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Chaucer’s tales still lure visitors to Canterbury

  • FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows Archbishop of Canterbury Most Reverend Justin Welby during a service inside Canterbury Cathedral for his enthronement in Canterbury, England. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Dominic Lipinski, File)

    FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows Archbishop of Canterbury Most Reverend Justin Welby during a service inside Canterbury Cathedral for his enthronement in Canterbury, England. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Dominic Lipinski, File)

  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales, a show in Canterbury, England, shows a group of visiting children in medieval costumes looking at the attraction’s life-size character models. The show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

    This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales, a show in Canterbury, England, shows a group of visiting children in medieval costumes looking at the attraction’s life-size character models. The show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

  • FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows a procession of religious representatives entering Canterbury Cathedral for the enthronement ceremony of Britain's new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in Canterbury, England. Welby is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and serves as head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the world's Anglican Communion. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

    FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows a procession of religious representatives entering Canterbury Cathedral for the enthronement ceremony of Britain's new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in Canterbury, England. Welby is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and serves as head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the world's Anglican Communion. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

  • This undated image provided by Visit Canterbury shows the Stour river running through the city of Canterbury, England. Visitors can hire small boats, usually with an oarsman, for a guided tour. Canterbury  Cathedral has been a pilgrimage site for centuries and still attracts a million visitors a year. (AP Photo/Visit Canterbury)

    This undated image provided by Visit Canterbury shows the Stour river running through the city of Canterbury, England. Visitors can hire small boats, usually with an oarsman, for a guided tour. Canterbury Cathedral has been a pilgrimage site for centuries and still attracts a million visitors a year. (AP Photo/Visit Canterbury)

  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales, a show in Canterbury, England, shows the exterior of St. Margaret’s Church, where the attraction is housed. The show, which includes life-size character models and an audiovisual presentation, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

    This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales, a show in Canterbury, England, shows the exterior of St. Margaret’s Church, where the attraction is housed. The show, which includes life-size character models and an audiovisual presentation, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Taless shows the Wife of Bath, one of the life-size character models from the attraction in Canterbury, England,. The show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

    This undated image provided by The Canterbury Taless shows the Wife of Bath, one of the life-size character models from the attraction in Canterbury, England,. The show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales shows a costumed guide interacting with visitors at the show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church in Canterbury, England. The show, which includes life-size character models and an audiovisual presentation, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

    This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales shows a costumed guide interacting with visitors at the show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church in Canterbury, England. The show, which includes life-size character models and an audiovisual presentation, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)

  • FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows the congregation lining up to enter Canterbury Cathedral for the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby in Canterbury, England. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)

    FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows the congregation lining up to enter Canterbury Cathedral for the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby in Canterbury, England. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)

  • his undated image provided by Visit Britain shows Canterbury Cathedral looming over the rooftops and buildings of Canterbury, England. The ancient cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in 1107, remains a major pilgrimage site and tourist attraction, visited by a million people a year. (AP Photo/Visit Britain)

    his undated image provided by Visit Britain shows Canterbury Cathedral looming over the rooftops and buildings of Canterbury, England. The ancient cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in 1107, remains a major pilgrimage site and tourist attraction, visited by a million people a year. (AP Photo/Visit Britain)

  • FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows Archbishop of Canterbury Most Reverend Justin Welby during a service inside Canterbury Cathedral for his enthronement in Canterbury, England. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Dominic Lipinski, File)
  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales, a show in Canterbury, England, shows a group of visiting children in medieval costumes looking at the attraction’s life-size character models. The show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)
  • FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows a procession of religious representatives entering Canterbury Cathedral for the enthronement ceremony of Britain's new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in Canterbury, England. Welby is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and serves as head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the world's Anglican Communion. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
  • This undated image provided by Visit Canterbury shows the Stour river running through the city of Canterbury, England. Visitors can hire small boats, usually with an oarsman, for a guided tour. Canterbury  Cathedral has been a pilgrimage site for centuries and still attracts a million visitors a year. (AP Photo/Visit Canterbury)
  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales, a show in Canterbury, England, shows the exterior of St. Margaret’s Church, where the attraction is housed. The show, which includes life-size character models and an audiovisual presentation, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)
  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Taless shows the Wife of Bath, one of the life-size character models from the attraction in Canterbury, England,. The show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)
  • This undated image provided by The Canterbury Tales shows a costumed guide interacting with visitors at the show, which takes place in St. Margaret’s Church in Canterbury, England. The show, which includes life-size character models and an audiovisual presentation, depicts “The Canterbury Tales” stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century about the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. (AP Photo/The Canterbury Tales)
  • FILE - This March 21, 2013 file photo shows the congregation lining up to enter Canterbury Cathedral for the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby in Canterbury, England. It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was viciously killed by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine. (AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)
  • his undated image provided by Visit Britain shows Canterbury Cathedral looming over the rooftops and buildings of Canterbury, England. The ancient cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in 1107, remains a major pilgrimage site and tourist attraction, visited by a million people a year. (AP Photo/Visit Britain)

After nearly 1,000 years, murder in the cathedral is still luring visitors to Canterbury.

It was in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1107 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was killed, viciously, by four knights who believed they were doing the bidding of King Henry II. As a result, Becket became a martyr and the cathedral a place of pilgrimage to his shrine.

The homicide was the subject of Murder in the Cathedral, a verse drama by T.S. Eliot, and was more famously immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century work, The Canterbury Tales, told in now obsolete Middle English, which focused on one such journey in what had become an annual spring pilgrimage:

And specially from every shires ende

Of Englande to Caunterbury they wende,

The holy blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

It is said that 100,000 pilgrims made their way to the cathedral in 1420, including, as the poem says in its last line, the sick (seeke) whom the shrine cured (hath holpen, or helped). Today, Canterbury Cathedral draws one million visitors a year.

Chaucer’s pilgrims made the journey on horseback; today’s visitors are more likely to arrive by plane and car, train or bus from London or Dover. With its sites, shops, and restaurants, pubs and tea rooms concentrated largely in its Old Town area, Canterbury is a comfortable walking city. It is relatively small, with a population of about 150,000.

The Stour river runs through the city and at some points is navigable for small boats. Rowboats and punts (flat-bottomed boats such as gondolas) can be hired, generally with a local university student serving as oarsman and guide. Kent University and other schools contribute to a large local student population.

But by far the biggest tourist attraction is Canterbury Cathedral, founded in the year 597. (There is an entrance fee for visitors.) It is a marvelous edifice on spacious property that also houses some buildings of the King’s School, a renowned secondary school.

The exterior of the cathedral, an impressive 236 feet high, reflects Romanesque, English Gothic and Gothic architectural styles, with round and pointed arches, blind arcades, and pinnacles of the 14th-century perpendicular Gothic nave.

The Trinity Chapel was built specifically for the Shrine of St. Thomas, which stood from 1220 to 1538, when it was destroyed on orders of King Henry VIII. The floor of the current chapel has a set of inlaid marble roundels representing zodiac signs, months, virtues and vices. A lone candle marks the spot of the shrine.

UNESCO World Heritage sites in Canterbury include the cathedral along with St. Augustine’s Abbey (mostly the ruins of the monastery where St. Augustine’s monks lived) and St. Martin’s Church, England’s oldest working parish church. Another popular tourist site is the Norman Canterbury Castle, or at least its remains. The castle was one of three original royal castles of Kent, built soon after the Battle of Hastings on the main Roman road from Dover to London. This was the route taken by William the Conqueror in 1066.

The medieval St. Margaret’s Church now houses “The Canterbury Tales,” an audio-visual presentation of five tales (in modern English) from Chaucer’s most colorful characters, using life-sized character models: the miller, knight, nun’s priest, wife of Bath and pardoner, with live guides at the start (Tabard Inn) and end (shrine of Thomas Becket).

There is, however, little other evidence of Chaucer in Canterbury, aside from this shortened retelling at The Canterbury Tales – and a pub by that name.

Another famous literary name with a connection to Canterbury is Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan poet and playwright (”Hero and Leander,” “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”) who was born in Canterbury in 1564 and attended King’s School there. The city’s modern theater house is named for him and his death is noted at the clock tower of St. George’s Church. Marlowe was baptized in the church, but its clock tower is all that survived German bombs in World War II. The house believed to be where the Marlowes lived for the early years of Christopher’s life also was destroyed in a German air raid in 1942. In front of the present Marlowe Theatre is a 19th-century statue of a Muse (Marlowe is known as the Muses’ darling) surrounded by small effigies of characters from Marlowe’s plays.

All in all, Canterbury proved itself to be a charming and comfortable small city, but it has a big history.

If You Go...

CANTERBURY: Canterbury is 15 miles from Dover, where ferries depart for France. London’s Heathrow Airport is about 60 miles northwest, Gatwick Airport about an hour’s drive. Canterbury.co.uk/canterbury-district/Canterbury.aspx.

CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL: In Canterbury, England, canterbury-cathedral.org. Open weekdays and Saturdays 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (closes at 5 p.m. in winter), crypt 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. with last entry a half-hour before closing time; Sundays, including crypt, 12:30-4:30 p.m. Adults, 10.50 pounds, children under 18, 7 pounds. Check website for guided tour times.

CANTERBURY TALES: Audiovisual presentation of The Canterbury Tales at St. Margaret’s Church, canterburytales.org.uk. Open daily, check website for times, which vary by month. Adults, 8.75 pounds, children 5-15, 6.75 pounds.

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