If you are like us, then you don’t like the idea of paying admission to enter a church. Donate, fine, but it’s the principle of charging admission. Not all UK churches charge, but the touristy ones do, like Canterbury Cathedral, and it’s not cheap. We’ve been to Canterbury several times, but never went in the cathedral because of this. It used to be free to walk the grounds, known as the Precincts. Not anymore.
So, why did we pay the fee to visit Canterbury Cathedral this time, and was it worth it?
Over the years we’ve come to appreciate UK churches and cathedrals as historical museums, rather than places of worship. We don’t join a service; we go to see the art and architecture. Would we pay to go in a museum? Of course. The irony that most UK museums are free isn’t lost on us, but nonetheless.
Was it worth it? 100% yes, Canterbury Cathedral is worth the admission fee. However, we feel there are a few tips and secrets which will help you get the most of your visit to Canterbury Cathedral. The first few are useful even if you don’t go inside.
We are not sponsored by Canterbury Cathedral, we just enjoyed our visit and thought you would too.
1) Best Photo Spot of Canterbury Cathedral
Except for the crypt, you can take photos just about everywhere in Canterbury Cathedral. However, our favorite photo came from outside the grand holy walls.
We arrived early in the morning, just as the rain cleared. As we headed down Butchery Lane, towards the cathedral, the sun hit just right, illuminating the cathedral in the distance.
Even without the sun, it’s a superb spot to snap a shot of the historical tower.
2) England's Oldest Cathedrals are Neighbors
Founded around 597 AD by St. Augustine, Canterbury Cathedral stands as the oldest cathedral in the UK. However, if you’ve made it this far, it’s worth traveling an hour west to see England’s second oldest cathedral.
Founded by Bishop Justus in 604 AD, Rochester Cathedral is not as big or as elaborate as its neighbor, but it is beautiful and free to visit.
3) Get the 12-Month Ticket
As we mentioned in the intro, visiting Canterbury Cathedral isn’t cheap. However, most visitors don’t realize admission includes an annual ticket.
If you are a UK income taxpayer, just ask them to GiftAid your admission. This doesn’t cost you anything extra. When you Gift Aid admission, the “charity” receives an extra £0.25 back from your HRMC taxes for every £1 you donate. In exchange for letting them call your admission fee a “donation,” Canterbury Cathedral gives you an annual ticket.
Even if you are not a UK taxpayer you can still get the annual ticket. You will need to ask for the Annual Ticket form. Fill it in with your name and address. Then get it validated at the cashiers.
Tickets are non-transferable and you will need to show ID when you use it in the future.
4) Look Out for the Queen
On the west side of Canterbury Cathedral, 55 statues adorn the niches of the building’s facade.
The original statues that sat in these niches were built in the 1460’s. By the mid-1800’s, many were badly damaged and needed replacing. In 1863, the church went through the effort of hiring a Belgian sculptor to replace the statues.
Most of the statues are in the likeness of former archbishops, kings, and queens. Some you may have heard of include Saint Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, King Henry VIII, and Queen Victoria.
The newest additions include Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, added in 2015.
5) Speak with the Volunteers
One of the best tips we can give you is to speak with a few of the knowledgeable volunteers. You’ll recognize them by their yellow sashes. These folks are walking history books who will delightfully point out hidden gems you’re bound to miss.
Normally, there’s a volunteer handing out pamphlets just as you walk in the Nave. Ask them if there are any mini-talks happening during your visit. The volunteers run short 15-minute talks. They are free to join, and subjects vary by the volunteer’s interest and knowledge.
Canterbury Cathedral also runs paid tours on the cathedral’s history and another on the stained-glass windows.
6) Story Time: More to the Martyrdom than the Guidebook Says
In 1170, the infamous murder of Thomas Becket, the former archbishop, took place at Canterbury Cathedral.
The young Thomas Becket and the future King Henry II were close friends. When they got older, Henry helped Thomas become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry then wanted Thomas’ help to curb the power of the church. However, Thomas disagreed on the division of power between the King and the Church.
The disagreement got so bad that Thomas had to leave England. Eventually he returned after Pope Alexander III stepped in to settle the dispute.
Thomas wasn’t back long before he once again angered King Henry II by excommunicating three bishops loyal to the King.
King Henry II was in France at a Christmas party when he received the news. Rumors vary on what he said. Canterbury Cathedral quotes it as, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Whatever he said, motivated four knights to go to Canterbury Cathedral in search of Thomas. At the bottom of the stairs, in what’s now called the Martyrdom, the gory murder took place.
One of the wonderful volunteers told us this story. Then she took us over to the shrine in the Martyrdom. She pointed to a small square of white marble on the floor. Cracked and imprinted with a skull, it was stained red at the upper corner.
She had recently read a passage stating the original floor of Canterbury Cathedral was white marble. Only then did she finally notice this single piece of marked marble. Make of it what you will.
7) 400 Years Later Thomas Becket Angers Henry VIII
After his murder, Thomas Becket became a saint and a martyr. Pilgrims came from around the world to pay tribute to the shrine of Saint Thomas, once held in the Trinity Chapel.
Today, only a single burning candle sits where Thomas’ shrine once was.
Thomas was remembered as someone who lost their life opposing royal authority.
After declaring himself the head of the Church of England, in 1538 Henry VIII had the shrine of Thomas Becket destroyed. He saw Thomas as a traitor, and a threat to his authority over the church. He declared Thomas a banned saint and tried to erase him from history.
It also gave Henry a great opportunity to claim the jewels and wealth around the shrine for the crown.
8) Stories in the Stained Glass
Like many historical churches, you’ll notice most of the stained glass throughout Canterbury Cathedral contains pictures.
According to the Cathedral, many pilgrims were illiterate. The stained glass was a way to pass on the stories.
One of the volunteers pointed out the panes in the Chapter House that tell the story of King Henry II begging for forgiveness.
After the death of Thomas Becket, King Henry II undertook a pilgrimage to ask forgiveness for Thomas’ murder. The King walked barefoot through Canterbury, only wearing a sackcloth. Upon reaching Becket’s tomb, the monks beat the King and he spent the night on the Cathedral floor.
To learn more, there’s a great book on the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral. Or you can join one of the tours at the Cathedral.
9) Don't Miss St. Gabriel's Chapel
Down in the crypt, the St. Gabriel’s Chapel is easy to miss, but you’ll regret it.
In the 1950s, the church discovered some of the oldest Christian murals hidden behind a wall. Dated to the 12th century, the murals depict scenes like the Archangel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist.
Also note the beautiful carvings on the stone pillars.
Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed in the crypt.
10) One of Britain's First Running Water Supplies
To see this one, you will need to go outside to the back of the cathedral.
Not only is it a great view, but you’ll also notice a circular stone tower with glass windows. This was once the Water Tower.
Built in the 12th century by Prior Wibert, the Romanesque tower brought water via lead pipes from a spring just outside Canterbury.
This helped the monks wash up at the beginning of each day and before meals.
Where to Stay in Canterbury
- The Maidens Chambers – Built in the 1400’s, the Maidens Chambers are full of old-world quirky character with uneven floors and original features. With only a 10-15 minute walk into the city, this hotel is great value. Its convenient location is next to Canterbury East Train Station, though surprisingly not noisy. Plus, it even has free parking for those with a car. Stairs are required, so keep that in mind.
- Cathedral Gate – Right in the heart of Canterbury, this hotel also dates to the 1400’s. Another hotel with wooden beams, slanted floors, tons of character, and lots of old stairs. However, you’ll be so close to the attractions you won’t need to do much walking. They don’t have free parking, but they do have an excellent breakfast included.
We hope you enjoy your visit to Canterbury Cathedral as much as we did.
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