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The Rebuilding of the Cathedral and Translation of Becket’s Body

On 5th September 1174, a fire broke out in Canterbury. It spread from the cottages outside the walls of the monastery onto the Cathedral itself, destroying the great Romanesque Quire.

The fire prompted a huge rebuilding campaign at Canterbury. The eastern end of the Cathedral was rebuilt in a new architectural style known as the Gothic style, and was designed specifically to house the body of Thomas Becket. A new marble shrine was also constructed, which was lavishly decorated with gold and encrusted with jewels. The shrine would have stood in the centre of the Trinity Chapel, directly above Becket’s original tomb in the crypt below.

On 7th July 1220, Becket’s body was moved, or ‘translated’, from the crypt up into the new shrine in the Trinity Chapel. The translation was accompanied by a lavish ceremony, which was attended by the king, Henry III, and many of the most important religious and political leaders in the Europe. A new liturgical office (service) was composed in honour of the occasion.

The Trinity Chapel and Becket’s shrine then became the focal point for pilgrims visiting Canterbury.

Date: early 13th century
Stained glass in the miracle windows in the Trinity Chapel showing Becket appearing from a reliquary (container for a relic).

Becket and Reformation

In 1534, King Henry VIII broke from Rome, appointing himself Supreme Head of the English Church. Religious practices changed dramatically and the English monasteries were closed. In Canterbury the monastery was closed and the monks were cast out.

As an Archbishop that had repeatedly opposed the King, Becket symbolised a challenge to royal authority. In 1538 Henry VIII demanded that Thomas should no longer be venerated as a saint, and ordered that Becket’s shrine at Canterbury should be destroyed. The shrine was smashed to pieces, the jewels on the shrine taken to the king’s treasury and Thomas’ body reported to have been destroyed.

All that remains of the shrine are a few marble fragments, still held today in the Cathedral collections.