There has been a church on the site of Southwark Cathedral in south London since Norman times. But it was events in 1170 which really made Southwark Cathedral famous. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket had been involved in a power struggle with King Henry II. Becket was a frustrated, troublesome politician who had been shunted off into the Church. If the Church was to be Becket's domain he was determined to make it as influential as possible. King Henry, after many arguments with Becket, is supposed to have muttered a few careless words about finding someone to make the Becket problem go away. A group of headstrong knights took this as a command. On 23rd December 1170 Becket preached at Southwark Cathedral, before leaving for Canterbury Cathedral. It was here that the over zealous knights killed their troublesome archbishop. In honour of Becket, a tradition of pilgrimage then grew up, with Southwark as starting point and Canterbury as destination. This was a people's pilgrimage, not too far, and across safe country on good roads. The Church did all it could to encourage this cult, including the building of an ornate shrine to Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Becket after all was a symbol of the seniority of Church over State. His self interested stand against secular power thus became an important symbolic weapon in the Church's struggle to maintain its power.
In the fourteenth century Chaucer used a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury as a framework for his Canterbury Tales. By this time John Wycliffe was challenging Catholicism as a kind of precursor of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. The Church was struggling to remain Europe's most powerful unifying force. In this situation the symbolism of Becket's final journey, lying behind the Canterbury Tales, was even more important. But as Chaucer showed, the Church was fighting a losing battle. All of Chaucer's pilgrims go on the same pilgrimage, and they are all united in that sense; and yet in the tales there is much satire of corrupt churchmen. The togetherness of the pilgrimage is combined with growing division. This trend slowly gathered momentum, until the sixteenth century when Henry VIII changed England's religion from Catholicism to Protestantism, only for his daughter Queen Mary to change it back again. Heresy trials during Mary's reign were held at Southwark Cathedral.
Today pilgrimages continue to start from Southwark Cathedral. Close to the Cathedral is the George Inn. This old galleried inn once stood near the Tabard Inn where Chaucer's pilgrims set off on their pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Excavation at the Cathedral reveals successive building on the site, back to the Roman road which once ran from Kent to London Bridge.
Address: Southwark Cathedral, London Bridge, London SE1 9DA
Opening Times: Due to services and events, please use contact details below. Aside from casual visiting, there are also tours available, run on a Friday and a Sunday. A small fee is payable. Please use contact details to confirm that a tour is available on a particular day.
There is a shop and refectory.
Directions: Southwark Cathedral is in Montague Place just off Borough High Street in Southwark. London Bridge Underground and mainline station is close by. Click here for an interactive map centred on Southwark Cathedral.
telephone: 020 7367 67354
web site: http://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/