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Christ Church Gate, Canterbury Cathedral

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Christ Church Gate, a Grade I listed building, was analysed, and recorded in some detail by the Trust in 2009, in anticipation of its restoration. The gate, completed c 1520, forms the main entrance into the cathedral precincts and is one of Canterbury’s most celebrated and photographed buildings.

Christchurch Gate
The Christ Church Gate in the mid-to-late twentieth century (CPL: CCG 2066A).

Restoration of its fabric would not, however, start in earnest until the end of 2020. A watching brief, to be maintained by the Trust, formed part of the works, in order that any new evidence for the construction and development of the gate, that might be revealed, could be recorded.

One of the first elements of the building to be repaired was its roof. The temporary rubberised sheet that had covered this since the 1980s was first removed, then the underlying boards, to expose the roof structure. Unfortunately, the framing was found to be in poor condition, the timbers decayed in many areas, the central beam of particularly concern, its ends completely rotted away, the beam in danger of collapse. Dendrochronological analysis of the timbers provided a felling date range of c 1507–21, confirming this was the original roof.

Evidently, the roof had been repaired in the mid to late eighteenth century. New rainwater gulleys had been formed down its east and west sides at this time, to improve rainwater collection, by excavating narrow channels in the masonry walls. Presumably, lead hoppers and down pipes were fitted to the gate at this time.

Christchurch Gate
General view of the vault.

One part of the monument not recorded previously by the Trust was the vault over its entrance hall. Understandably, being protected from the weather, this survives in far better condition than the exterior faces of the gate, indeed, aside from a few repairs to cracked masonry, and repainting, the medieval work is well preserved and almost untouched. The vault is of ribbed lierne form and comprises Caen stone. The Trust recorded it in advance of cleaning and restoration.

Christchurch Gate
Reflected vault plan, scale 1:25 at A3, showing location of photographs and numbering of bosses and badges. (Base Survey Downland Partnership)

The most prominent feature of the vault is the great central boss, located at its centre, where the ribs converge. Its main decorative element is a large rose, with five layers of alternately red and white petals. This rests on a background of green leaves interspersed with pink flowers. A procession of animals runs through the leaves, including snails and huntsmen with hounds and horns chasing deer. A blue sky studded with gilded gold stars surrounds the scene.

Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
Central boss and radiating ribs.
Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
Central boss with deer and huntsman.
Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
Central boss showing huntsman with horn and hound.

Eight shields of arms and heraldic badges are located on the vault bosses where the ribs meet. These provide important evidence for the dating of the gate. They include the arms of Archbishop Becket (1162–1170); Cardinal Wolsey; Archbishop William Warham (1504–32) and Christ Church. The badges include a gold well; the badge of Thomas Goldwell, last prior of Christ Church (1517–40); three gold stones, the badge of Prior Thomas Goldstone II (1495–1517); a portcullis and a Tudor rose halved with a pomegranate, the badge of the united houses of Tudor and Aragon.

Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
Archbishop Becket.
Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
Cardinal Archbishop Wolsey.
Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
A gold well, badge of Prior Thomas Goldwell.
Christchurch Gate, vaulted ceiling boss
Archbishop Warham.

The vault was last cleaned and repaired in the 1930s, under the direction of W.D. Caröe, Surveyor to the Fabric. Its painted decoration was restored shortly after by Dr Ernest William Tristram. Recent analysis revealed several decorative paint schemes, some perhaps of medieval origin, preserved beneath Tristram’s work.

Rupert Austin

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