Visiting the cathedral

The Pilgrim Experience in the Cathedral

It was expected that pilgrims should have fasted overnight and confessed their sins to a priest before going to the shrine, preparing their mind and body for contact with the saint. The cathedral opened its doors at 5am in summer and 6am in winter to admit pilgrims, and most would have come during the morning before lunch. On entering the cathedral through the south-west door of the nave they were blessed  with holy water by a monk or priest. Recent research has shown that most pilgrims went directly to the main shrine of St Thomas Becket in the Trinity Chapel at the east end, and then afterwards to some of the many other shrines, relics, holy images, and altars in the cathedral. There were four main sites associated with Thomas Becket: the main shrine, his head shrine in the Corona Chapel, the site of his martyrdom, and his original tomb. The four movies below show each of these sites as they may have looked in 1408, and explain their functions within the cathedral.

The Trinity Chapel

The movie below shows the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral, containing the shrine of St Thomas Becket, as it may have looked on a mid-morning in late summer 1408. This was the main attraction of the cult, and most pilgrims would pray and give their offering here before exploring the rest of the cathedral. At the centre of the chapel is the marble shrine base, and upon it the golden casket into which Becket's remains had been moved in 1220. The casket was often said by pilgrims to be one of the most richly decorated and bejewelled shrines in all of Europe. Above the shrine hangs a wooden cover, which was lowered and locked when the shrine was not in use to prevent thefts. By keeping the golden casket hidden under the cover outside of particular viewing times the monks of the cathedral could heighten the sense of its importance and the privilege of seeing it. small bells attached to the cables of the cover rang when it was lifted, alerting pilgrims that the casket was on view.

The iron railings all around the shrine were also for security, as well as allowing the monks to exclude pilgrims while the shrine was in use for private Masses. Attached to these railings are offerings to the shrine in thanks for cures and prayers granted by St Thomas, including items such as crutches no longer needed by those cured of leg injuries and given as proof of healing. Boards on which were written details of the miracles, and cures at the shrine are also attached to the railings. As such, the shrine and the saint were surrounded by evidence of their power.

The shrine was lit by candlelight, which would have glinted on the gold and jewels. Much of the wax for the candles was donated by pilgrims as a thank-offering or votive for their prayers to the saint. Only beeswax candles were allowed to burn in churches, giving off a sweet smell that added to the special atmosphere of the sacred place.

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.

"[a] wooden chest conceals a golden chest; when this is drawn up by ropes, it reveals inestimable treasure... When the cover was removed, we all adored...The prior pointed out each jewel by touching it with a white rod, adding its French name, its worth, and the name of the donor... he often does this."
Erasmus, 'A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake', early 16th century
C. R. Thompson, Collected Works of Erasmus 40, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 645

"[the pilgrims]...kneled adown tofore the shryne, and hertlich hir bedes
They preyd to Seynt Thomas, in such wise as they couth.
And sith, the holy relikis, ech man with his mowith
Kissid, as a goodly monke the names told and taught."

Anon., The Tale of Beryn, 'Canterbury Interlude', early 15th century
F. J. Furnivall and W. G. Stone (eds.), The Tale of Beryn, EETS E.S. 105 (1909), lines 164-167

"Clerks keep close watch over all things at the shrine... and deliver all offerings at the shrine to the shrine-keeper. Neither of them shall be away from the shrine at any time without the shrine-keepers' knowledge or without asking... Always and in every way pilgrims are to be gathered together, spoken to, and answered in all gentleness, friendliness, and seriousness."
The Customary of the Shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury, 1428
BL Add MS 59616 fo. 4r

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.

"First is shown the martyr's skull, pierced through. The top of the cranium is bared for kissing; the rest covered with silver"
Erasmus, 'A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake', early 16th century
C. R. Thompson, 'Collected Works of Erasmus' 40, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 642

"[The Lady of Montreuill], her gentilwomen, and the French Ambassadour, whent to the Church [of Canterbury], where I showed here ... Saint Thomas hed, being ... sett cousshins to knyle, and then Pryour, opening Sainct Thomas hed, saing to her 3 tymes 'This is Saint Thomas Hed', and offered her to kysse it."
William Penison, Letter to Thomas Cromwell, 1538
State Papers of Henry VIII (1830) Volume I, Part II, 583-4

"For ornamenting the 'corona' of St Thomas with gold and silver and precious stones, £115 12s..."
Register of Prior Henry Eastry, 1314

The Martyrdom

The Martyrdom Chapel was the 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.

"On the night before the Feast of the Martyrdom of St Thomas [29th December]... the shrine-keepers, moved by pity, open the doors to the people who have kept a devoted watch through the night and let them enter. Many of them, moved with greater devotion, arrive eager to hear the life and works of the glorious martyr Thomas, which are usually read in the mother tongue, and they store them in their attentive minds and pious hearts. This having finished, the two clerks serve the people, who may be wearied by toil, drawing them to the heat of the fire that they have prepared, soothing them, and serving them sufficient bread, cheese, and ale. When the hour of Matins is nearly finished in the oratory, the shrine-keepers once again close the gates of the shrine, and after Mass at the martyrdom has finished and Mass at the tomb of St Thomas is almost over, the shrine-keepers through a sign make it known to the people that a third Mass is celebrated in the shrine."
The Customary of the Shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury, 1428
BL Add MS 59616 fo. 6v

" goes into a small crypt like a chapel where St Thomas was martyred. They show the sword with which his head was struck off. They also show a notable piece of the Holy Cross, also one of the nails and the right arm of the beloved knight St George, and in a monstrance some thorns from the Crown of Thorns."
Gabriel Tetzel von Nuremburg, 1466
M. Letts (ed.), The travels of Leo of Rozmital through Germany, Flanders, England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, 1465-1467 (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1957), 44

St Thomas' Tomb

Between Becket's martyrdom in 1170 and his Translation to the shrine in the Trinity Chapel in 1220, his body lay in a marble tomb in the crypt. 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.

"...we went down into the crypt. It has its own custodians....The hair-shirt, girdle, and drawers by which the bishop used to subdue his flesh hang in the gloom there - horrible even to look at and a reproach to our softness and delicacy."
Erasmus, 'A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake', early 16th century
C. R. Thompson, 'Collected Works of Erasmus' 40, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 642

"...a wall of large dressed stones was constructed around the marble sarcophagus . . . with two windows on either side, through which visitors could put their heads inside and kiss the sarcophagus; and so because a large marble slab was placed on top..."
Benedict of Peterborough, 'Miracles of St Thomas', 1170s
J. Robertson (ed.), 'Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury' (London: John Murray, 1876), vol. 2, 81

For more information about the models see:


In origin a Germanic word meaning a chest or reliquary, this term describes something which contains a sacred object. It can thus be applied to an elaborate tomb around the body of a saint, a cabinet containing a relic or to the whole architectural complex where such a body or relic rests.


Someone who journeys to holy places (such as biblical sites or shrines of the saints) to seek God's help, to give thanks, or as an act of penance.


An event evoking wonder, in which a person is believed to be the agent of God's power. In the Bible. miracles tend to be associated with key people at critical periods of history, such as the Exodus. the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles.  


(Also called the Eucharist. Holy Communion or Lord's Supper). The chief sacramental service of the Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest. recalling the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper and commemorating the sacrifice which he offered for the sins of mankind on the cross. In the medieval Church the Mass was celebrated daily; it was also offered for the souls of the dead.  


The central aisle in a church, often used for processions. Also the area used by the congregation during worship.


In an abbey. the second in command after the abbot. In a religious house that was not an abbey (e.g., in a priory), the head of the house.

Pilgrim Badge

These souvenir badges, often mass-produced in pewter, were bought by pilgrims when they arrived at their destination. These badges were often worn, but could be attached to personal possessions such as books of prayers. They often depicted the relics or miraculous images visited. In many instances they are the only surviving visual record of important cult images or objects.


In the context of the study of the Middle Ages this phrase is used to describe the devotion which develops around and is focused on a saint or their relics. A cult may be expressed by ritual, festivals. art, architecture, prayers and writings.


Receptacle for relics of a saint.