display | more...

The Church’s possession of a saint’s body was both a golden opportunity and a potential problem. Discuss in relation to the cults of St. Cuthbert and St. Thomas.

The possession of relics by a church or monastic community provided worshippers with a link between their prayers and the supposed miracle-working power of the saint. Relics were magical items, they belonged to a saint and at the Last Judgement would be claimed by the saint and become part of Heaven. The shrine containing the relic would be the focal point of the church, and would either be on or below the altar, in a crypt, or housed in a retrochoir, such as the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury. Relics could consist of anything the saint used on a daily basis, such as the clothes, or any body parts. The entire body of a saint was perhaps the ultimate relic for a church to possess, because the church could argue that the saint himself wanted to remain in a particular church after death, and the particular church would be the only destination for a pilgrimage to that saint. Pilgrimages were undertaken to visit shrines of saints, and to ask for their help to resolve a matter.

St. Cuthbert's Hagiography

St. Cuthbert (c. 635687) was a monk at Lindisfarne, who decided to take up a solitary existence in 676 after being promoted to prior. He moved to Farne Island and lived there until 684, when he was persuaded to become Bishop of Hexham, which he immediately transferred to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. After serving for two years, he returned to Farne Island, where he died on 20th of April, 687. There are many accounts of Cuthbert working miracles while he was a hermit, Bede’s hagiography of Cuthbert written in 721 details miraculous happenings of wisdom and healing.

When St. Cuthbert died in 687 he was buried in the monastery of Lindisfarne, and his tomb rapidly became renowned as a source of miracles, and he became called the ‘Wonder-worker of England’. The cult of St. Cuthbert received its first boost when in 698, his body was translated to a more prominent shrine in Lindisfarne, and was found to be incorrupt.

This was taken as a clear sign of sanctity, and St. Cuthbert was duly canonised, and became the focal saint of Lindisfarne and possibly the whole of the north of England. In 875, due to the increasing threat from the Danes Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan, the monastic community at Lindisfarne decided to leave, taking their relics with them. For seven years the monks wandered the country, looking for a safe place for their community. By 883, the monks had returned to Northumbria and settled at Chester-le-Street. When the situation in Northumbria again became risky towards the end of the tenth century, they prepared to move again, and St. Cuthbert appeared to a monk called Eadmer in a vision, and instructed that his remains be taken to ‘Dunholm’, or Durham, where by 9981 a church was under construction. The new Norman hierarchy were initially disrespectful towards the existing English saints, but soon recognised the advantages of promoting local cults to further their own ends. A new cathedral was begun at Durham in 1093 by Bishop William of St Calais. Cuthbert was translated from the church into the new cathedral in 1104.

St. Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral

The Romanesque cathedral at Durham was built by Normans in response to the cult of a major English saint. But, the plan suggested by Bilson2 after his excavations doesn’t leave much room, if any, for pilgrim access to the shrine and tomb. This could be because the Norman Palatine Bishops wanted to restrict access to the shrine, while tolerating the cult they aren’t specifically encouraging it. But Bishop William did encourage veneration of St. Cuthbert, but Durham could be designed on a Norman French model where there is no particular allowance for mass pilgrimage to a shrine in a church setting. There seems to be no plausible pilgrim route directly up to the shrine, and the shrine being situated directly behind the high altar places it firmly in the section of the cathedral reserved for the monastic community. Perhaps the pilgrims to Durham focused their attention on the previous resting-place of St. Cuthbert’s body in the old pre-conquest church, which is located in the cloister of the Norman complex. This attitude towards a cult bringing pilgrims to the cathedral is peculiar, because of the economic importance of a major pilgrim cult to a cathedral. But possibly this restriction of the shrine is more political, St. Cuthbert could be seen as a symbol of Anglo-Saxon England, a focal point for anti-Norman sentiment. By restriction and control of access like this the Norman authorities were perhaps hoping that St. Cuthbert wouldn’t become a rallying point for rebellion. Another angle to this proposition comes from St. Cuthbert’s instruction to the monks of Lindisfarne that access should be controlled to his shrine3, and the later monastic community followed this instruction when designing the new cathedral. There are pictorial representations of intruders who, having broken into St. Cuthbert’s shrine were struck dead, these could be warnings used by the monastic community wanting to protect their saint4. St. Cuthbert was central to the monastic community and became almost the personification of it, protecting and helping them. This centrality to the community could mean that security considerations needed to be paramount in the design of the cathedral. If the relics were damaged or stolen then the monastic community would be without its figurehead. By restricting access to the shrine itself in this way, the danger of theft or damage would be considerably lessened.

These restrictions to access by no means impeded on the miracle-working power of St. Cuthbert, there are many accounts of cures affected by prayer to St. Cuthbert and visiting Durham. Reginald of Durham in his Libellus does list many pilgrims cured by St. Cuthbert and also details other saints approached by pilgrims5. Two miracles mentioned do refer to access difficulties at Durham and mention an inner enclosure.

Thomas á Becket's Murder

The murder of Thomas á Becket on 29th December 1170 resulted in the almost immediate creation of a major pilgrim cult. Becket was a leading courtier and friend of Henry II and had served on Archbishop Theobald’s staff in about 1141. He studied abroad during this period and was rapidly promoted to archdeacon on his return. When Henry II became king in 1154, Thomas was made chancellor and was a good friend of the King. When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry made Thomas the next archbishop, thinking that it would be useful in his struggle for local control of the Church against the Pope. Thomas, however, realised that his appointment as Archbishop meant that he should follow the Pope’s lead. Henry’s dispute with the Church was that the clergy were not subject to royal justice, they could be tried in their own courts and usually get off with a much lighter punishment. They grew to be enemies because of Becket’s change of loyalties, and in 1164 Thomas went into exile in France, although retaining authority in England. He returned to Canterbury in 1170, and four knights, misinterpreting Henry’s words, executed Thomas within the cathedral at Canterbury. The effect of this murder on the minds of worshippers and clergy was immediate; here was a martyr to the Church murdered in his own cathedral just when Henry was trying to bring the English Church under his control. The monastic community must have immediately realised the implications of these actions, Becket’s spilt blood was collected, people dipped pieces of cloth into it. The murder was likened to the crucifixion, a Christ-like figure murdered by opponents to the Church. Benedict of Peterborough described the blood on Becket’s head as being like the crown of thorns. The murder was followed by a period of confusion during which the cathedral was shut down while the political situation was rectified and was not re-consecrated until 21st December 1171. During this period of closure people were admitted secretly to worship at the site of Becket’s death, but was not open to general pilgrimage. After the cathedral re-opened, reports of miracles due to Becket began to be circulated, and Pope Alexander III canonised Becket in 1173, after which the pilgrim cult grew in importance.

The Rebuilding of Canterbury

The fire at Canterbury in 1174 which destroyed Anselm’s original Romanesque east end provided a perfect opportunity to build a structure to commemorate St. Thomas á Becket. After a conference of leading masons to decide what was to be done about rebuilding Canterbury, William of Sens6 was appointed as master mason. William of Sens was in charge of the building works until 1178, when he fell from high scaffolding. Up to this point, construction had proceeded as far as the high altar to the east, and the last bays of the eastern crossing. Another master mason, William the Englishman, was employed, and he built the Trinity chapel and Corona on the east end. Designs were probably made before building commenced, because it would be unlikely that construction on the scale of the new east end would start unplanned. But what is certain is that the plans were changed during the course of the construction programme, as there are numerous pieces of evidence to suggest changes. The changes to the design were probably in order to accommodate the expected numbers of pilgrims, and as the stature of the cult grew, so did the numbers of pilgrims. The original plan for the east end was probably a hemicycle behind the high altar with pillars continuing up from those in the crypt below. Most notably, the floor of the Trinity chapel has been raised above its intended position in order to place the ambulatory on the same level as the shrine. The shrine probably would have been raised on steps in the Trinity chapel before the change, and might probably have been fenced off from the surrounding ambulatory. This change of design makes the Trinity chapel a much more intimate space, and allows easier pilgrim access to the shrine itself, important considerations for shrine architecture. Evidence for this change can be found by the steps in the south aisle, where blind arcading continues seemingly through the steps, it was covered up when the steps were put in. There is also the lack of bases to some of the columns in this area, as they were probably constructed before the floor was raised, and new bases weren’t put in at the new floor level. There is a chamber underneath the archbishop’s throne called the Wax or Watching chamber, created as a result of the floor raising. Inside this chamber are the bases of the columns above, which show that the columns do protrude through floor level above, and that they were constructed before the floor level was raised. This change of design also presents access problems, because steps in the aisles are needed to get access to the Trinity chapel. As a proportion of pilgrims visiting Canterbury will be looking for St. Thomas’s help in being cured, there will be some less able-bodied pilgrims. The shrine-keepers or their fellow pilgrims would have to help infirm pilgrims up and down the stairs, possibly causing delays and extra queues inside the cathedral. The new design can be seen as a trade-off between allowing close access to the shrine monument itself, and ease of access to the Trinity Chapel via the pilgrims steps.

The pilgrim’s route around Canterbury cathedral was planned to take in the major sites relating to St. Thomas, and to least interfere with the daily offices said by the monks. The pilgrims would enter the east end by the south aisle, and then cut across the cathedral to the Altar of the Sword’s Point7. Then, they would descend to the crypt below the east end and walk down the aisles of the crypt and round the crypt of the Trinity chapel. The shrine in the crypt marked the spot where Becket was placed immediately after the murder, and while the new east end was being constructed. This is also where the first reports of miracles occurring came from. The pilgrims would then ascend the steps from the crypt in the south aisle and proceed down the south aisle of the choir and presbytery. Then they would go up the steps in the south aisle and into the Trinity chapel, and head to the Corona. The pilgrim route keeps to the south aisle in the cathedral possibly because it is fractionally wider than the north, this can be speculated because the south aisle pilgrim stairs are much more heavily worn than the north, suggesting heavy traffic, a double file of people. From there, they would walk around the north side of the Trinity chapel and file past the main shrine itself. Then back down the south aisle stairs, all the way down the south aisle, and would exit, possibly on the south side of the west crossing. This route goes around the presbytery and choir areas, which would be screened off for monastic use. The only intrusion into monastic space by pilgrims would occur in the Trinity Chapel itself, so presumably visiting hours were tightly regulated around service times for the monastic community. There are gates at the bottom of the pilgrim steps to close off access to the shrine, and there was a screen across the choir at the high altar point, so the shrine could be closed off completely.

Pilgrim Management

Money raised from pilgrims would be significant, and an important source of income for the cathedral. Pilgrims would donate at the shrine itself, either coin, sometimes in the form of ‘broken silver8’ or donation of beeswax for candles. High status pilgrims accorded high status gifts, gold or gifts in kind. Souvenirs would be bought by pilgrims, pewter or lead badges are the most numerous survivors, but other types of souvenir would be specific to the shrine, at Canterbury, small bottles of ‘Becket’s Water’ 9 were popular, because of its apparent miracle-working properties. These souvenirs would provide income for the cathedral and the townspeople, a lucrative industry. The town would definitely benefit economically from pilgrim traffic, just like the importance of tourism today to local economies, travellers always need food and shelter. Townspeople as well as the monastic community probably resented the intrusion from pilgrims, but understood their value.

There are some problems with the management of a pilgrim centre and high-status shrine, the most significant for the cathedral is theft or damage of the relics and associated treasure. Having large numbers of a wide cross-section of society visiting a wealthy shrine will be worrying to the monastery, so the shrine would guarded at all times by shrine-keepers. They would be responsible for watching over the pilgrims at the shrine, and controlling access to the shrine, possibly admitting only groups of pilgrims at a time rather than a continuous flow. The shrine-keepers would be locked in the shrine at night to guard it, understandable for a cathedral’s most precious assets and source of income. Interference with monastic offices was also something that the monks tried to avoid, the offices were the centre of monastic life, and were the basic daily routine of the cathedral. Pilgrims would be kept to certain routes to stay away from the areas used, and shrines would be kept to certain opening times to minimise the impact. But conversely, if an important figure wanted to visit a shrine, then everything would be done to enable this, the monks would be mindful of the possible donation that would result. Status was also important to the monk’s treatment of pilgrims.


Relics and bodies of saints provided monastic communities with figureheads as well as a main income source. Pilgrims would travel from all over Europe to come to pray at a particular saint’s shrine, especially if a particular saint was renowned for helping them with their specific problem. Saints were a means of connection for prayers, they were part earthly, part heavenly. As possession of a saint was an important income source for monastic communities, they were jealously guarded and promoted as much as possible. Accounts of miracles were written to glorify particular saints: after the establishment of the cult surrounding Becket, the monks at Durham responded to this threat to their pilgrim importance by writing a new hagiography of St. Cuthbert, including his recent miracles. Advertisement was a very important aspect to a saintly cult, it was a method of attracting pilgrims to a shrine. Saints were the figureheads of their monastic communities, the focus at Durham was both to have a functioning and respected ancient pilgrim cult as well as to prevent the use of St. Cuthbert as a figurehead for anti-Norman sentiment. Canterbury was different, the east end of the cathedral was specifically designed for a new, popular martyr cult. Possession of a saint’s body presented the cathedral with an important source of income, a focus for their community, but also problems with overcrowding and disruption to monastic life.


  1. Cuthbert’s body was translated when the church was dedicated on 4th September 998, although the church probably wasn’t completed until after 1019. This is reasonable because the church would be built from east to west, so the body would be translated as soon as a suitable setting was complete.
  2. Bilson’s suggested plan from ‘On the Recent Discoveries at the West End of the Cathedral Church of Durham’ (1896) is of a larger central apse containing the altar and shrine with two smaller apses on either side, and no distinct ambulatory.
  3. ‘It seems best that you entomb it my body in the interior of your church, so that while you yourselves can visit my sepulchre when you wish, it may be in your power to decide whether any of those who come thither should approach it’. Bede, Prose Life of Cuthbert, 721. ed. Colgrave.
  4. ‘Barcwith, who invaded Cuthbert’s sanctuary, is struck down.’ Oxford, Bodleian Library, University College Ms. 165, folio 157r. Also ‘A Norman thief who stole from Cuthbert’s shrine is struck dead.’ As above, folio 163r.
  5. There are many occurrences in the list of saints approached of St. Thomas á Becket telling pilgrims to go to St. Cuthbert instead with their prayers. This is an illustration of the medieval view that all saints derived their power from a common source (i.e. God in Heaven) and so they were all common instruments of the same power.
  6. Sens had a particular connection to Canterbury, it is where Becket went to during his exile, and it possessed Becket’s mass vestments. Perhaps this connection was a factor in the appointment of William of Sens?
  7. The Altar of The Sword’s Point marks the spot where Becket was martyred and contained a piece of one of the swords used to kill him.
  8. ‘Broken silver’. This refers to coins mutilated in some way, folding, piercing or cut, so they are unusable as currency, they can only be sold by weight. This was to prevent pilgrims from spending the money they would donate, the silver would be broken as part of a vow of pilgrimage before leaving home.
  9. ‘Becket’s Water’ is water purportedly containing some of Becket’s blood, but presumably diluted to almost homeopathic strengths.


B. Nilson, ‘The Medieval Experience at the Shrine’, J.Stopford ed, Pilgrimage Explored, York 1999

D. Webb, Pilgrimage in Medieval England, London 2000

J. Crook, The Architectural Setting of the Cult of Saints in the Early Christian West c.300-1200, Oxford 2000

T. Tatton-Brown, ‘Canterbury and the architecture of pilgrimage shrines in England’, C. Morris & P. Roberts ed, Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan, Cambridge 2002

B. Abou-el-Haj, The Medieval Cult of Saints, Formations and Transformations, Cambridge 1994