The medieval shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral has been recreated and the videos released 800 years to the day since his body was translated to the cathedral on July 7th, 1220. A project three years in the making, researchers teamed up with digital modelling experts to create CGI models of the four main loci of pilgrimage in Canterbury Cathedral as they would have appeared to pilgrims in the early 15th century, a period for which there are numerous sources about the practices and operation of the shrine. What’s unusual about these video models is that the focus not just on the recreated the spaces, but also on how pilgrims of different classes interacted with the shrine, relics and cathedral.
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was slain by four knights on December 29th, 1170, in the main hall of Canterbury Cathedral. Eyewitness Edward Grim wrote that the top of his skull was cut off and his brains scattered on the floor. The shock of this brutal assassination of a cleric on hallowed ground reverberated throughout Europe, and Becket was quickly considered a martyr. He was canonized a saint two years and two months after his death. In 1174, King Henry II, whose angry exclamation contra Becket had spurred the knights to commit this sacrilege, had to submit to a public act of penance at Becket’s tomb which had already become one of Christendom’s most important sites of pilgrimage.
He was buried under the floor of the eastern crypt covered by a stone slab. Two holes in the stone allowed pilgrims to kiss the tomb. The cult of Becket exploded and pilgrims visited the tomb in huge numbers over the next five decades. On the 50th anniversary of his death, July 7th 1220, Becket’s remains were translated to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel. The crown of his skull was kept in a gold reliquary in the Corona Chapel. The place of his martyrdom in the northwest transept and the original tomb were also sites of pilgrimage.
The shrine and Thomas Becket’s bones were destroyed by order of another Henry, eighth of his name, in 1538. Henry VIII went at Becket extra hard during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, even ordering the obliteration of his name, damnatio memoriae-style.
Using pre-Dissolution sources including first-hand accounts of pilgrims, archaeological materials (pilgrim badges, architectural features) and later scholarship, researchers recreated the physical sites and determined sums received at the four different stations and how well-trafficked they were. The Trinity Chapel shrine was the primary attraction, receiving by far the majority of the offerings. The Corona Chapel received the second highest sums (about 6-17%), the Martyrdom Chapel about 1-7% and the original tomb about .5-11%. The videos include people to convey how pilgrims made their offerings and moved around the sites.
Here is the digital reconstruction of Trinity Chapel, ca. 1408, viewed from the southwest.
Various pilgrim activities are taking place in the movie. A monk stands by the shrine and invites pilgrims to lay their offerings on the altar, including a merchant couple who present their child and give a candle in thanks for his deliverance from sickness, and a sea captain who gives a ring after surviving a storm. To the left of the screen, lower-status pilgrims have the miracle-stories in the windows explained to them by a clerk. Behind the shrine another monk points out the gems and precious objects to a higher-status merchant and his wife, encouraging them to add a gift of their own. In the niches around the marble tomb base other pilgrims pray to St Thomas on their knees.
This is the reconstruction of the Corona Chapel.
The Corona Chapel held a golden head reliquary, containing a piece of St Thomas’s skull that had been hacked off at his martyrdom. This reliquary had been remade in gold and studded with jewels in 1314. The popularity of pilgrim badges showing the head suggest it was a popular attraction within the Cathedral, but its small size and high value meant most pilgrims would only have been able to see it from afar.
The movie below shows the Countess of Kent, who has been invited by the Prior to a private ceremony. He removes the head reliquary from its display case, opens the top to reveal the relic inside, and offers it to the Countess to kiss. Her retinue of ladies-in-waiting look on, and pilgrims may have congregated outside the chapel to catch a glimpse of proceedings.
Third is the Martyrdom Chapel, site of Becket’s murder.
Here there was a small altar that had a reliquary containing the point of the sword which had cut into his head. The flagstones were said to bear the marks of his final footprints, and pilgrims came to kiss them.
The scene shows a mass on the morning of the Feast of the Martyrdom (29th December). On the eve of the feast a handful of hardy pilgrims were allowed to stay overnight in the Cathedral, swapping stories about Becket and eating and drinking around a fire. At dawn they went to the first of three Masses in the Martyrdom.
Last but not least is the original tomb where Thomas Becket’s body was kept for 50 years.
Even after the Translation, the now-empty tomb continued to be venerated as a site which had held the saint’s body – mostly likely by the long-term sick, who could stay without causing disruption to the activities in the cathedral.
A number of particularly ill or disabled pilgrims sit in long vigils around or at the empty tomb, while a clerk looks on to protect the valuables and aid those in need. To the left, a group of lower-class carers have formed a support group to discuss issues in caring for their sick relatives. As at the main shrine, a number of offerings in wax or crutches and other proofs of cure can be seen hanging around the tomb as proof of the saint’s power.