Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Canterbury Tale

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Following in the footsteps of Geoffrey's Chaucer's medieval pilgrims, Stephanie and I decided to "wenden on a pilgrimage/ to Caunterbury with ful devout corage". I arrived at her place at Wimbledon at 9 am and using the GPS, we found a rather circuitous route into Kent. It was with some frustration that Stephanie asked me, "What's with this country that it is ALWAYS cloudy on a Sunday?" I had no explanation but I couldn't help sharing her longing for a day trip that the two of us will actually do in bright cheerful sunshine. Still, if we have to wait for such a day to come along in England, we might well be waiting forever. I am convinced that the English are so relieved when they find a dry day that they have stopped caring about clouds!

The miles flew by as we caught up on our week. Stephanie already feels like an old friend and when we get together, we gab non-stop. I had carried a pile of travel books with me and en route to our destination, I read aloud chunks of relevant information to fill us in on the history of the venue.

I had visited Canterbury 22 years ago when the lines of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales were still fresh enough in my mind that I could actually recite the opening lines by heart. I remember how thrilled I was to be following on the route taken at least a thousand years ago by pilgrims from the Dark Ages and how enthralled I was to be visiting the sacred site on which Thomas a Beckett was murdered. If Chaucer's Tales were on my mind then, so was T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral as was David Lean's unforgettable film Beckett starring Richard Burton in the title role with Peter O'Toole playing Henry II. Who can ever think of Beckett and Canterbury without calling to mind that chilling line uttered by a resentful monarch, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"--a line that led to one of the most brutal murders in medieval history.

Arriving at Canterbury, Stephanie and I found parking in a public car park not too far from the famous Cathedral. The city's Roman walls were visible long before we parked our car--walls that were begun by the Romans and fortified in the Middle Ages by such illustrious kings as Ethelbert who welcomed St. Augustine who arrived in England in 597 A.D. in accordance with the wishes of Pope Gregory III to convert the Anglo-Saxons to the Christian faith.It was Ethelbert's wife, the Frankish Queen Bertha, who took the teachings of Augustine to her heart, provided him with a hospitable environment in which to preach and influenced her husband to convert as well. A pair of sculptures that recalls the contribution of this royal couple to the religious history of the city is seen on Lady Wooton's Green where they appear resplendent in their courtly robes.

It was St. Augustine's zeal that led to the creation of the first Christian house of worship in Canterbury, a space that evolved under the orders of Bishop Lanfranc into the majestic cathedral that stands today. The ingenuity of medieval stone masons, carvers and craftsmen is plainly evident on the exterior and interior of this monumental building where intricate lace-like work decorates every surface. Twin spires rise up tall, accompanied by Bell Harry Tower, a square tower whose interior is covered with the most magnificent fan vaulting at a height of 128 feet. The nave of the church is the longest in England and the choir stalls are superb examples of medieval wood carving.

None of this architectural splendour would have catapulted this cathedral to fame were it not for the notorious murder of then Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett in 1170. On that fateful day, four knights broke into the cathedral and murdered the prelate in cold blood. Henry II, himself devastated by the death of his one-time close friend, ended up doing penance for what he considered to be his part in the murder. He walked barefooted around the streets of Canterbury while being flogged by monks carrying branches of trees. These gestures only served to increase reverence for the good priest and devotion to him grew steadily until news of a number of miracles began to surface. Within three years, Beckett was canonized a saint by the Catholic church and the pilgrimages of which Chaucer wrote less than a hundred years later began. Soon, Canterbury was the most popular place of pilgrimage in Europe and pilgrims came by the thousand from far and wide to seek healing.

The devotion to St. Thomas continued until 1538 when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. St. Augustine's Abbey, which is located just a few meters away from the cathedral, was saved for a few years, but, finally, it too fell to the merciless designs of Cardinal Wolsey who ordered the physical destruction of the monastery buildings themselves and the confiscation of all church property which came under the possession of the Crown. The Shrine of St. Thomas which had been built in 1220 was destroyed by order of Henry VIII who wished to erase his memory from English religious history--perhaps the story of Beckett's defiance of the orders of his king (Henry II) was too close to comfort for Henry VIII who needed the loyalty of his prelates to be able to carry out his own vision of Protestant Reformation in England. At any rate, with Beckett's shrine destroyed, all vestiges of the saint's existence were wiped out for a long while. In due course, this devotion was revived and today there is a perpetual candle that burns on the spot in Trinity Chapel where the shrine of St. Thomas once stood.

We entered the Cathedral the way generations of pilgrims before us had done--through the marvelous West Gate that is covered with detailed sculpture. It was here that I had a minor set back--dropping my camera on the cobbled stone street. To my huge dismay, the camera suffered some damage and I was no longer able to use it. Resolving not to let this damage my spirits, I put it out of my mind and with Stephanie promising to send me the pictures she took, I decided to find out tomorrow from a camera repair store if it can be fixed or must simply be written off. At the entrance, we discovered that the church was closed until 12. 30 and we figured we might as well get ourselves a spot of lunch. At a small tea room, I opted for a cream tea (scones with clotted cream and strawberry jan and a pot of peppermint tea which really hit the spot as it was chilly outside and we both felt grateful to be able to warm up indoors).

Once we paid our 7 pounds apiece and entered the Cathedral, we found that the inside contains minutely designed stained glass windows that tell the stories of the miracles attributed to St. Thomas while the spot at which Thomas fell is marked with a plaque bearing his name and a very evocative sculpture on the wall that contains three drawn swords--The Altar of the Swords--signifying those carried by his three murderers (Thomas had struck one down in self defence when they attacked him). This part of the cathedral is near the crypt, itself an enormously interesting part of the structure and not just for the details of medieval architecture that one can study within. Treasures of the crypt in the form of silver and gold altar pieces are also on display here. It is also in the crypt that the original 12th century frescoes can be found--albeit in rather poor state.

It was while walking around the exterior of the cathedral, however, that Stephanie and I were bowled over. The accompanying stone buildings that flank the Cathedral itself are so well-preserved and so evocative of England that we were enchanted and took many pictures. The stroll took us into the serene cloisters that overlook an emerald green courtyard that lay within the shadow of Bell Harry Tower. The cloister ceilings are covered with the heraldic shields of the many knights who were once deeply devoted to their religious calling. Stephanie and I were completely enchanted by this space and wished we could have lingered there forever.

But it was cold and we needed to move on and our next port of call was the War Memorial Gardens. At this point, since we were both tired, we returned to the Cathedral to rest our feet and a little later set out on our next expedition--the discovery of St. Augustine's Abbey. We followed directions, crossing the War Memorial Gardens and the city walls and arriving at the King's School and then the ruins of the abbey that was founded by St. Augustine himself. I was really tired by this point and while Stephanie used her English Heritage membership to tour the grounds, I viewed the excellent exhibition that retold the history of the abbey from medieval to modern times as well as showed a vast number of archeological remnants of its past vigorous life.
Canterbury was marvelous and Stephanie and I, latter-day pilgrims, found ourselves very edified by our visit. Though we did not stay for Evensong which was scheduled to begin at 3.15 pm, we did receive a fine sense of the ambiance of the service from the rehearsals that were on while we were visiting. I was pleased to have found a priest who paused to point out some of the most interesting bits and pieces of the Cathedral's history and architecture to me such as the red marble flooring near the altar that was worn into a hollow from the number of pilgrim knees that had crawled to the altar in their thousands during the heyday of Beckett devotion. Had he not drawn my attention to this deeply moving feature, I would have missed it altogether.

Then, it was time for us to return to our car before our parking permit expired and to start the drive back home. We were caught it awful traffic on the South Circular Road which still has me believing that there was a better way to get to Canterbury and back from Wimbledon. But then we came upon an Underground station that turned out to be Tooting Bec and within a half hour, I was home (as opposed to the one hour it would have taken me to get home from Wimbledon).

Back home, I consulted my neighbor Tim on the best place to get my camera looked at. He suggested Jessops on New Oxford Street and I shall try to get there after teaching my classes tomorrow. I then downloaded the pictures on my camera so as not to lose them, edited and captioned and backed them up on CDs and decided to stop to have some dinner and one of my Alternate Baths. While I was in the middle of my dinner, Llew called me for a half hour chat. We caught up and by 10 pm, I decided to get ready for bed and spend a while blogging in bed.

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