Friends of Canterbury Cathedral

The Friends have raised some £15 million towards projects as diverse as the purchase of a minibus for the choristers, the conservation of rare books in the library, the restoration of the splendid Tudor gatehouse, and the creation of a new garden in the cathedral precinct.

The 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170 placed Canterbury Cathedral in the spotlight last year (see CA 364 and 376), so it is appropriate that we take a closer look. But there is another reason why we feature the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral (FsoCC) in this month’s ‘Odd Socs’ column: FsoCC is the kind of organisation that all places of worship are going to need if they are to escape the fate of redundancy and closure over coming decades – a dedicated and energetic group of heritage volunteers playing a vital role in preserving the building and its furnishings for future generations.

Canterbury Cathedral’s enormous crypt, dating from c.1100, was the only part of the building that Becket would have known and the only part that survived the fire of 1174. The crypt is famous for the lively but enigmatic capitals, described in the Buildings of England volume for East Kent as ‘the most ambitious, most finely conceived, and… best preserved Early Romanesque sculpture in the country’.

FsoCC was founded in 1927 as a ‘channel for people to show their support’ and claims to be the first organisation of its kind in the UK, which is appropriate for a cathedral that is also the mother church of the worldwide Anglican communion. So far, the Friends have raised some £15 million towards projects as diverse as the purchase of a minibus for the choristers, the conservation of rare books in the library, the restoration of the splendid Tudor gatehouse, and the creation of a new garden in the cathedral precinct. Since 2014, they have contributed more than 10% of the £24.7m needed for the ‘Canterbury Journey’ project, which has to-date created a new visitor centre, carried out urgent masonry and stained-glass repairs, and conducted a graffiti project that has already recorded over 1,000 examples of medieval marks in the crypt, where Becket’s shrine was located until its translation to the Trinity Chapel of the newly built cathedral in 1220.

St Michael’s Chapel is also known as the Warriors’ Chapel because of the many soldiers buried there, including William Prude (shown on the left), who died fighting for William of Orange’s grandfather at the Siege of Maastricht on 12 July 1632, and Thomas Thornhurst, who died at La Rochelle in 1627 during the Huguenot rebellion against the French Crown.

The Canterbury Journey project has also revived the role of the cathedral as the start- or end-point of several pilgrimage routes, including the 2,000km ‘Road to Rome’ (also known as the Via Francigena), which is rapidly emerging as a popular alternative to the overcrowded Compostela route and, as the major pilgrimage route to Rome from England, France, and Germany, is documented as early as AD 725. Today’s route is based on the journey recorded by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury from 990 to 994, who travelled to Rome, as was traditional for archbishops, to receive his vestments from the Pope.

Among the many and varied graffiti left by medieval and later pilgrims is this caricature of a man wearing a cap with earflaps, carved into the wall of the northern staircase to the crypt.

In return for their modest subscriptions, the Friends enjoy a lively programme of specialist guided tours, lectures, musical events, dinners, and coffee mornings, plus twice-yearly newsletters and an annual magazine.

Further information: www.canterbury-cathedral.org/support-us/friends/

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IMAGES: Kate Owen.