A major Anglo-Saxon cathedral has been revealed – directly under the flagstones of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To everyone’s surprise, the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral was almost as big as its Norman successor.
The discovery was made in the course of a major project to re-floor the nave of Canterbury Cathedral. The nave is one of the great glories of perpendicular architecture, built by Henry Yevele from 1377 to 1405, but the floor paving had become broken and even dangerous and so the Dean and Chapter wanted to replace it and at the same time install a new heating system as well as ducts for modern services. They therefore called in the Canterbury Archaeological Trust under the direction of Paul Bennett and Kevin Blockley to carry out the work, with Martin Biddle, the cathedral archaeologist as their consultant.
Hitherto nothing had been known of the position of the Saxon Cathedral; was it under the present cathedral? Or, as at Winchester, was it beside it? Did anything survive at all? Historical sources record that the Saxon cathedral was burnt down in a terrible fire in 1067 and was rebuilt by the new Norman Archbishop Lanfranc whose plan forms the basic outline of much of the cathedral that we see today. But where was the Saxon cathedral?
As excavations continued along the west and east ends of the nave and along the north aisle, masonry fragments combined to form a ground plan for one of the largest Anglo-Saxon cathedrals in England, and a structure ranking amongst the great cathedrals of Northern Europe! The walls of the final phase of the Anglo-Saxon church lay parallel to the Norman cathedral, but the latter had evidently been built just five metres to the south so as to avoid the earlier foundations.
At the very end of the Saxon period, there was a major reconstruction at the west end. At this time “westworks” were the fashion through northern Europe, and Canterbury joined in the fashion. At the very end, a deep apse was constructed, while to the south, a hexagonal stair tower was erected. The apse had a polygonal external face, seen in the foundations and continued up in ashlar, whilst the inner face was smoothly rounded.
This final phase is similar to Ottonian Romanesque churches of mid-tenth to early-eleventh century date, and may have been built by Archbishops Lyfing (1013-20) or Aethelnoth (1020-38). Parallels are known at Mainz, Hildersheim, Gernrode, and Trier (to name but a few).
Plan of the Saxon cathedral
The final phase, seen above, is the apse at the west end, seen here marked out in black.
However at the centre of the church, slighter evidence was revealed of earlier phases, the earliest of which may date to soon after the conversion, in 597.
In the second phase, the cathedral was extended to a basilican form (as shown in the cross hatching), while in the final 11th century phase it takes a symmetrical form, with apses at both ends.
The Historical evidence
Eventually we were able to distinguish four main phases of Anglo Saxon work from the foundations uncovered.
The earliest phase was represented by four short stretches of wall situated near the east end of the nave. The big question is whether this was the original church of St Augustine. Bede records that St Augustine ‘recovered a church which had been built of old by the work of Roman Christians’. This is an old problem, for if he re-used a Roman church, then presumably it was on the Roman alignment, and not east-west. However there can be little doubt that the first phase church found beneath the cathedral is of Anglo-Saxon date, built from Roman materials.
The second phase saw a major change: the early church was demolished, and a large basilican-style cathedral was constructed. The final phase, at the very end of the Saxon period, saw a major reconstruction at the west end. At this time “westworks” were the fashion through northern Europe, and Canterbury joined in the fashion.
How far can these archaeological features be tied up with the historical sources? We are fortunate to have an eye-witness account of the pre-conquest cathedral by Eadmer, a monk at the cathedral. He was only seven years old at the time of the fire in 1067, and he wrote when approaching his 60th year. His interest was mainly in noting location of altars, relics and tombs, but enough description of the fabric was included which fits well with the excavated remains.
The earlier history of the cathedral is scanty, but it is tempting to assign the second phase to Arch-bishop Wulfred (805-32) and the subsequent rebuild to Archbishop Oda (942-58). They are both known to have undertaken substantial building work on the cathedral.
The date of the final phase is also dubious. In 1011, a Danish raid, led by Thorkell the Tall and his brother Hemming plundered and burnt the city and cathedral, and Archbishop Alphege was dragged off to their camp at Greenwich where he refused to be ransomed, so the Danes threw ox-bones at him in a drunken orgy and killed him. He thereby became a martyr, and was indeed Canterbury’s most successful martyr until surpassed by an even more obstinate character, – Thomas Becket. Did the final phase form part of the refurbishment of the cathedral following this raid?
After the fire of 1067 the church was not rebuilt until after the arrival of Archbishop Lanfranc in 1070. Eadmer tells us that relics and the remains of saint were removed from the eastern end of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral and stored at the western end whilst work started on the Norman cathedral. This is supported by the archaeological evidence. It is evident that the Norman cathedral was set just to the south in order to avoid the earlier foundations wherever possible.
The excavations were funded by the Dean and Chapter, and their encouragement helped greatly in the success of the discoveries.
This account is a shortened version of the full account given in Current Archaeology 136