wales and Cornwall, and Ireland and the southern part of Scotland. In these latter countries it had mainly spread through the missionary efforts of St. Patrick and St. Ninian, but all these churches appear to have had a common origin in Gaul and to have used a liturgy based upon such common origin.

Early Churches in Roman Britain

It is in that portion of Britain which had formed part of the Roman Province that remains of Romano-British churches must be looked for; outside that boundary the buildings would be those of the ancient Celtic Church, which had been established probably at the same time and by the same missionaries, who dwelt side by side and in full communion with one another. Of the remains of this early Church in the Roman Province in the South two buildings come before us; of one at Canterbury we have documentary evidence only, though it is of a very descriptive kind; the other, of which the foundations still exist and of which plans and drawings have been made, is at Silchester (Calleva) in Hampshire. Both were undoubtedly Christian Churches, built in the Roman manner, with a plan which exhibited a vestibule or narthex at the east, an aula or Nave with a western Apse, and side aisles ending at the west in a porticus on either side. We have no idea of the size of the Canterbury Church, but that of Silchester was only 42 feet in length. It is probable that the Canterbury Church was larger, and though in ruins when acquired by St. Austin, was better built; for it is implied in the extant account already mentioned, that St. Austin did not rebuild it but restored and enlarged it for his Cathedral Church, though he did not live to see it completed, as he died in A.D. 605.

We call these buildings Roman, because they occur in this part of the country over which Roman influence extended, but it must be remembered that the Christian religion did not emanate from Rome but from Jerusalem, and it is from the East that it spread, passing to Rome and North Africa as well as to Spain, Gaul and Britain. We may therefore take it as a truth that though Britain, Ireland and Scotland were probably Christianized from Gaul, yet the Christianity of Gaul is quite as likely to have proceeded from North Africa as by way of Rome, and this is the supposition adduced by Professor Baldwin Brown in The Arts of Early England, Vol. II, to which I am greatly indebted for these last remarks.[9]

Early Seal of the Cathedral

Before closing this chapter it would be well to draw attention to the evidence which may be rightly adduced concerning the style and appearance of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the earliest seal of the Cathedral foundation. It is attached to twelfth-century muniments, but is undoubtedly earlier, possibly of the middle of the tenth century, after Archbishop Odo had raised the walls of the Church and made other improvements, and before the fire of 1067. It is circular in form and is surrounded by the words " SIGILLUM ECCLESIÆ CHRISTI." It bears within the inscription the representation of a church of peculiar form and archaic appearance; briefly, it fills up the whole of the centre of the seal from side to side, therefore representing a building of considerable length. Its altitude is lofty, with a high-pitched roof; at either end is an apsidal extension, the roofs of which are not much less in height than that of the main roof. In the midst is a tower, with a spire showing two dormers, one east and one south, surmounted by a vane; and projecting slightly from the building is a porch or lower tower, with a door beneath, and at either end are what appear to be quasi-transepts or portici also projecting slightly from the main building,

Early Seal of Christ Church, Canterbury.jpg

Photo: Lander, Canterbury

Early Seal of Christ Church, Canterbury
and situate between it and the apses; these are provided with windows, as is the building itself. There is a definite string course or set-off between the upper and lower stories extending from transept to transept.

It has been stated that seals were not used till the twelfth century in England, but there is evidence of an earlier use. Offa, King of the Mercians, granted a Charter to the Abbey of St. Denis in France A.D. 790—the seal attached is probably a forgery—Ethelwulf, A.D. 836-858, and Ethelred, A.D. 866-871, both sealed with antique gems; and the monks of Bath Abbey, about the time of the tenth century, used a seal on which was depicted the Abbey buildings. But sealing in England was not the custom at this date, it was probably attributable to foreign influences.[10]

This picture of the south front is so remarkably like the wordpicture given by the eleventh-century monk Edmer, in his description of the Romano-Saxon Church, as altered by Archbishop Odo (942–960), that one is impelled to dissect the building into its possible three periods.

First, that portion to the west of the central tower, namely the western apse, the main building as high as the string course with its porticus at the west, and the site of the central tower and porch. This would correspond with the Romano-British portion of the Church.

Secondly, the eastern extension from the central tower, comprising the eastern apse, the eastern porticus and the main part of the building as high as the string course, extending from the transept to the central tower. This, together with the first portion, would represent the extension to the east and the inclusion of the old building by St. Austin as probably planned by him to form his Cathedral Church.

And, thirdly, the raising of the walls to the altitude shown on the seal, and the high pitched roof, tower and spire; the work of St. Odo in the tenth century.

These suggestions are, in the following pages, worked out in detail from Edmer's historical account of the Cathedral and may be of sufficient interest to be set out in a continuous narrative.

  1. Bede, Hist. Eccl., I, xxvi.
  2. In Anglo-Saxon times it was the custom on Palm Sunday for the Procession of the Cathedral Clergy and Laity to proceed to this venerable Church singing "Glory, Laud and Honour" where they made a station. This ancient hymn was composed by St. Theodulph of Orleans, who died in A.D. 821. The Canterbury Benedictional. Henry Bradshaw Society, 1916.
  3. It is wonderful that Lanfranc was able to obtain a sufficient foundation for his western towers, the ominous cracks and other signs of settlement are accounted for, Lanfranc's early Norman north-west tower was taken down in 1834, and the present one, in imitation of its fellow, built, but architects and engineers of the nineteenth century could have successfully dealt with such a condition, and should have brushed aside the suggestion that it was an eyesore that the "two towers did not match."
  4. Bede, Hist. Eccl. I, xxxiii.
  5. Bede, I, xxxiii.
  6. Chronicle of John Stone, edited by W. G. Searle.
  7. Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, Vol. III, p. 576.
  8. See also Margaret Deansley, The Familia at Christ Church, Canterbury, 597-832, in "Essays in Mediæval History presented to T. F. Tout" (Manchester, 1925).
  9. Pothinus, the first bishop of Lyons, had come directly from that country (Asia Minor), bringing with him Irenæus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John. F. E. Warren, Liturgy and Ritual of Celtic Church, p. 58.
  10. G. Pedrick, Monastic Seals of the Thirteenth Century.