The Experience at the Shrine

Access to the Shrine

The shrine of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral. 
Wikimedia Commons
© (licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

After entering the church, and gathering in the nave, the pilgrims were either escorted by a clerical guide through the sights of the church or they were allowed to make their own way. For example, officially women were forbidden to enter the area containing the shrine precinct (feretory chapel) at Durham Cathedral, but documents record their presence at the shrine without comment.

This freedom, though, did not mean that the shrines and altars throughout the church were left unattended. Parts of the church were partitioned off with iron fencing or stone screens (only being accessible to the clergy), while other portions that were meant for pilgrims were closely guarded. Many feretory chapels with their precious reliquaries included watching chambers where clergy supervised the pilgrims below, guarding against theft of relics and donations. More commonly, shrines were tended by shrine-keepers such as those at Canterbury Cathedral. At the appropriate time, the two keepers would open the doors of the church, ringing the bells three times to alert pilgrims that the morning Mass was about to begin. They would then open the iron fencing surrounding the shrine (closing for the lunch hour) and welcome and tend to pilgrims, helping them in their prayers and gathering their donations.

Most feretory chapels like that at Canterbury were located behind the high altar. The chapels were consequently small and pilgrims were ushered in through one entrance and out through a dedicated exit. At night, when it was time to close, the shrine keepers had to shoo out any stray dogs that had wandered into the fenced-off area. By contrast those of high status could gain entrance to the shrine at any time. For example, the keeper of the shrine at Durham Cathedral was instructed to unlock the gates and uncover the shrine when prestigious pilgrims visited.

In the presence of the saint

The Shrine of St Wite in Whitchurch Canonicorum Church. 
Wikimedia Commons.
© HARTLEPOOLMARINA2014 (licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Once inside the fencing at most of the major shrines, the pilgrims saw large stone shrine bases measuring 2.45m in height with feretories placed on top to keep the jewels away from thieves. The stationary position of the shrine was emphasized by wooden or cloth covers which were winched upward on a rope attached to a pulley in the ceiling above (at Durham this was accompanied by six pealing silver bells).

The shape of the shrine base evolved to enable pilgrims to come close to the relics of the saint. In the later Middle Ages, the dividing line between relic and reliquary diminished, especially for the common pilgrims who were never permitted to handle the relics directly. For them, the visual and tactile sensations of the shrine formed their experience of the sacred. Accordingly, the shrine base needed to be functional -- having architectural features which allowed pilgrims to physically interact with the saint. The shrine base also had to be suitably symbolic, to create a context worthy of its precious load.

In England, this was achieved by making the shrine bases look like churches themselves, with the micro-architectural forms conveying an impression of grandeur and holiness. These shrines, however, did not stand alone. Over the shrine hung oil lamps, while to the side candles burned on iron racks, and incense smoldered. Looking up, the pilgrim could see the brightly painted vaults and piers and the colourful banners which fluttered above. Other jeweled reliquaries were often placed nearby on beams. For example, in 1448, the reliquary of St Fleogild was carried past the shrine of Thomas Becket to the beam between the shrine and the Corona chapel.

Votive gifts and donations

Cripples collect healing oil at the shrine of St William of York. York Minster, North Choir Transept (YM-nVII-16a (new position 15b)).
© Dean & Chapter York
Origin/Date: England, York || early 15th century

Adding to the spectacle were votive objects that covered every accessible surface: they were attached directly to the shrine, hung over beams and buttresses, or affixed to drapes. These objects expressed thanks for help received from the saint, or sometimes prayer for divine intervention. For example, wax votives (or ex votos) came in the form of all body parts, as well as anchors, sheep, crosses, and more. In France, these wax images, which were meant to help both with requests for healing and giving thanks for healing, were sold at pharmacies. Other votive objects left in gratitude spoke of pilgrims who believed they were healed through the grace of the saint. Crutches, fetters - even expurgated worms, were left as visual proof of the power of the saint.

This form of devotion filled medieval shrines with disparate objects. For instance, a minor shrine devoted to Richard Scrope in York Minster had hundreds of votive objects attached to it, including coral beads, hearts of silver, rings, precious stones, high-value coins, model bulls, ships of silver, and more. Illustrating the importance of these votives, a window in York Minster shows a beam hung with votive images of a woman's head, a leg, a hand, and a heart, while a pilgrim offers up a wax leg to the shrine of St William. Similarly, a woodcut of pilgrims adoring King Henry VI (c.1490), shows a beam and a small shelf displaying wax images, chains, and ships. Wax votives of a young woman, a horse head, and various limbs were found in Exeter Cathedral on a stone screen above a tomb of an un-canonized saint, Edmund Lacy (d. 1455).

For wealthier pilgrims, their votive offerings, often made of precious metals, sometimes took the form of luxurious sculptures. The top crests of the feretories supported votive images, such as the armoured figure donated by Henry VII. This image was to be placed 'upon and in the midst of the crest of the shrine of St Edward King, in such place as our executors shall think most convenient and honorable.'


Candles were by far the most popular votive offering. One duty of the feretrarians (keepers of the shrine) at Canterbury Cathedral was to maintain twelve large square candles on the beam near the shrine. In 1284, a clerk of exchange at Canterbury donated fifty shillings to have two candles burning continuously at the shrine 'as other lights around the said shrine do.' In addition to the twelve on the beam, there were four candles situated on the shrine itself, and another twelve great candles, weighing three pounds each, set nearby. These were decorated with red and green stripes and golden flowers. There was an immense candle which stretched around a drum, whose length was supposed to be equal that of the circumference of the town of Dover.

This recalls another popular votive practice, offering a candle 'measured' to the length of the person afflicted. Naturally, such a large candle would be difficult to maneuver, so pilgrims gave these candles in the form of a coil or folded threads. From these, lengths would be cut and used during the funerals of the poor in Canterbury. Candles not only provided light but were endowed with symbolic meaning, due to the widespread belief that the bees died while producing the fragrant beeswax, recalling Christ's sacrifice. Devotion at Canterbury generated such a quantity of wax offerings that a Wax Chamber in the presbytery was used to house candles and votive images.

Woman sickened by eating a frog is cured at St William's shrine (remains of frog at lower right). St William of York Window, York Minster, North Choir Transept YM nVII-17b (formerly 16e).
© Dean & Chapter York
Origin/Date: York, England || c.1414

The sick

In addition to the visual experience, the emotional experience at the shrine was heightened by the presence of very sick pilgrims (and their loving relatives) who held vigils at the shrine waiting for miraculous healing. With the sick and dying lying on the floor and the insane sometimes chained to the tomb, the feretory chapel must have, at times, resembled a field hospital. The St William window at York Minster records the story of a woman who became ill after accidentally eating a frog and who eventually vomited up the frog at St William's shrine.


Occasionally, adding to this cacophony of prayers, bells, and screams, was the sound of music. Playing music before holy images was a wide-spread practice; in 1296-97, Henry III donated money for '14 minstrels, making their minstrelsy before the statue of the Blessed Mary, the Virgin, in the crypt of Christchurch, Canterbury' (the statue of Our Lady in the Undercroft). Queen Philippa also paid minstrels to offer musical accompaniment to the great cross in St Paul's Cathedral in 1331.

Holy water

Smells and taste also played a role for some pilgrims. At Canterbury, until the fourteenth century, pilgrims could purchase ampullae (vials) that were believed to hold the water tinged with the blood of the martyred Becket. A surviving ampulla, with its liquid intact, when opened and examined, was found to contain water mixed with herbs. Pilgrims would bathe diseased limbs in holy water or would swallow some, often leading to vomiting and a cure.

Collecting Holy Oil at the shrine of Archbishop William of York. St William of York Window, York Minster, North Choir Transept YM nVII-15b (formerly 16a).
© Dean & Chapter York
Origin/Date: York, England || c.1414

At York Minster, the shrine of St William emanated holy, fragrant oil which pilgrims eagerly captured from spigots in the tomb, in hopes of providing miraculous cures. That the blood of Becket and the body oil of William should be fragrant was crucial, as one characteristic that distinguished saints from mere mortals was their reputed lack of bodily decomposition.

Sarah Blick


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.


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.  


Remains of a saint or articles which have been in contact with a saint and in which some of the saint's power is believed to reside. 


(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.  


A consecrated table or block used to celebrate the Eucharist. In the Middle Ages it would have contained relics.


Process of examination of the claims of an individual to sainthood culminating in official recognition by the Papacy.


Cleric, an ordained person. Derived from the Greek word for a 'lot', this term refers to anyone ordained to Christian ministry, including deacons, priests and bishops. The clergy have specific responsibilities and duties within the Church which set them apart from the laity, the ordinary members.


From the Greek ‘martus’ meaning ‘witness'. One who suffers death on account of faith.


Church which contains the throne of the bishop and hence the mother church of the diocese, from the Latin ‘cathedra' meaning ‘throne.' 


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

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.


Instrument of torture and execution used in the Roman Empire. The means by which Christ was put to death and therefore the primary symbol of the Christian faith, representing the means by which he is believed to have won forgiveness for humankind. The Cross may be represented as Tau-shaped (like a capital T), with a shorter cross-bar, or with a circle enclosing the upper intersection (Celtic). In medieval art a cross made of living branches signifies the Tree of Life. St Helena mother of the Emperor Constantine. is said to have discovered the True Cross (i.e. The Cross on which Christ died) in 326 during a visit to Jerusalem.

Virgin Mary

Mother of Jesus and wife of Saint Joseph. She is believed to have conceived Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit alone, thus remaining a virgin. The Council of Ephesus (431) confirmed upon her the title of ‘theotokos’ meaning 'godbearer'. The account of Mary's life in the New Testament was amplified by apocryphal documents and doctrines concerning her person and role developed in succeeding centuries. The belief that she did not die but was taken up bodily into heaven was celebrated in the Feast of the Assumption. Faith in Mary's powers as intercessor on behalf of sinful men and women was given fresh impetus by St Bernard (1090-1153) and she was popularly regarded as the Queen of Heaven.

Votive Offering

Objects left by pilgrims either in thanks for boons granted or in supplication, hoping the saint would help them because of these gifts. The most common objects were wax images of afflicted body parts or coiled candles 'measured' to the height of the individual seeking help. Other offerings included crutches no longer needed, manacles of freed prisoners, and models made of precious metal, such as silver ships. 


Originally a church with a group of clergy which served a large area. Later used to describe a church staffed by many priests or a monastic community. 


Receptacle for relics of a saint.


Durham Cathedral has its origins in the small church built in 995 to protect the relics of St Cuthbert. A century later, construction began on the church of the Benedictine Abbey, and Cuthbert's remains were transferred there and placed in a shrine in 1104. In 1242 the bones of Cuthbert were once again moved, this time to a shrine near the entrance of the Chapel of the Nine Altars.


From Greek ‘Christos’ a translation of the Hebrew for 'Messiah’: the anointed one of Jewish prophecy. Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus. as fulfilling this prophecy.


City in the south east of England; the seat of England's senior archbishop, who is also bishop of the diocese of Canterbury. It was here that St Augustine of Canterbury (d.609), who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English in 597, established his ecclesiastical headquarters. In the Anglo-Saxon period Canterbury's monasteries were places of learning and artistry. After the Norman Conquest the cathedral was magnificently rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc and embellished by Archbishop Anselm. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 added to the cathedral's prominence as a place of pilgrimage and the east end of the church was dramatically remodelled in the Gothic style.

William of York, St

(d.1154) Archbishop of York whose shrine at York Minster attracted many pilgrims in search of healing miracles.


1. A Roman city and early centre of Christianity. 2. Diocese and province under the leadership of the Archbishop of York.


Refers to both a reliquary used to contain relics of saints and the area of the church where reliquaries are kept. The term is specifically applied to the house-shaped reliquaries that sat on top of shrine bases and were periodically carried in procession. From Latin ‘feretrum’ meaning 'to carry'.

Watching Chamber

Watching chambers were built near shrines so that monks or priests could make sure that nothing valuable was stolen. Placed right near or above the shrine, these wooden chambers with open panels allowed for a good view of the shrine and its precinct.

Ex Votos

An offering made in thanksgiving for a favour such as recovery from illness. Latin meaning 'from a vow'.

Richard Scrope, St

(1350-1405) Archbishop of York who was executed in 1405. He became the focus of a local cult but was never officially canonised.


The portion of a church, east of the choir. where the priests sit who assist with the Mass. 


Ampullae (pl.) Vials used to hold sacred water, oil, or blood obtained from pilgrimage shrines and wells. Usually hung on a cord around the wearer's neck.