Gateway to the Classics: Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by Mrs. Frewen Lord
Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by  Mrs. Frewen Lord

The Building of Canterbury Cathedral

One day, more than 1300 years ago, three rosy-cheeked, faired-haired little Yorkshire boys were standing in the great market-place in Rome, waiting to be sold as slaves to any rich Italian who might like to buy them. The market-place was crowded, as it always was in those days when it became known that a new ship-load of foreigners had arrived, partly with people who came to buy slaves, and partly with those who came only to stare at the poor strangers, who had been captured in battle, or stolen from their far-off homes, and brought here to be sold. But to-day there was an even larger crowd than usual, for though all sorts of strange people were often to be seen here—negroes and Syrians and Egyptians—yet they were always people with black or quite dark faces, and to-day the news spread about that there was something quite new to be seen. This "something" was the three little Yorkshire boys. Among the crowd of dark faces their fair heads were easily seen, and their owner felt sure that it would not be long before a buyer for them was found, even though they cost much more money than the others by whom they were surrounded.

Presently there came through the market-place a monk from the great monastery of St. Andrew close by. This monk, whose name was Gregory, and who afterwards became Pope Gregory the Great, is a man you will all hear and read much about by-and-by. He thought and said (just as Wilberforce, about whom I told you in the "Tales from Westminster Abbey," thought and said in our days, many hundreds of years afterwards) how terrible a thing it was that men, women, and children should be bought and sold, as though they were horses and sheep. All through his long life he did what he could to abolish, or put an end to, the slave-trade; and though he did not succeed in stopping it altogether, yet he did much to lessen it, and helped also to make the lives of many slaves better and happier. He was particularly fond of children, and always himself taught the boys sent to be educated in the monastery school of St. Andrew. For a long time after he died, there were kept in Rome the book from which he taught them, the couch on which he used to lie, and even the rod with which he whipped them when they deserved it. And for hundreds of years afterwards a children's service was always held in all the churches on the 12th of March, St. Gregory's Day. So now as he walked through the market-place, the crowd made room for him, feeling that he, more than any one else, ought to have a good view of the little new-comers.

Gregory went up to the little group, and while looking at the boys, began to talk to their owner and ask him from where these children came, for their language was quite strange to him. "From Britain," answered the slave-merchant; "and there all the inhabitants have this bright complexion." Now in those far-off days the journey from Rome to Britain was so long and so dangerous (though now it can be done in as short a time as fifty hours), that not only had few people ventured so far, but few even knew that there was such a country.

Gregory—a monk and an educated man—seemed never to have heard of it, and began at once asking much about the country and the fair-haired people who lived there. "Are they Pagans or Christians?" was his next question, and the answer, "They are Pagans," made him look unhappy. He sighed, and then went on to ask what these people, who lived in Britain, were called. "They are Angles," said the merchant.

Now, this word Angle, meaning "English," sounded almost exactly like the Latin word angelus, meaning "angel," and Gregory hearing it and looking at the little curly-headed boys, who stood there close together watching all that was going on around them with wondering blue eyes, answered, "Well said; rightly are they called Angles, for they have the faces of angels, and they ought to be fellow-heirs of angels in heaven," meaning that they, too, ought to be Christians, and not Pagans. After finding out a little more about them, and the name of the king of that part of the country from which they came (for in those days Britain was divided into many provinces, each of which was ruled over by a separate king), he left the market-place, and going straight to the Pope, asked leave to start at once for Britain, and teach these people, who were Pagans, the Christian religion. And soon after, Gregory, with a little band of friends, quietly and secretly left the monastery of St. Andrew and began his journey. So much was he loved in Rome, that it was thought best not to let it be known that the favourite monk was going away. For a day or two all went well with the travellers. Then, on the third afternoon, just as the mules were being saddled again after their midday halt, a party of galloping horsemen came up. They were messengers from the Pope, and had been sent to tell Gregory that he must come back to Rome at once. The people had found out that he had gone, they were furious and had even attacked the Pope in the great church of St. Peter when he came to service, and told him they must and would have Gregory back again. So, much against his will, Gregory had to give up this journey to Britain, and go back to help to keep peace in Rome.

Years passed away, and, from being a monk, Gregory became himself Pope—Pope Gregory the Great he was called. Then at last—for he had never forgotten about these far-off English—he was able to do what he had wished for so many years. Even now he could not leave Rome himself; but he chose from his old monastery of St. Andrew the chief monk, or prior, and sent him with forty others to travel to Britain. After a long and toilsome journey they landed in England. Some of you may have seen the very place, for it is supposed to have been in Kent, between the North and South Foreland—that is to say, somewhere between Ramsgate and the little seaside town of Walmer. Not far from Minster, a pretty old town, there is a farmhouse called Ebbe's Fleet, and near here a place is often pointed out as being the very spot where Augustine landed. In those days the sea came much further inland than it does now, and Minster, now surrounded by green fields, was then close by the seashore. And on the seashore the little party camped, and here, a few days later, came Ethelbert, King of Kent, to see these men who had come from so far, hoping to teach their religion in his kingdom. The King and his followers sat waiting, so it is said, some way off under an old oak tree, watching with great interest the little procession of Augustine and his monks coming towards them. A great silver cross was carried before them, and as they came slowly up from the seashore they sang one of the chants which Gregory had written, and which are sung to this very day in many churches—the Gregorian chants they are called, because Gregory wrote them. When they reached the King, he commanded them also to sit down; and then one of the monks, who knew both languages, translated to the King what Augustine had to say to him, and then to Augustine the words of Ethelbert, who, although he was a Pagan, was also an Englishman and a king, and who remembered that these were strangers in a strange land. "Your words," he answered—and these are his own words, just as he is said to have spoken them all those hundreds of years ago—"your words are fair and your promises; but because they are new and doubtful I cannot give my assent to them and leave the customs which I have so long observed with the whole Anglo-Saxon race. But because you have come hither as strangers from a long distance, and as I seem to myself to have seen clearly that what you yourselves believed to be true and good, you wish to impart (or teach) to us, we do not wish to molest you; nay, rather we are anxious to receive you hospitably, and to give you all that is needed for your support, nor do we hinder you from joining all whom you can to the faith of your religion." And so the first Christians were welcomed to England by King Ethelbert.

Then having the King's leave they left their first camp and marched inland, till they came at last to a little town—a pleasant little town of wooden huts nestling among trees, and close to a winding river, which ran through sunny green meadows. On a hill above the town stood a little church, which they afterwards came to know was called St. Martin's Church, and was built by Queen Bertha (who was a Christian), when she left her home in France and came to England to be the wife of King Ethelbert. The monks, tired with their long journeyings, thought this little town looked so pretty and pleasant, and the sight of the little church on the hill made it seem so home-like, that they made up their minds to stay here, at any rate for a time, and with the silver cross carried before them, they marched in procession as they had done to meet the English king, into the first English town they had seen—the town of Canterbury.

At first they held their services in St. Martin's Church. But by-and-by King Ethelbert began to think a great deal about this religion, which his wife and the monks believed in, and to see that the religion which Christ had taught helped people far more than his own religion had done, to lead good and true and brave lives, and to do what they could to make the lives of all around them better and happier.

So King Ethelbert became a Christian, and one Whit-Sunday he was baptized by Augustine in the little church of St. Martin.

After this many other Saxons also became Christians, and so at last the wish of Gregory was fulfilled, and England, the home of the little fair-haired slaves whom he had seen so many years before, became a Christian country.

It would take too long to tell you of all King Ethelbert did for Augustine and his monks, but one thing you must hear of. He gave up to them for their monastery his own palace in Canterbury, building another for himself some way off."

Now a monastery, as I told you in the "Tales from Westminster Abbey," was a kind of college for monks. At Westminster the monastery of St. Peter was ruled over by an abbot, and so it came about that the church belonging to the monastery—for every monastery had a church as well as a school and hospital, or infirmary, belonging to it—was called the Abbey Church of St. Peter, or Westminster Abbey.

But this monastery of Christ, as it was called, at Canterbury, was under the rule of Augustine, who had been made Archbishop—the first Archbishop—of Canterbury. Now in all churches belonging to monasteries which were ruled over by a bishop or archbishop, stood the throne on which he sat during the services. The Latin word for this throne, or chair of state, was cathedra, and so it came about that the church belonging to a monastery ruled over by a bishop or archbishop was called a cathedral, because in it stood the cathedra, or chair of state; while the church belonging to a monastery ruled over by an abbot was, as I told you, called an abbey. So the church belonging to this monastery of Christ at Canterbury became known as the Cathedral Church of Christ, or Canterbury Cathedral.

This first chapter has been a very long one, but there were two stories to tell you—the story of how England became a Christian country, and how Canterbury Cathedral, the first of our English Cathedrals, came to be built more than twelve hundred years ago. As it was impossible to tell one story without the other, it has made a very long one. In the next chapter, which will be a very short one, I shall try and tell you how to find your way about in the cathedral, and then we will go on to look at the monuments and tombs, and hear the stories of the great men who are remembered in Canterbury Cathedral.

In the "Tales from Westminster Abbey" I told you how much the lives of the Monks were passed in the Cloisters, and how the boys sent to the Monastery School had their lessons in the Cloisters. When you go to Canterbury you must not forget to see the long stone seat in which the Monks, as well as the boys, played marbles. All the holes they made for the various games can be quite plainly seen to-day.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  |  Next: The Plan of Canterbury Cathedral
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.