When the Most Reverend Justin Welby sat in Canterbury Cathedral, on the 21 March 2013, all eyes were upon the new Archbishop. But on this occasion, the chair he sat in was just as important.
Named after St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury and the missionary sent by Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to Britain, the elaborate chair has been central to the installation of every Archbishop of Canterbury for the past 700 years. It is the physical representation of the cathedra – the ‘seat’ – or area – of the Diocese of Canterbury, and the Archbishop’s official throne.
Cold to the touch, and I imagine not particularly comfortable either, it is made entirely from one piece of Purbeck Marble. Which despite its name, is not strictly a marble, but a freshwater limestone filled with the calcified remains of snail shells. This gives it a wonderful fossilised appearance and, when polished, it produces a smooth and highly tactile sheen. ‘Purbeck’ comes from the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula in south-east Dorset where the stone was quarried.
Now located within the Trinity Chapel, the chair stands close to the site of St Thomas Becket’s lost tomb. It is a symbol of religious power and affords a birds-eye view of the Norman Quire. Rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1174, the Quire is filled with dark Victorian pews and an elaborately carved return screen, which displays Charles II’s coat of arms and celebrates the return of peace to the cathedral at the end of the English Civil War.
Soaring overhead, the vaulted ceilings of the 167-metre-long cathedral stretch out into the distance. They echo daily with the sounds of hymn and prayer and, earlier this year, they resonated with the sound of 2,000 guests celebrating the moment the 105th Archbishop became head of the Church of England and delivered his first sermon from this sacred chair.