The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 3

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A.D. 741-942

THE building above described appears to have undergone little or no change during the next 150 years. It was used as the Church of the Archbishop, but the ecclesiastical centre of gravity was to be found in the neighbouring Abbey of St. Austin and in its Church of Saints Peter and Paul. This was on account of the school set up there by Archbishop Theodore, and also, probably to a greater extent, by reason of the policy adopted on its foundation by King Ethelbert and St. Austin, that it should be the burial-place of the Kings of Kent and the Archbishops of Canterbury. All the Archbishops up to the time of Cuthbert (741-759) had been buried at St. Austin's, with the result that the Metropolitical Church possessed no tomb of a distinguished local saint to draw the attention or the devotion of the multitude; and its ambulatory and Crypt Chapel were destitute of any great attraction except for the relic, in the latter place, of the head of the Irish monk, Furseus.

It might have been thought that the particular function of a confessio was fulfilled by the possession of this relic, as its proper meaning is the vault or crypt under the High Altar which contained the relics of a saint or martyr; Cianipini and others use it to signify the grilled opening before the altar, through which, approached by a flight of steps down from the west, relics might be viewed.[1]

The Archbishop who preceded Cuthbert was Nothelm, who was a student of history. He had been a priest of the diocese of London, and had not only been the means of transmitting to the Venerable Bede information respecting the reintroduction of Christianity into England and its settlement under St. Austin, having been taught by that most reverend Abbot of St, Austin's, Albinus, a man of great and encyclopædic learning, but had journeyed to Rome and had collected much in the way of letters, documents, etc., from the archives there, which he had copied and sent to Bede for his History. He had been quite content, when Archbishop, to allow things to continue as under his predecessors; but Cuthbert, his successor, was of a different calibre, a far-seeing and astute prelate, whose desire was to make his Church pre-eminent in the country. Here, in what was becoming the heart of the Saxon City, was the Cathedral, but its treasure was at St. Austin's. Cuthbert determined that the law prohibiting intramural burials should cease, and to that end he procured from Eadbert, King of Kent, authority that in future the bodies of the Archbishops deceased should not be buried at St. Austin's as heretofore, but at Christ Church Cathedral; to the intent that they might have their resting-place where they had, living, ruled in honour. Up to this time the Kings of Kent, the Archbishops, the religious (Gervase says monks, but they were clerks at the Cathedral), as well as the monks of the Abbey and people of the city, had been buried in the atrium or churchyard of the Church of the Apostles Peter and Paul, beyond the walls; for the Romans declared on first coming into England that cities were for the living and not for the dead.[2] To this end, as Edmer states, he

"Built a church on the east part of the greater church, almost touching the same, and solemnly hallowed it in honour of the blessed John Baptist. He constructed the church to this end, that

(1) baptisms might be held therein, and

(2) inquiries of Courts of Justice appointed for divers causes which were wont to be held in the Church of God for the correction of evil-doers; also

(3) that the bodies of the Archbishops might be buried in it," etc.

William Thorne, the chronicler of St. Austin's Abbey, gives us a very human account of the way in which Archbishop Cuthbert changed the policy of his predecessors. Thorne was a monk of St. Austin's at the end of the fourteenth century. He was born at Thorne in the parish of Minster in the Isle of Thanet; the Abbey possessed the manor and the Court House there, which had formerly been the Nunnery, known as St. Mildred's, so called after the second Abbess, who had been buried in the Church there dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul, which Archbishop Cuthbert had consecrated. Thorne was possibly a relative of Abbot Nicholas Thorne (1278-1283), and he had acted as Attorney for the Abbot-Elect, William Welde, at the Papal Court in 1389.[3]

Though Thorne wrote six and a half centuries after the event, his indignation is so great in relating the circumstances that one might think that the calamity occurred in his own day.[4]

"In the year 743 Archbishop Cuthbert grieved over the destitute condition of the Church over which he ruled, for it had no great men interred within its walls, inasmuch as when an Archbishop died the body was carried to the Monastery for burial according to the decrees of the Popes. Therefore conceiving sorrow and bringing forth ungodliness, he in his wickedness carefully thought out a plan for the changing of this custom; and repairing to Eadbert, who was then King of the land, with tears streaming down his face, he with the subtlety of the serpent, laid his case before the Dove-like and harmless King, earnestly imploring him to alter the aforesaid custom of burial and to confirm the alteration by his own Royal Command. With much difficulty, and more by the aid of money than by the power of his prayers, he at length gained his desire.

"Thus it came to pass in the year of Our Lord 758 the aforesaid Archbishop Cuthbert, being attacked with heart disease, and feeling that he was about to die, realized that the time had now arrived when the trick that he had planned might at length be played off against the Church of St. Austin; and that the serpent-like birth which had been so long in the womb, might now at last be produced, even though the birth pangs brought death in their train; he was lying by himself in his own Church as the end drew near, and summoning his whole household and the monks—who were nothing loth to obey—he bound them by a solemn oath not to divulge his illness or his death, nor to give any signal thereof by the ringing of bells, nor to perform any funeral services for him, until he should have been buried several days.

"All these commands were dutifully obeyed, for not till he had been three days in the grave were the bells rung for him or tidings of his death published. On receiving the news Aldhun, Abbot of St. Austin's (748-760), came with the monks intending to convey away the Archbishop's body according to the usual custom; but when he found that he was already buried, and that the ancient custom of burial had been altered by the King's authority he was greatly distressed, and returned to his own house feeling that he had been defrauded of his heart's desire.

"Cuthbert was succeeded by Breogwine (759), who admiring his predecessor's action in the matter followed the same sly course and obtained from the King, and as is thought from the Pope too, confirmation of this change. The same secrecy was preserved about his decease and his body was buried beside his predecessor's and not till afterwards did the bells ring out the signal for the due celebration of his funeral rites. As soon as the tidings reached St. Austin's, Jaenbert, who was then Abbot (760-762), proceeded to the Church of the Blessed Trinity with an armed band, prepared to carry off the Archbishop's body by force if not able to do so peacefully. But when he discovered that Breogwine too was already buried and that the Augustinians had been supplanted twice and must return empty-handed again, he sent repeated complaints to the Pope and appeals for the defence of the rights and liberties of his Monastery. The monks of Holy Trinity therefore, feeling the want of their Chief Pastor's support and noting the determination of Abbot Jaenbert, combined with his wisdom and prudence in all matters both ecclesiastical and secular, were afraid lest by pressing on his appeal he might re-restablish the ancient and right usage as to the burial of the Archbishops. They therefore craftily demanded that Jaenbert should become their Father and Chief Pastor, and thus the monks of St. Austin's, having lost the guidance of their father-in-God, abandoned their appeals concerning the change of the place of burial—not, however, from want of zeal, but only because of their respect for Archbishop Jaenbert; but alas, the sequel will show the extent of their loss."

It is true that Jaenbert returned to the original plan and directed that his old monastery should be his burial-place, to ensure which, Gervase says, he had himself conveyed there whilst alive; but he was the last Saxon Archbishop to be buried at St. Austin's, all his successors being buried in the Cathedral.

There are no further records of this building except notices of the burials of the Archbishops therein, till Edmer's account of the fire in 1067; in which calamity not only was the Cathedral entirely consumed but

"nearly all the monastic offices that pertained to it as well as the Church of the Blessed John Baptist, where as aforesaid the remains of the Archbishops were buried, were destroyed."

There is no picture, plan, or even representation on a seal, of this building that I know of. Professor Willis shows the Church on his "Conjectural Plan"[5] as an octagon standing to the east of the Cathedral, connected with it by a passage leading from the south aisle. Sir Wm. St. John Hope in his article on the plan and arrangement of the first Cathedral Church of Canterbury,[6] gives a plan showing an octagon due east of the apse of the Cathedral and connected with it by an opening directly from one to the other. It must have been of considerable capacity, as ten Archbishops are known to have been buried therein; and possibly six others whose place of burial, except that it was in Christ Church, is unknown.

It is difficult to hazard an opinion as to what this Church of St. John was like, or even where it stood; except that, as Edmer says, it was built to "the east of the Great Church and nearly touching it." But here again, we must bear in mind that these words are a schoolboy's recollections and make allowances accordingly. Professor Willis emphasizes that communication with Rome was always maintained in those early centuries, and that the Saxons did indeed imitate Roman models very closely; and he points out in a Note that the baptistery of Constantine stands in a somewhat similar relative position to the Church of the Lateran, "but at a greater distance," from where he places the building at Canterbury on his conjectural plan; and also that the baptistery at St. Peter's was at the end of the North Transept. He also suggests that this baptistery was octagonal in shape.

Professor G. Baldwin Brown, in Arts of Early England, Vol. II, was of opinion that it was probably cruciform, as more in accordance with tradition, and as it had to serve for burials as well as baptisms and other purposes. But whatever its shape may have been, I think we have shown that Cuthbert's baptistery must have been later than the eastern apse and crypt and not, as the Professor suggests, of an earlier date.

Sir Wm. St. John Hope thought the baptistery was octagonal outside and circular within, but Edmer merely says that it was "to the east of the Great Church, and nearly touching it." What was its shape, size or style, who can tell in the absence of any record whatsoever? It is in vain that attempts to solve such a mystery are made, and we must be content to leave the matter where Edmer left it.

The following is a list of the names and dates of the Archbishops who are recorded to have been buried in the Church of St. John:

The 11th. —Cuthbert, 741 to 759. He was the first to be buried therein.
The 12th. —Breogwine, 759 to 762, was buried near the body of his predecessor. "His tomb was flat, of decent workmanship, and a little raised above the pavement."
The 14th. —Athelard, 793 to 805. Offa, King of the Mercians, grants a charter to Christ Church, giving certain lands to the Monastery.
The 15th. —Wulfred, 805 to 832.
The 16th. —Feologild, 832 to 833, was Abbot of a Monastery in Kent; possibly he was Dean of Christ Church.
The 17th. —Ceolnoth, 833 to 870.
The 18th. —Ethelred, 870 to 890.
The 19th. —Plegmund, 890 to 914, journeyed to Rome and bought the blessed Martyr Blasius for a great sum of gold and silver. He brought the body with him when he returned to Canterbury, and placed it there in Christ Church (Gervase).
The 20th. —Athelm, 914 to 923. Had been a monk of Glastonbury and afterwards Bishop of Wells.
The 21st. —Wulfhelm, 923 to 942. He crowned King Athelstan in 924 at Kingston-on-Thames in the Market-place, upon the King's stone which is still to be seen there.

The following Archbishops are recorded as being buried in the Cathedral itself:
The 22nd. —Odo (the Good), 942 to 960, was buried on the south of the altar of Christ in the chord of the apse in the Saxon Cathedral.
The 23rd. —Dunstan, 960 to 988, was buried in the middle of the transept in a pyramidal tomb in front of the steps leading up to the apse in the Saxon Cathedral with the matutinal altar at his head.
The 24th. —Ethelgar, 988 to 990. Had been Abbot of Newminster (Hyde Abbey), and afterwards was Bishop of Selsey.
The 25th. —Sigeric (or Siricius), 990 to 995. Had been Abbot of Glastonbury, and then Bishop of Ramsbury.
The 26th. —Elfric, 995 to 1005, was buried first at Abingdon, but afterwards translated to Christ Church Cathedral.
The 28th. —Livingus (or Lyfing), 1013 to 1020. Had been Bishop of Wells.
The 29th. —Ethelnoth (or Egelnoth), 1020 to 1038. "He restored the Church of Canterbury to its former dignity" (Gervase)—not the building, but the influence and importance of the See. Canute had given his crown of gold which was kept at the head of the Great Cross in the Nave, and Emma his queen bought from the Bishop of Beneventum the arm-bone of St. Bartholomew for a large sum of money which she presented to the Church (Edmer).
The 30th. —Eadsige, 1038 to 1050. Had been a Chaplain to King Canute, and afterwards was a monk of Folkestone and Bishop of St. Martin's, Canterbury, in 1035; was translated to the Archbishopric in 1038.

  1. Canon Livett's Report on the West Wall of the Crypt, Canterbury, 1925.
  2. Gervase, Act. Pont. Cant. (p. 1640).
  3. Thorne's Chron., 2184.
  4. Thorne's Chron., 1772.
  5. Willis, Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral, p. 27.
  6. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, April 11th, 1918, Second Series, Vol. XXX, p. 152.