ALL photoS: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated

England in stone: recounting recent research at Canterbury Cathedral

Eight hundred and fifty years after Thomas Becket’s martyrdom within the walls of Canterbury Cathedral, major works have shed vivid light on how the religious building has been used over the centuries. Nathalie Cohen shares some of the highlights.


The evolutions and revolutions of history have been written into the very structure and stonework of our great cathedrals. They have seen everything come and go. Their patient stability reminds us that life always adapts and carries on… Now they stand sleeping, waiting for us all to return to them, both to mourn and to rejoice, when this time has passed.

Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner, March 2020

Occupying a quarter of the walled city of Canterbury, the built and buried heritage of Canterbury Cathedral and its precincts is undeniably significant. It is part of a World Heritage Site, an Area of Archaeological Importance, and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, while there are dozens more listed buildings across its environs. Given this rich history, it is genuinely hard to know where to begin to write an article about the Cathedral – particularly one written during what is surely one of the strangest periods of the site’s long history as a place of pilgrimage and congregation, when gathering in groups for visiting and worship is forbidden.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated
Overlooking Canterbury Cathedral from the Christ Church Gate: extensive conservation and restoration works to the inside and outside of the religious building has provided the opportunity for illuminating archaeological investigations.

From 18th-century antiquarian studies to investigations by modern experts, years of exploration across the precincts and within the Cathedral itself have revealed a host of clues to the complex history and archaeology of this sacred space (see, for example, CA 136). There are still new secrets to reveal, however, and the latest intriguing insights have emerged thanks to a major five-year conservation project, ‘The Canterbury Journey’. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, this initiative includes repairs to the exterior fabric of the Nave and Western Towers; conservation of the Christ Church Gate; wide-ranging landscaping and infrastructure works; and the creation both of new exhibition spaces to display previously unseen collection items (within the Water Tower, the Crypt Treasury, and the Library Undercroft) and of facilities such as a new visitor centre, shop, and community studio.

This phase plan, drawn by W D Caröe in 1925, shows the layout of Canterbury Cathedral. IMAGE:

Other ongoing projects, including the installation of a new Quire Organ and Loft (‘The Canterbury Voice’), and providing lift access in the Cloister, have offered further opportunities to examine and document some of the Cathedral’s less well-known areas, and we will explore some of the initial findings here. This year also marks a number of significant milestones for Canterbury Cathedral: it is thought to be 900 years since Thomas Becket was born in London, 850 years since his martyrdom in the North-west Transept of the Cathedral in AD 1170, and 800 years since his remains were moved (or ‘translated’) from his original tomb to the Trinity Chapel. To begin, then, let’s briefly explore Becket’s story in relation to the archaeology of the Cathedral, along with some of the research projects that relate to these significant anniversaries.

Becket and the building

The murder of an archbishop within his own cathedral sent shock waves through late 12th-century England and beyond, and the locations of both Becket’s martyrdom and his initial resting place in the crypt of Holy Trinity Chapel, swiftly became sites of veneration and pilgrimage. The cathedral quickly adapted to accommodate this new footfall: a newly published study (by Carolyn Marino Malone) examining moulded stones that had been reused in the Cloister suggests that elaborately decorated screens were erected in the 1170s to provide suitable routes for visitors around these significant spaces.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated
A reconstruction of Trinity Chapel, once home to a grand shrine housing the remains of the murdered archbishop and saint Thomas Becket (d.1170), as it looked c.1408.

Four years after Becket’s death, another catastrophe struck the cathedral, when a devastating fire destroyed a large part of the east end. The monastic community was not dismayed, however, using the damage as an opportunity for rebuilding on a grand scale during the late 12th to early 13th centuries (led by the master masons William of Sens and, later, William the Englishman). In 1220, Becket’s body was finally moved to an ornate new shrine in the Trinity Chapel; recent research by Leonie Seliger and Rachel Koopmans has shown that stained-glass panels in the chapel’s Miracle Windows, previously thought to be the work of Victorian restorers, in fact date to the late 12th century, making them the earliest-known works of art depicting pilgrims travelling to Canterbury.

The splendour of this space has now been digitally recreated by the Centre for Christianity and Culture at York University, who have reconstructed the Eastern Arm of the Cathedral as it looked c.1408. Becket’s bejewelled shrine, together with the chapel’s colourful stained glass, marble columns, and beautifully decorated floor must have astounded the medieval pilgrims who made their way to the site. Tangible traces of their visits can be found in Canterbury and beyond, thanks to the discovery of hundreds of pilgrim badges reflecting the widespread cult of Becket during the medieval period. One such badge, a rare openwork example believed to depict the archbishop’s martyrdom (dating from c.1300-1500 and found on the foreshore of the Thames in London), will be displayed at the Cathedral in the crypt as part of a new exhibition.

The Canterbury Voice

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
The East End of the Cathedral was rebuilt on a grand scale during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, following a fire that destroyed much of this part of the building.

As for recent archaeological work inside the Cathedral, the construction of a new Organ Loft in the North Quire Aisle saw Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) investigating beneath the paving of the historic floor (which had last been disturbed by the installation of heating pipes in 1948), while Matthew Champion carried out a graffiti survey on the pre-Reformation plastered elevation of the early 14th-century Eastry Screen. Multiple inscriptions were seen to have survived across the plaster, including names, initials, and dates spanning the 17th to 20th centuries, as well as late medieval abbreviated Latin text, and at least 20 compass-drawn designs, which could represent astronomical drawings.

There has also been archaeological recording and graffiti survey in the North and South Quire triforia (roof spaces) by Rupert Austin of CAT prior to the installation of the organ itself, while dendrochronological analysis (dating using tree-rings) of timbers in the North Triforium roof has provided a felling date range of AD 1160-1192. This is an exciting result: it demonstrates that this part of the structure is a survival of the work of master mason William of Sens – probably the only fragment of his quire roof of c.1180 to be identified, and possibly all that remains of this once impressive structure.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
Recovered from the Thames foreshore in London, this pilgrim badge dates from c.1300-1500, and is believed to depict the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Photo: Hannah Smiles.

Over in the earlier Organ Loft in the Pulpitum (or Quire Screen), the removal of the organ console, electrical components, and furniture has allowed us to see physical traces of developments that are documented in medieval records. These attest to alterations to the original 12th-century structure in the late 13th century with the addition of wooden doors, while previously recorded changes in the early 14th century by Prior Henry Eastry (d. 1331; he built the choir screen mentioned above that bears his name) remain visible in places. The west face was dismantled and replaced during the 15th century, and an organ was located here by 1508. Interestingly, this area is another graffiti ‘hotspot’, with medieval text inscriptions, ritual protection marks, and the names and dates of choristers and organ boys surviving in profusion. Finally, members of the Cathedral Archives team have been able to retrieve fragmentary paper documents ranging in date from the 18th century to the modern day, which shed vivid light on the Cathedral’s more recent life; these delicate artefacts include pieces of musical manuscripts, an auction note of 1805, and service notes.

Moving from these soaring spaces to more terrestrial matters, in early 2019 excavations in the south walk of the Great Cloister exposed and removed a section of medieval tiled floor. This was done in order to prepare the area for the installation of a new lift to enable step-free access into the Cathedral, and as CAT worked with conservators from the Cathedral and external specialists to lift the tiles, a surviving section of the Anglo-Saxon north-west tower was exposed beneath. The floor tiles are late 13th- to early/mid-14th-century in date – earlier than the construction of the upstanding Cloister masonry (1397-1414), which might suggest that they have been reused from elsewhere. Among them, one particularly interesting tile depicts a pilgrim – it was made locally at Tyler Hill, just to the north of the city, and similar examples have been found elsewhere in Kent, and as far afield as Northamptonshire.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
Extensive examples of historic graffiti have been recorded during the works in the Cathedral, including this compass-drawn design possibly a protective symbol on the Pulpitum Screen.

Working at height

There were further discoveries to come during large-scale conservation repairs to the Nave roof and the exterior masonry of the Clerestory and the western towers. These works have made possible close-up access and detailed archaeological recording by CAT of medieval and later construction phases. For example, dendrochronological sampling of reused timbers in the Victorian Nave roof produced an approximate felling date in the 1370s or 1380s, confirming that the wood had been salvaged from the medieval roof. This is slightly earlier than the date originally inferred for the roof’s construction (for example, from documentary references that mention the completion of the glazing of the Clerestory windows in 1398). Perhaps the timber was stockpiled for longer than anticipated, possibly due to an earthquake in 1382.

The late 14th century, when Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims were embarking on their own Canterbury journey, was a busy time for Christ Church Priory (the Benedictine monastery attached to the Cathedral before the Reformation). The present project has uncovered traces of major construction works under way within and without the precincts at this time, while evidence for recycled materials could also be seen in the masonry of the Nave vaults. In late 2017 and early 2018, thanks to a generous donation by the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, a photographic survey was undertaken of bosses and masons’ marks within this space. Over 900 marks were recorded altogether, suggesting that at least 55 masons had made a significant contribution to the construction of the Nave triforia, clerestory, and vault.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
Among the fragile finds recovered during the decommissioning of a former organ loft were these pieces of musical manuscripts.

Such a large number of craftsmen is consistent with both the ambitious scale and the relatively short time-frame for this enormous building project (which lasted from c.1377 to 1403). There was significant variation in how frequently different marks were used – some occurred just once, others more than 60 times – probably because masons were moved around between different building projects. Interestingly, ‘double-marking’ (combining a mason’s mark and a Roman numeral) was observed on stones used as infill for blind panels, suggesting that this masonry had been salvaged from the Norman Nave, and perhaps the extra marks (the numerals) were associated with the process of reuse.

“The late 14th century, when Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims were embarking on their own Canterbury journey, was a busy time for the Benedictine monastery.”

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
Excavation in the Cloister revealed the remains of the Anglo- Saxon north-west tower. Overlying this was a floor surface made up of 13th-/14th-century decorative tiles, including this example (BELOW) bearing the image of a medieval pilgrim.
ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.

A lease document dating to 1446 records the presence of an established masons’ lodge located to the south of the Cathedral. It describes:

a garden with the appurtenances lying below the graveyard of Christ Church Canterbury, between the tenement of the said prior and convent toward the south, and the garden and mason’s house called The Lodge to the north and east, and the tenement belonging to the Sacrist’s office aforesaid to the west.

Interestingly, we also found physical traces of what may be the remains of this kind of area – as we will explore later in this article.

Digging in the Precincts

Works around the Cathedral as part of ‘The Canterbury Journey’ have included excavations for services, for landscaping and paving, and for new structures including boundary walls and buildings. This has uncovered a remarkable span of discoveries, from Roman remains, including partial structures and demolition debris (revealed in deeper excavations for boreholes and lift-shaft works), to almost 100 medieval skeletons from the lay cemetery south of the Cathedral, which were recorded during drainage works. Modern water-management projects have also revealed aspects of their medieval and post-medieval equivalents, notably the late 15th-/early 16th-century Great Drain of Prior Goldstone, and parts of a possible conduit house that was recorded by 17th- and 18th-century antiquarians.

Other remains have been uncovered at the International Study Centre, outside Cathedral House, and in particular at the West End of the Precincts, where excavations in 2018 and 2019 revealed medieval and post-medieval structures representing the parts of the southern ranges of the Archbishop’s Palace. These included elements of its 11th-century Great Hall, medieval chalk and flint extensions (or buildings adjacent) to the palace, and later modifications in brickwork. There was also evidence for possible outbuildings, boundary walls, and external surfaces and make up-layers that had been laid and relaid many times to allow passage around the cathedral and to accommodate fairs held in the Precincts.

Scratches and Storytelling

Earlier in this article, we talked about graffiti surveys in and around the Organ Loft – just the latest addition to an enduring tradition of research. Canterbury has a long history of investigation of its graffiti and inscriptions, stretching all the way back to the late 19th century with notes and observations from Victorian antiquarians published by the Kent Archaeological Society and the Royal Archaeological Institute. Research continued through the 20th century, including a detailed survey of the East End of the cathedral undertaken during the 1960s by the Horsfall-Turner brothers, who were pupils at the neighbouring King’s School. Canterbury’s graffiti record is particularly rich – inscriptions within the Cathedral and Precincts include, but are not limited to: masons’ marks, ritual protection marks including compass-drawn designs and taper burns, the outlines of hands and feet, initials, names and dates, pictures of animals, faces, memorials, ships, text, setting-out schemes for wall paintings, and architectural inscriptions. Of these, the latter three are the most significant so far observed.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
The Nave vaults preserved traces of building materials being reused during the late 14th century.

There are numerous medieval text inscriptions surviving, most notably at the eastern end of the Cathedral, although examples have now been observed within the Nave and Precinct areas too. A particularly dense concentration of medieval inscriptions is present on the southern wall of the Trinity Chapel, located behind a pillar, and almost opposite the tomb of Edward ‘the Black Prince’ (the eldest son of Edward III; d. 1376). In this area, lines of text in different hands have been observed, and await full recording and transcription. It is perhaps significant that the masonry of the step beneath the nearby window is very eroded – might this area have once housed a now-lost altar or devotional space?

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
Archaeologists on site at the West End of the Cathedral, where excavations revealed parts of the southern ranges of the Archbishop’s Palace.

The extraordinary survival of setting-out designs in the Crypt and the East End, most likely for 12th- and 13th-century wall paintings, has been noted by many authors and scholars, but they have never been fully recorded. The most spectacular scheme, now preserved beneath a glass screen in the Eastern Crypt, was first described as long ago as 1878: ‘traced out by shallow lines filled with modern colour, Our Lord seated in glory and giving the benediction, and surrounded by the emblems of the Four Evangelists.’ Other designs that have been documented include riders on horseback, feasting scenes which may represent the Last Supper, images of the Holy Trinity, and bishops with their hands raised in benediction. There has been much study and debate over many aspects of the inscriptions, and this is likely to continue for many years into the future.

Finally, examples of architectural inscriptions have now been recorded in a number of locations across the Cathedral, and an unparalleled collection of inscriptions is visible in the Vestiarium (where vestments were kept) and Audit House Undercrofts. Located on the north side of the Cathedral, their internal wall surfaces (which are not open to the public) seem to have been used for the creation of large-scale architectural drawings, representing one of the biggest single collections of such images discovered to-date. Perhaps more significantly, the location and form of the structure lend credence to the idea that it may have once acted as a masons’ lodge. Although such lodges were most commonly temporary timber structures largely open to the elements, the semi-enclosed area at Canterbury formed the kind of more permanent workspace that would have been required at such a major site.

ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
The Trinity Chapel, opposite the Black Prince’s tomb. Its southern wall was notably busy with historic graffiti, and the step beneath a nearby window was very worn: might this area have housed a now-lost altar?
ALL photos: Canterbury Cathedral /Nathalie Cohen, unless otherwise stated.
The Eastern Crypt’s walls are inscribed with medieval ‘setting-out designs’, possibly for wall paintings. Some of these are behind glass and Perspex screens.

These inscriptions are intriguing to archaeologists, but evaluations of volunteer and visitor experiences (undertaken as part of ‘The Canterbury Journey’) highlight that engaging with historic graffiti also has positive effects for the public – something that has been established at other ecclesiastical sites too (see CA 315), and across a wide range of heritage organisations including English Heritage and the National Trust. We look forward to welcoming visitors back to the building to explore this and so many other aspects of Canterbury’s amazing archaeology.

Nathalie Cohen is the National Trust archaeologist for Kent and East Sussex, and Cathedral Archaeologist at Canterbury Cathedral.