Researchers have used new evidence to create a digital reconstruction of the medieval shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, which was destroyed in the sixteenth century.
The shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral, was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in medieval England, visited for hundreds of years by those seeking miraculous healing. However in 1538 the shrine was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation.
After many years of debate among historians over how the shrine would have looked, the new, freely-viewable reconstruction uses all the available evidence to establish the most accurate recreation to-date. It is also the first reconstruction to be based upon surviving fragments of the shrine discovered in and around Canterbury Cathedral since the nineteenth century.
“Our CGI reconstruction uses all currently available evidence to reconstruct how the shrine could have looked,” said Dr John Jenkins of the University of York, who served as historical researcher on the reconstruction team. “This includes contemporary eye-witness accounts, surviving fragments and information on the materials used and the accessibility and location of the shrine within the church. While there are no exact contemporary comparators, we also looked at the work and style of the shrine’s creators and similar examples of shrines elsewhere.
“Historians have debated whether the fragments found in and around the cathedral came from St Thomas’ shrine, however the trefoil and stiff-leaf decoration on some of the fragments stylistically indicates a common origin, and they are very close in type and quality to the carved capitals of the Trinity Chapel. Within the cathedral this marble is only found in the Trinity Chapel, which surely indicates that these fragments come from St Thomas’ shrine rather than any others.”
The team’s model is based upon how the shrine would have looked in 1408, a time when the cult at Canterbury was visited by up to 100,000 pilgrims a year. The reconstruction argues that the shrine was created much earlier, between 1180 and 1220, and would have likely taken more than thirty years to build and ornament.
“We propose the shrine was a collaborative effort, with the marble base initiated and largely finished by William the Englishman and the vast expensive golden feretory brought to completion only under Elias of Dereham and Walter of Colchester almost four decades later,” adds Dr Jenkins.
The team’s model includes many other features, such as a “major finding” of iron grilles (not featured in previous reconstructions) that enclosed the shrine, and “would serve to enhance a sense of mystery” for visitors to the candle-lit shrine. Offerings in thanks for miraculous cures were attached to the grilles so that the shrine would be seen “through a curtain of proof of Thomas’s power to respond to prayer”.
The reconstruction is free to view via a video and forms part of a wider three-year AHRC-funded ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals: Past and Present‘ project. It will be used as a heritage interpretation tool to help visitors to Canterbury and its cathedral go back in time to share the experience of medieval pilgrims, whilst additionally functioning as a research tool for researchers to complete further investigation to study the look, feel, and nature of the site.
Becket was one of the most important figures in medieval Europe. He was believed to have died valiantly as a martyr, murdered by the knights of his former friend, King Henry II, while defending the rights of the Church. After his death he was quickly honoured as a saint, and was adopted as the patron saint of London, the city of his birth. This month marks the 800th anniversary of the very first jubilee of Saint Thomas’ death – a date still marked at Canterbury Cathedral.
“The murder of Thomas Becket stunned the whole of Christendom,” Dr. Jenkins notes. “All across Europe he was acclaimed as a martyr. Within ten years of his death over 700 healing miracles had been recorded at his tomb and it rapidly became one of the most important three or four European pilgrimage centres, so it is therefore appropriate that on the 800th anniversary of his shrine we publish our latest findings to explain how new discoveries have helped us create this reconstruction.”
To learn more, please visit The Becket Story website
“Modelling the Cult of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral,” by John Jenkins, is published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. Click here to read it.
Top Image: This is a CGI reconstruction of Thomas Beckets shrine. Image by John Jenkins