The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 2

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A.D. 597-741

THERE are three writers to whom we are indebted for most of what is known about the building and arrangement of the Metropolitical Church down to the twelfth century—these are, the Venerable Bede already quoted, who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English Church, and died on Ascension Day, May 26, 735, to whom we owe much, and not least for the statement as to the actual origin of the building. Secondly must be named Edmer the Singer, who was a boy at the Monastic School and afterwards a monk in the establishment, and Precentor of the Cathedral. Edmer has left an account of the Saxon Church of Austin and Odo, a picture indeed of what he remembered of the Church as a boy before the fire of 1067, which burnt out and destroyed the Cathedral, the Church of St. John, and the domestic buildings, all of which Lanfranc pulled down in order to erect his own Norman Cathedral on the site. Edmer was a voluminous writer; he wrote biographies of the Archbishops in which he gives much information concerning the history of the Saxon Cathedral and the Norman one which followed it.[1] The third authority is the monk Gervase, who was a member of the Priory at the time of the

Foundation of the Romano-British Church at Silchester from the West

Foundations of the Romano-British Church at Silchester from the East

murder of St. Thomas, and an eye-witness of the Fire of 1174; his account of the fire and the rebuilding of the Cathedral is printed in the volume of Chronicles entitled the Decem Scriptores; Professor Willis, the most important and illuminating writer on the Cathedral in modern times, calls him "the most remarkable mediæval writer of Architectural History."

The Romano-British Church in Canterbury

We will follow these writers in order of their dates, using where possible their own words:

From Bede[2] we learn that St. Austin, when he had

"regained possession, with the King's[3] support, of a church there (i.e. in Canterbury) which he had been informed had been built in that city long before by the Roman believers, fitted and fixed there a house for himself and his successors, consecrating the Church in the name of The Holy Saviour our God and Lord Jesus Christ."

It is probable that that part of the building, which had been used originally by Christian Britons and desecrated by Pagan Saxons, was but a ruined shell when it was recovered by St. Austin. As it was from this nucleus that the Saxon Cathedral sprang it is necessary that we should try and reconstruct it, if possible, from archæological sources; this can be reasonably accomplished by assuming that it was built upon the same plan as that at Silchester, previously mentioned, which was uncovered and excavated by G. E. Fox and W. H. St. John Hope, in 1892.

Romano-British Church at Silchester

This early building was found to consist of an aisled church, only 42 feet long, of three or four bays, with an apse at its west end. Also at the west end were quasi-transepts or portici on either side, only slightly wider than the aisles. At the east end of the building was an atrium or vestibule, extending the width of the building, with entrances probably opening directly into the vestibule at the east. From the vestibule, in a westerly direction, a single entrance would open into the nave, on either side of which were the aisles, which extended as far as the quasi-transepts or portici, and there would be entrances opening from the vestibule north and south into the aisles. In the western apse was evidently placed the altar at which the officiating priest, when celebrating the Mass, stood facing the West, the congregation in the nave behind him also facing in the same direction—this is proved by the appearance of the floor of the apse, where the position of the altar[4] is marked by a square panel of fine mosaic set in the coarser tessellation of the rest of the floor; and it was the worn condition on the east side of this floor which is in marked contrast to the rest of the panel—sharp and un-worn—which drew the observant eye of the late Sir Wm. St. John Hope to this important fact.

Romano-British Church at Canterbury

The western part of the Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury as described by Edmer, so resembled the plan of the excavated church at Silchester that there is little doubt that the Romano-British Church at Canterbury was built in similar form. That is, a nave with aisles; a vestibule opening to the west; quasi-transepts or portici at the west end of the nave, only slightly wider than the aisles; and a western apse containing the altar.

It was at this altar then, in this church at Durovernum (now called Canterbury), that the barbarians from the country districts and the Romanized Britons of the towns first heard the gospel preached and the Mass sung, as they, converted from Druidism or from the gods of Rome, sat side by side with the Roman Christians. This was early in the fourth century after Christ, when Christianity, now free from persecution, had crept over again from Gaul, bringing with it the Gallican Liturgy. This Liturgy was derived from that of Ephesus, the Eastern origin of which, together with certain manners and customs from the same source, became matters of controversy later on, between the remnant of the British Christians in Wales, and the Apostle of England from Rome in the person of St. Austin, in the sixth century.

Conjectural Plan of St. Austin's Cathedral showing the original Church and the added portion
(S. H. Page, F.S.I., Ramsgate, 17–iii–1929)

Saxon, Angle and Jutish Invasions

From about the year A.D. 410, when the Romans finally left Britain, until the coming of St. Austin in A.D. 597, the country became devastated, being overrun by pagan Saxons, Angles and Jutes, fire and sword utterly destroying the civilization introduced by the Romans; the professors of Christianity were driven, as mentioned above, into the fastnesses of Wales, and the buildings devoted to Religion became derelict and in ruins.

Arrival of St. Austin

Such was the condition of affairs in ecclesiastical matters when St. Austin and his forty companions arrived from Rome and, as related by Bede, became possessed of the ruined Church in the precinct of the King's Palace at Canterbury.

The history must now be continued from Edmer's account as contained in de Reliquiis S. Audoeni, etc., preserved in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; and that by Gervase, de combustione in Decem Scriptores, which account is manifestly drawn from the former.

But first, it is necessary to draw attention to what Professor Willis, in his admirable Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral points out, namely, that it was the gradual acquirement of relics and the accumulation of sainted Archbishops that led to the building and enlargement of this Cathedral in the course of many centuries to its present complicated plan; and that the early writers on its building and history used language which shows that they considered provision for the repose of the Saints to be one of the principal objects for which the building was erected.

Edmer's Description of the Saxon Cathedral

To show how true these remarks of Professor Willis are, it is only needful to bring Edmer's description of the Saxon Cathedral into line with what has already been said about the Romano-British building, and to do this it is necessary to suppose that the first thing St. Austin did on obtaining possession of the old building, was to enlarge it by extending its nave towards the east for another four or five bays, and, from the eastern wall of this new building, to project an eastern apse. In the building and arranging of his cathedral, Edmer, who had been with Archbishop Anselm to Rome and had visited the churches there, says that St. Austin to a certain extent arranged his church after the pattern of that of St. Peter's at Rome, a church which in fact St. Austin was well acquainted with from his long residence there. That of course was the old church of St. Peter (demolished in the sixteenth century); Edmer proceeds to give details and descriptions of the eastern extension of Austin's Church, especially his apse and crypt, which have baffled archæologists to interpret his meaning down to the present day. It must, however, be remembered, that Edmer gives his recollection of the building only as it struck him as a schoolboy, and in the attempt to unravel his description I think his words must be taken as literally as possible. The translation I have used for that part of the narrative relating to the crypt is that given by the late Sir Wm. St. John Hope in his article referred to above. (See also Appendix.)

It is to be understood therefore that this eastern apse was constructed with a crypt beneath, and a platform to form the presbytery above. There is reason to believe, although it is not mentioned by Edmer, that Austin or one of his successors built quasi-transepts or portici at the east end of his nave, after the same fashion as that which belonged to the old building at its west end. The platform, to serve as a presbytery, was approached by an ascent of several steps from the choir of the singers, which appears to have been formed in the three or four bays of the nave westward of the eastern portici or transepts; and the platform itself seems to have projected some feet in front of the apse, and so encroached into the transept. Edmer says that this particular kind of crypt upon which the presbytery was built was called by the Romans a "confessio," and that it was formed after the manner of that at St. Peter's at Rome. The vault of this crypt was raised so high above the crypt floor, that to reach the parts above (i.e. the platform) many steps were required. The wall, which supported the western diameter of the apse platform, was almost entirely occupied by steps leading up to the platform, except at its centre where was a space with several steps leading down to a passage upon the western edge of which the curvature of the crypt bounded, which passage extended as far in a westerly direction as the resting place of the blessed Dunstan, who was afterwards buried just in front of the entrance. His tomb and grave of six feet in depth below the pavement was separated from the crypt itself by the strong masonry of the wall of steps, leading from the pavement of the transept up to the presbytery, and those leading down to the crypt itself.

The whole length of the eastern side of this wall of steps, forming the western boundary of the crypt, was built so as to form a passageway, ambulatory, or polyandrium (as it was called when used as a place of burial), which was continued from each end of the straight part of the passage, and was bounded by the whole of the curvature of the crypt, surrounding a small chapel within its area called the confessio access to which was probably through a narrow door directly opposite the passage of entrance to the crypt beneath the steps. This passage of entrance turned directly on entering the crypt to the right and to the left, so that anyone on entering the crypt and turning to the right, would have the east side of the wall of the steps on his right and then the greater curve of the apse, and on his left the west wall of the crypt chapel or confessio, and then the lesser curve of the crypt chapel, until he had encircled the apse right round to the other side and arrived at the door of the entrance again. There was probably a small window looking from the passageway into the crypt chapel at the east end and one on either side, so that pilgrims could hear Mass and see the relic which would be exposed on the altar of the confessio through these windows, but would not be allowed into the chapel itself. The vaulting of the passageway, and of the confessio or chapel was the plain trunk-headed vault, springing not from insulated piers or supports at intervals, but from continuous parallel walls as are found in the crypts at Ripon and Hexham of the time of St. Wilfrid in the seventh century. The ashlar of Prior Ernulf (1096) covering the broken masonry which possibly formed the spandrils of the head of the three vaults may yet be seen at the west end of the present crypt unevenly separated by two of the four small columns set against the west wall of the crypt. Two of these columns, possibly part of the stone screen of the Saxon Cathedral, are of much more ancient date than the others, and one at least shows marks of fire, which would be that of 1067.[5]

Relic of St. Furseus

The crypt chapel contained towards the east an altar, in which was afterwards enclosed as a relic the head of the blessed Furseus. The relic was, of course, not deposited there during St. Austin's archiepiscopate, as the saint did not die till nearly fifty years after the death of St. Austin, viz. in A.D. 650. It is indeed rather surprising to find any relic of such an one as Furseus, venerated in the Metropolitical Church of Canterbury, as during his life he was rather a thorn in the flesh of the Saxon Hierarchy in Kent, he being an Irishman and deriving his orders from the despised British Church, whose members still followed the primitive tradition as to the computation of Easter, the method of making the tonsure, and the use of chrism in baptism. It was Furseus, however, and his companions who converted East Anglia to the Faith. He was of royal Irish stock, being a son of King FINTAN and had been Abbot of Tuam; he had travelled in England and France and in both countries had founded monasteries. He died in A.D. 650 and was buried in the Great Church of Peronne, where his relics have since been famous for miracles. His festival is kept on January 16. A very ancient Life of the Saint, of the time of Bede, exists, and Bede himself, in giving the principal events of his life, quotes it in Book III, chapter 19.[6] Amongst his miracles was that of a most remarkable vision, which appears to have been the original of Dante's Divina Commedia.

There is no record of how his head came to Canterbury, or by whom,

or when it was brought; Edmer merely says that it was contained in the altar of the confessio chapel "as of old time was averred." That it was looked upon as a most precious relic may be discovered from the way in which the monks of Christ Church preserved it through the ages. During the fire of 1067, which destroyed the Saxon Church, the relics and remains of the Archbishops and others which had been buried therein, had been removed in safety. The head of St. Furseus was apparently no longer deposited in an altar, and we do not hear of it till the fourteenth century, when according to the "Inventory of Texts and Relics" belonging to Christ Church, Canterbury, made on February 2, 1315-16, and preserved in the British Museum Library under the press-mark "Galba E. iv.," it was set in a silver-gilt and enamelled case, and kept in the Great Reliquary Cupboard which was next the High Altar on the north, which cupboard occupied the site between the columns now filled by Archbishop Howley's cenotaph. There was also a relic of some dust of the head of the saint kept in a small square ivory casket secured by a copper lock, or bolt; and amongst the "Texts," i.e. Gospels, is noted a Lectional of St. Furseus, i.e. a book of lessons.

We will now leave the crypt and its passageway which, probably on account of its small size and the fact that intramural burial was forbidden, does not appear to have been used as the polyandrium of St. Peter's at Rome as a burial-place; and ascend to the presbytery which, as stated by Edmer, was built over the crypt and confessio. Its floor must have projected some feet into the eastern transept to allow of the wall of steps being built to ascend thereto, and also in imitation of that at St. Peter's at Rome, which had a similar projection. The front boundary wall, formed by the two lateral flights of steps, was divided by the descending flight of steps to the crypt, through a short tunnel as far as to the passageway. At the extreme east end of the Presbytery was placed the High Altar, "built of rough stone and mortar" close to the wall. I suggest that this altar was dedicated to the "Holy Trinity." Edmer and subsequent writers give no dedication, possibly taking it for granted that it was common knowledge. It is a fact that the easternmost altar of the Cathedral, since the time of St. Anselm, has always been so dedicated, and the same position had always been in use at St. Austin's Abbey. Also, during the Middle Ages, the Cathedral establishment was known as the "Priory of the Holy Trinity." Canon Delpiere, of the Diocese of Arras, informs me that votive masses to the Holy Trinity were permitted in the seventh century. How early I have been unable to ascertain, but if quite at the beginning, this would very strongly support the above suggestion. Another altar was set at a convenient distance in front of the High Altar, i.e. in the usual position in the chord of the apse; it was dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ, and was where the divine mysteries were celebrated daily.

Willis points out the venerable antiquity of the easternmost altar indicated by its rude construction, and suggests that the subsequent setting up of another altar for daily use seemed to show that the first was too sacred for ordinary priests, and that it was probably reserved for the use of the more exalted of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The fact that the High Altar, constructed in such an archaic and primitive manner and placed in such an unusual position, proves very definitely that the eastern extremity of the Saxon Church was not the addition of Archbishop Odo in the tenth century, as has sometimes been suggested, but was the original work of St. Austin himself or of his immediate successor.

The Choir of the Singers in St. Austin's Church extended from the quasi-transept or crossing of the eastern portici into the nave for three or four bays like that of St. Peter's at Rome; and like that was enclosed by a breast-high wall to separate it from the laity but without preventing their view of the ceremonies. It is also possible that there was a stone screen, formed by two marble columns making a triple arch, between the transept and its portici and the entrance to the choir, but this, though usual, is not mentioned by the historian. Edmer describes a third altar placed at the head of St. Dunstan's tomb, which he calls the matutinal altar; it was on the floor of the crossing in front of the passage leading to the ambulatory of the crypt and confessio. This, with the two other altars in the Presbytery, and one in the midst of the south tower, dedicated to St. Gregory, made four altars in the Church; but there was yet another dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which will now be dealt with.

It has already been noted that the Romano-British Church possessed an apse at its western end. This building, as before stated, St. Austin appears to have incorporated in his Cathedral, it becoming the west end, or western half of his Great Church. Edmer tells us it had a platform within its apse ascended by steps only, for the purposes of a sanctuary; in the eastern part of which an altar, hallowed in veneration of the Blessed Virgin, was placed; and that when the priest celebrated Mass at this altar, he had his face turned eastward towards the people who stood in the nave below. This was quite the contrary custom to that of the British Church, as we have seen.

Relic of St. Austroberta

This altar contained the head of the blessed virgin Austroberta as a relic (see p. 39). Behind, set in the west wall of this apse, which embraced the whole chapel, was the episcopal seat, built with decent workmanship of large stones and mortar, placed at a good distance from the Lord's Table, showing that this apse must have been of considerable size.

It now only remains to state that St. Austin seems to have used the Roman foundations of the vestibule of the Romano-British Church for the purpose of building upon them the central and porch towers of his Cathedral. The porch towers projected above the aisles and gave entrance, not only to the crossing between his choir and nave, but also to the choir and nave aisles. They were also slightly projected north and south so as to form porches; the northern gave exit to the cloister, as we are told by Edmer that "the cloister about which the clerks went was on all sides of it." This northern tower was dedicated to St. Martin, and was used by the Saxon novices, who were taught here the divine office and its variations according to the changing seasons of the year. The ground floor of the south tower was the place where legal trials were heard, and in the midst of it was the altar of St. Gregory.


A word or two on the Liturgy used in the Romano-British or Celtic Church may be of interest. It is known as the Liturgy of St. John the Divine, and was the rite used in the Seven Churches of Asia. It appears to have been brought from Ephesus and Smyrna into Gaul at a time when Gaul and Britain were so far identified in race as to be almost one people. This was probably not long after the times of the Apostles, as internal evidence derived from statements contained in the celebrated Epistle of the Gallican Churches Lugdunum and Vienna imply that at this time, A.D. 177, there was a close and intimate connection between the Churches of Asia Minor and Gaul. Constant intercourse was kept up and many of the converts in Gaul would probably have relations in Asia Minor, as Marseilles was originally an ancient Colony of Phocæa.

The great ecclesiastical centre at this time was Lyons (Lugdunum), and in 177 Lyons and Vienna regarded Ephesus as their mother Church, and wrote that wonderful Epistle to their Asiatic brethren recounting the acts of their glorious martyrs during the terrible persecution in Gaul in the second century.

This letter was read from the altars of all the Churches in Asia Minor, and we can hardly doubt but that it was read also to all the Christians then residing in Britain, as at about this time Central and Southern Britain are believed to have received Christian missionaries from Lyons, as had France and Spain; and later on Ireland, Scotland and part of Northern Italy.

The Librarian at Karlsruhe in 1850, a Mr. E. J. Mone, collected fragments of eleven Gallican Liturgies from Palimpsest MSS., one of which he considered to have been contemporary with the issue of the Epistle of the Gallican Churches in 177, and one such fragment is in the possession of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. This Liturgy went out of use about the year A.D. 800, and except for fragments it was thought to have entirely disappeared; but in the seventeenth century four Gallican sacramentaries were discovered, one of which was in the Monastery of Bobbio in North Italy, and was published by Mabillon in 1687. This Monastery was founded by the Irish Missionary, St. Columbanus (540-612) who is believed to have taken a copy of the Gallican Liturgy with him from Gaul to Lombardy. The Henry Bradshaw Society in 1917-1924, published a facsimile of this Gallican Mass-Book found in this Monastery; it is entitled "The Bobbio Missal or Sacramentarium Gallicanum," with text and notes (MS. Paris, Lat. 13246) a copy of which is in the Cathedral Library. The Editors are of opinion from internal evidences that the home of the missal was rather towards some part of France than Italy.

Mabillon and other experts place its date somewhere in the seventh century; Dr. E. A. Lome, who edited The Palæography of the Bobbio Missal (H.B.S.), thinks it to be of about the eighth century, and that it was written in France. It must therefore be getting on for twelve hundred years old; it consists of 300 folios of parchment measuring 7 X 3⅓ inches, with about 22 lines to a page. The ink with which it is written is remarkable. The script is what is called majuscule in the body of the Missal, and uncial in the inserted Mass pro princip, which was written by another scribe. The learned editor suggests that the writer, from the shakiness of the writing, was probably suffering from illness or old age; and suggests that it was the work of a cleric who made a copy of this service book for his own use, which from its size he probably carried about with him. The last five folios of the MS. are palimpsest; the original writing upon them is of the fifth century.

It appears to be likely that this most interesting and important MS. was written in the Monastery of Luxeuil, also a foundation of St. Columbanus in Gaul, and that it was taken to Bobbio by Abbot Bertulfus, who is known to have gone from Luxeuil to Bobbio, where he was Abbot in 639, where the MS. was found.

  1. Edmer became the friend of St. Anselm about 1093. In 1120 he was chosen Bishop of St. Andrews, but he refused this dignity as the Scottish King would not consent to his consecration by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose supremacy was not recognized in Scotland. Edmer remained at Canterbury, and died about January 1124. Besides the lives of the Archbishops, his best known work is the History of his own Times from 1066 to 1122. (Historia Novorum.)
  2. Bede, Hist. Eccl., I, xxxiii.
  3. Ethelbert, King of Kent.
  4. Wm. St. John Hope, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries. Second Series, Vol. XXX, p. 140.
  5. It is true that in the old church of St. Peter at Rome, in addition to a direct west to east passage leading to the confessio, there were also north and south entrances, from the transept or nave of the church leading to the polyandrium—the curved passage which followed the inner wall of the apse—and communicating with the confessio chapel at its eastern limit, where it turned west, direct to the burial-place of the saint buried therein. Sir William St. John Hope thought that at Canterbury this method of entrance and exit extended simply from the transept close to the east wall of the church. Professor G. Baldwin Brown thought that "the two ends were joined by a straight passage forming the chord of the arc of the apse." Both these ideas are conjectural so far as Canterbury is concerned. In the text, Edmer's description has been followed closely, and as St. Peter's at Rome had a central west to east entrance to the confessio or crypt chapel, as well as a north to south passage to the polyandrium which was used as a place of burial for the Popes, and as intramural burial was forbidden in England at the time of St. Austin, it seems likely that only a central west to east means of access to the passageway and to the crypt chapel was adopted at Canterbury by St. Austin in imitation of that he had seen at St. Peter's at Rome. (See further in the Appendix).
  6. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.