On 7 July 1220, half a century after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral, the remains of Thomas Becket were carefully removed from the building’s crypt and enshrined within its Trinity Chapel, which had been purpose- built to house the archbishop’s relics. The 800th anniversary of this relocation was celebrated in 2020, and while the milestone was somewhat overshadowed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a superb exhibition at the British Museum (see CA 376), a three-day international conference, and other events all contributed significantly to scholarship relating to the life, death, and memorialisation of the assassinated archbishop.
There was one extraordinary omission, however: although a new hypothetical reconstruction of Becket’s principal shrine was attempted (CA 364), recreating how it may have looked before its destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, no archaeological assessment was offered of either of the cathedral’s chapels associated with the saint. Indeed, hardly any fresh knowledge had been accrued since Tim Tatton-Brown’s pioneering studies in the 1970s and 1980s, when he recorded the configuration of the medieval paving in both chapels, drawing attention to the fact that the site where Becket’s shrine pedestal had stood is paved with long, narrow slabs of Purbeck marble, which were formerly the steps to the podium.
What is known of the broader history of the chapels? Construction of the Trinity Chapel began in 1182; it is of three bays, apsidal, and encircled by a wide ambulatory. The westernmost bay was paved with figurative stone roundels that were later superseded by the repositioned Romanesque mosaic that I discussed in CA 397; the middle bay housed Becket’s principal shrine; and the apse held the altar of the Holy Trinity. Opening off the east side of the ambulatory is a circular, tower-like structure, known as the Corona Chapel, where a detached portion of Becket’s skull was separately enshrined – and when David Neal and I were studying the roundel and mosaic pavements, it was readily apparent that there was much more evidence relating to the historical development and use of the two chapels encapsulated in their walls and floors.
In addition to the salvaged steps previously observed by Tim Tatton-Brown, the site of the shrine podium is marked by lines of wear in the pavement, as well as two north–south bands of red marble, between which is a jumble of infilled paving, including six late 13th-century inlaid stone roundels. This positioning is initially intriguing: we would expect the shrine to have been centred on the middle bay, but the floor scars push its east end so far into the apse-bay that the whole composition appears congested and unaesthetic. However, it is now clear that we are actually looking at a later medieval extension of the podium; a surviving fragment of the red marble band forming its original eastern extremity confirms that the primary podium was indeed correctly centred. The subsequent enlargement was probably prompted by the need to house and display the superfluity of gifts and offerings with which the shrine was burdened in the Middle Ages. At the same time, the paving around the podium was reconfigured to incorporate 14 poised squares of red marble, marking seven ceremonial stations along the north and south sides. As for when these changes took place, the stratigraphic relationships between the paving and the four major tombs standing under the arcades indicate that the chapel was reordered between 1376 and 1396.
Exploring the chapel
These are not the only insights that can be gained into how the Trinity Chapel once looked. Together, archaeological and historical evidence demonstrate where the two high-level candle-beams spanning this space were fixed, and likewise the two great chains from which votive offerings were hung; even the fixings for the rails that supported the side-curtains (‘riddels’) for the Holy Trinity altar are still preserved. Equally important is a major piece of negative evidence that has previously been overlooked. It has generally been assumed that iron security screens, with lockable gates (known as ‘grates’), were fitted under all the arches of the ambulatory arcade, but there is not a shred of archaeological evidence to that effect in either the columns or floors. The same applies in the Corona Chapel, which was also definitely unscreened, although in 2020 a reconstruction showing tall iron screens filling all the bays, each fixed to the Purbeck marble columns by a dozen iron bands clamped around the shafts, was published. Apart from the fact that Gothic screens were never attached to columns by this method, the marks on the column drums that were mistaken for rust-scars are geological beds within the marble.
It is reasonable to deduce, though, that there had been a gated railing around the top of the podium, to prevent pilgrims from directly accessing the shrine, which was bedecked with priceless offerings and had to be protected from thieves. Although evidence for such a barrier has long gone, a medieval document (Customary, 1428) stresses the importance of keeping ‘the shrine precinct’ secured at all times when pilgrims were not being formally admitted. Rigorous checking had to be undertaken at closing time each day to ensure that no miscreant was hiding in the chapels, and, as a further precaution, a guard had to sleep there overnight; he was locked in and was not permitted to hold a key.
Archaeological evidence for this arrangement is still plainly visible today, but until our project it seems not to have attracted comment. The ‘shrine precinct’ described in Customary comprised the whole of the Trinity and Corona chapels, and there were three points of entry, all on the same north–south axis. One lay at the head of the sanctuary’s great stone stairway, secured by a tall iron screen that is depicted in a painting of 1657, and was only destroyed in 1748. The other two entrances were via flights of steps in the north and south quire aisles; once visitors had passed a gated screen 5m high, each led directly to the Trinity Chapel ambulatory. A wealth of archaeological evidence is visible in the walls and steps, revealing the positions of the gate stanchions and the horizontal rails. Wear patterns in the steps show that there was only a single line of foot traffic on the northern stairs, which were used by the monks. Pilgrims entered and exited the precinct via the southern stairs, where two gates were in operation, pointing to a one-way circulatory system. In the 15th century, security was increased by adding a second set of screens at the base of each of the aisle stairs.
Signs of the shrine
It has been long been lamented by scholars that no image or useful pre-Dissolution description of Becket’s shrine has survived (though, as we will discuss below, this is not in fact the case), and that certain extant architectural fragments cannot be derived from the shrine because they do not match ‘evidence’ that is supposedly supplied by depictions on pilgrim badges. Since these badges date from the 14th and 15th centuries and show generic shrines of that era, it has further been claimed that Canterbury’s early Gothic shrine, begun by 1180 and dedicated in 1220, must have been replaced at a later date by something resembling these images. Unfortunately, these arguments are all flawed, as are artistic reconstructions based on them. There is nothing to support a claim that the primary shrine pedestal was ever replaced.
What can we deduce about the shrine’s appearance from surviving evidence? When work started on the Trinity Chapel, some of its arcade columns, certain details in the ambulatory, and a red band of paving around the base of the shrine podium were made from a distinctive red laminated marble of unidentified French or Belgian origin. Various other moulded items crafted from the same marble have also been discovered, among them three highly ornate late 12th-century capitals supported by triple-shafted colonnettes; their scale points to a shrine or major tomb. The distinctive red marble is found only in the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury, and no other incidence of it has been reported in England. It was sourced by the chapel’s architect, William of Sens, for its symbolism in relation to Becket’s martyrdom, and the shipment must have arrived in Canterbury by 1179, when William relinquished his post following a serious accident.
The shrine pedestal and its setting in the chapel were designed and constructed in a French-influenced style of the 1170s, but the dedication was delayed until 1220. Fortuitously, we have a contemporaneous description of the shrine by the poet Henry of Avranches (d. 1260), who records that the saint’s body lay in a timber coffin contained within a stone sarcophagus, which was mounted on a catafalque supported by columns; atop the sarcophagus stood the gold-plated and bejewelled feretory (the container for the relics themselves). This is a readily recognisable description of a 12th-century table-shrine, and there is also a credible pre-Dissolution representation of it in the church of St Nikolai at Wismar, Germany. There, the late 15th-century altarpiece depicts Louis VII of France as a pilgrim at the shrine of St Thomas. The artist has added late medieval Germanic embellishments, but fundamentally he was representing a much earlier table-type of catafalque, supporting a sarcophagus and feretory. Had the original shrine of St Thomas been replaced by a later Gothic one, the Wismar altarpiece would not have depicted a 300-year-old structure.
As for Becket’s secondary shrine containing a detached skull fragment in the Corona Chapel, archaeological evidence shows that there was a three-stepped podium constructed against the east side of this circular space, on which an altar stood. The altar would not have been large enough to accommodate the head-shrine encased in a tabernacle; nor was there a reredos at this location that could have held it, which only leaves an independent pedestal behind the altar as the likely form of support. An account of a visit by a French aristocrat to the shrine in 1538 makes it clear that the head-reliquary was in a case, which had to be opened by the prior, and it was at a level that enabled the relic to be kissed.
In 1975, the historian William Urry opined that a 60cm-square block of red laminated marble in the cathedral collection was part of the head-shrine’s pedestal, and a fresh examination has since revealed that the block was derived from the interface between the pedestal’s upper and lower stages. The lower part would have been plain, since it was obscured from view by the altar, but the upper stage was more visible and hence was embellished with early Gothic colonnettes at the angles. The top of the pedestal would have been a slab of marble on which the highly ornate timber tabernacle stood, with doors in the west face which, when unlocked, revealed the silver-gilt head housing the skull relic. When encountering this finely wrought container, pilgrims were brought face-to-face with the murdered archbishop – and through careful consideration of the surviving archaeological evidence, we too are able to experience the shrine that memorialised him.
All Images: Warwick Rodwell, unless otherwise stated
David S Neal and Warwick Rodwell, Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel: the archaeology of the Mosaic Pavement and setting of the Shrine of St Thomas Becket (Oxbow Books, £80, ISBN 978-1789258417).