Shrines of Saints

Definition and function of a shrine

Sometimes the relics of a particular saint were so revered, so popular, that their keepers believed that they should be preserved in something more imposing than a reliquary - a shrine. At its most basic, the medieval shrine was designed to take account of two seemingly opposed concerns: security and access. Relic theft and damage by over-eager pilgrims could ruin a sacred site, yet, if the relics were completely hidden away and kept from view, pilgrims who wished to seek help from the saint would be frustrated. Shrine designers, therefore, came up with a number of ways to keep the relics safe, while still allowing access to pilgrims, either physically or visually. In the typical shrine, relics were deposited in a secure box which was then either surmounted by or placed on a stone superstructure with an added altar for proper worship.

Development of saints' shrines in Great Britain

Digital visualization of the shrine of St Cuthbert, Durham, in the 15th century.
© The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, University of York

In the early medieval period (fourth to sixth centuries), altars honouring saints were placed over their graves (usually in the crypt of a church or in a graveyard outside the church). However, as time went on, people began to question whether it was appropriate for a saint to be buried in the ground like ordinary people. Slowly, the notion that their bodies ought to be elevated (placed within altars or in containers placed on altars) gained acceptance. For instance, the body of St Cuthbert was translated in 698 from a typical grave to a tomb-chest placed next to the main altar at Lindisfarne. Access to these early shrines varied considerably. Some were off-limits to pilgrims except through sight, while in other instances, such as the shrine of St Chad (d.672), there were ways for pilgrims to touch and take away healing fragments of the shrine.

The place of burial is a wooden coffin, made in the form of a little house, with an aperture in the wall, through which those that visit it out of devotion can put in their hand and take out some of the dust. When they mix this in water and give it to sick cattle or men to drink, they are soon freed from their ailments and restored to the wished-for joys of health.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History, IV. 3

As devotion to the saints grew, the role played by relics in worship (particularly in processions) and in ensuring that secular oaths were honoured, also increased; relics were often placed in reliquaries which sat on top of altars.

By the tenth century, the reliquary caskets were moved onto their own base, usually on a slab supported by pillars. In 1104 St Cuthbert's relics were placed into a shrine in Durham Cathedral on a slab held up by nine columns. This glorified the relics by making them more visible to the pilgrim while keeping them away from potentially-thieving hands. For instance, an image from the Roll of St Guthlac (c.1210) shows a very vocal crowd of benefactors (note their scrolls that serve as speech balloons) and a man cured of possession (the demon emerges from his mouth) converging on the shrine of St Guthlac. The shrine, a house-shaped reliquary chest, rests on a slab supported by a slender pillar. Attached to the shrine is a draped altar.

Foramina tomb-shrines

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

Another form of shrine, called a foramina tomb-shrine, became popular in the second half of the twelfth century, in imitation of Christ's tomb (where his body was reputed to have lain) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Covered by marble slabs, it featured three round openings through which pilgrims could touch or kiss the rock on either side, thus allowing pilgrims access to the tomb, while preventing them from defacing the whole in their eagerness to touch it. As the German priest Theoderich noted in his Guide to the Holy Land (c.1172):

the sepulchre in which our most gracious Lord Jesus Christ lay for three days -which is wondrously adorned with white marble, gold, and precious stones. In the side it has three holes, through which pilgrims give their long-wished-for kisses to the very stone on which their Lord lay.

These tomb-shrines were 'monuments built over or at least around elevated sarcophagi or reliquaries' (Crook, 2000, 244). At Canterbury Cathedral, the flow of pilgrims to the tomb of St Thomas Becket necessitated that the tomb be protected. 'A wall of large dressed stones was constructed around the marble sarcophagus, held together firmly with cement, iron, and lead, 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, there was a hollowed structure between the top of the sarcophagus and the slab providing about a foot of space.' Most people would reach in and touch or kiss the sarcophagi, but there are reports of people squeezing in entirely and becoming trapped! This type of shrine can be seen in images of the early shrines of St Thomas Becket (c.1213-1220) and St Edward the Confessor and in the surviving shrine bases of St Oswald (c.1340) and St Wite (c.1220). Most foramina tomb-shrines appear to have been used for worship of saints who had not as yet been canonised or until a proper shrine could be erected.

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

Later refurbishment

Most shrines in Great Britain underwent refurbishment in the mid to late thirteenth century, as the number of pilgrims increased and the prestige of shrines brought visits and gifts from royalty. The reliquary was now supported by an intricate, solid stone base carved with niches for pilgrim prayer on three sides, with an altar attached on the fourth (west side) so that Mass could be celebrated by a priest looking east. These tall niches replaced the columns or apertures of earlier shrines and allowed pilgrims to kneel inside or to rest their heads against the base while resting their elbows on the small ledge sometimes placed two or three feet from the base of the niche. These late medieval shrines were very large structures, usually measuring 8ft x 8ft x 4ft. Their magnificence was enhanced by the presence of steps around the shrine. They often contained the entire body (or much of it) of the saint in a gabled coffin-type reliquary. These large reliquaries were covered with wooden, cloth or metal covers which were lifted by hand or a winched chain.

Ciborium altar shrines

The shrine of St Alban in St Alban's Cathedral. 
Wikimedia Commons
© Diliff (licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

A variant shrine design found in medieval England was inspired by the ciborium or canopy-type altar shrine, such as that of St Peter's basilica in Rome (after 600). This open type of shrine featured a base (usually adorned by quatrefoil openings) surmounted by open niches, and topped by a slab where the reliquary would rest. Surviving examples of this type of shrine base include: St Frideswide, Oxford (1289); St Thomas Cantilupe, Hereford (1287); St Alban, St Albans (c.1302-1308); St Edburg, Bicester (before 1312); and St Werburgh, Chester Cathedral (c.1340). The latter is composed of two parts - a thick lower portion with niches for pilgrims' prayer and an open upper section where the relic chest rested. Later shrine bases such as this and that of St William at York Minster, tended to be quite tall and thickly constructed in comparison with earlier shrines.

See also Reaching the Destination.

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.


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.


From the Latin ‘seculum’ meaning 'world'. Relating to clergy who operated ‘in the world’ (i.e. were not monastic). In modern use meaning not religious or spiritual.

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.


In the New Testament this applied to all Christians. Later used of those who were martyred or showed exceptional holiness and whose status was confirmed by the church. The practice of venerating the saints and their relics and asking for their intercessions (prayers) can be observed from the second and third centuries onward and played a central role in popular medieval religion.

Cuthbert, St

(d. 687) Celtic monk and hermit. Bishop of Lindisfarne 685.

Oswald, St

(604-642). King of Northumbria who encouraged the spread of Christianity during the 7th century.

Alban, St

(d.304, or possibly 283, or earlier) Recognised as the first Christian martyr in Britain. He is said to have been a Roman living at Verulamium, who was converted by a priest who sought sanctuary in his house during a persecution of Christians, and then gave himself up in place of his guest. Miracles involving water took place when he was executed, he stopped a river's flow to allow a safe crossing, and a fountain sprang up when he was beheaded. The reputed place of his execution is where St Albans Abbey now stands.

Edward the Confessor, St

(c.1003-1066) Anglo-Saxon king and saint (reigned 1042-1066), whose shrine remains in Westminster Abbey. Son of Aethelred (reigned 978-1016, often known as the 'Unready') and his second wife, Emma, the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy. One of only two English saints whose shrines survived the Reformation intact.

Peter, St Apostle

Originally called Simon (not to be confused with St Simon the Zealot), he was given the name Cephas (Aramaic equivalent of the Greek 'Peter', meaning rock) by Christ. His profession of faith (Matthew 16: 13-20) evoked the promise 'Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church... I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven', the passage on which the claims of the papacy have rested. His later denial of Christ (Matthew 26: 69-75) was followed by repentance and a fresh commission to feed Christ's sheep (John 21: 15-19). In Acts he emerges as the leader of the Early Church. Early traditions describe him as the first bishop of Rome and he was crucified head downwards during the reign of Nero. Often portrayed as the gate-keeper of heaven. holding the keys promised by Christ.


Refers, in this context, to the act of moving the body or other relics of a holy person.

Holy Land

A common term for the area of what is now Israel/Palestine where Jesus spent his earthly life. Such a term expresses the allure of pilgrimage to the actual places where Jesus lived and died and was also a concept which inspired the crusading movement.

Chad, St

A disciple of St Aidan and brother of St Cedd of Lastingham, St Chad was caught up in the political struggles which accompanied the Synod of Whitby in 664. Eventually he was appointed by St Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to be the first bishop of Mercia and Lindsey (effectively the Midlands and Lincolnshire). In 672 he died and was buried at Lichfield. A healing cult associated with his tomb is described by Bede.

Thomas Cantilupe, St

(1218-1282) English bishop of Hereford, from a noble Norman family, whose shrine became the focus of many healing miracles after his death.


Receptacle for relics of a saint.


Also known as Holy Island, a peninsula off the coast of north-east England (Northumbria), this area is cut off from the mainland by the tide twice a day. A monastic community was founded here by St Aidan, in emulation of Iona. From Lindisfarne, missionary activity was conducted in the kingdom of Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon community produced saints, the most prominent being St Cuthbert in whose honour the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels were written.


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.

Guthlac, St

(c.674-714) Anglo-Saxon warrior who became a hermit in the fens at Crowland. 


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.


Evil spiritual force opposing God and seeking to lead human beings away from him.


A tomb-shrine characterized by circular or oval openings in its base. Pilgrims could access these openings in order to physically get closer to the relics contained therein.

Holy Sepulchre

The stone tomb given by Joseph of Arimathea in which the body of Jesus lay from the Crucifixion to his Resurrection. St Helen (d.330) founded a round church on this site and this circular form was replicated in Christian architecture, particularly in the churches built by the Order of Knights Templar.  


City captured and made into the capital city of Israel by King David. Site of the Temple built by Solomon, and of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. A holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims.


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.

Wite, St

Female saint who is buried at, and gave her name to, the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum (Dorset). One of only two saints (the other being the royal saint, Edward the Confessor) whose shrines survived the English Reformation intact. Also known as St White, Whyte, Witta and Candida.


Cleric in holy orders who has authority to celebrate Mass and absolve sins.

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.