Fire Watchers Memorial
Great West Window
Altar of the Sword Point
The Deans' Chapel
Western Crypt (North Aisle)
Ch. of Holy Innocents
St Nicholas Ch.
St Mary Magdalene Ch.
Western Crypt (South Aisle)
Our Lady Undercroft
St Gabriel Chapel
Great South Window
St Augustine's Chair
North Choir Aisle
Trinity Chapel North
Henry IV Tomb
Trinity Chapel South
South Choir Aisle
St Anselm's Chapel
Stairs to the Crypt
Level access to Martyrdom
South, East, North & West panes
Victorian stained glass
Hint. View the map ‘landscape’ on small screens.
MapThe original tomb of Thomas Becket was located here in the Eastern Crypt. In the years between 1180 and 1220, over 700 miracles attributed to the Saint were observed from the windows of the Watching Chamber above the entrance arch. Today, the location of the tomb – between the two marble columns in the centre of the crypt – is marked by “Transport“, the striking Anthony Gormley installation in the form of a floating figure. Following the ambulatory, clockwise to the eastern end of the Crypt, we reach the Jesus Chapel with its finely decorated roof vault. Further on around the ambulatory, just before we re-enter the Western Crypt at its south aisle, we encounter the mysterious Ghost on the Pillar.
- Length of Western Crypt 30m (100 ft)
- Height 6.7m (22 ft)
- Width 20m (66 ft)
- 1179 Construction begins under the supervision of architect “William the Englishman”. Completed 1181.
- 1220 Translation of the remains of Thomas Becket to the new Shrine in the Trinity Chapel.
- 1538 Destruction of the tomb, shrine and mortal remains of Thomas Becket on the orders of Henry VIII.
- 1546 Eastern Crypt closed off to public and used as a cellar, until 1838.
Though built only 80 years after the Western Crypt, the Eastern Crypt (completed 1181) has a quite different feel to it. It was built in an early or “transitional” style of Gothic architecture never before seen in England. Note the greater vault height and the pointed, as opposed to rounded, arches.
The Eastern Crypt stands on the site of the former Chapel of St Augustine and St John the Baptist. This small chapel was the location of the tomb of Thomas Becket for eight years from 1171 – 1179, following his murder in December 1170.
Profile: The Life of Thomas Becket
Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III in February 1173, only two years after the murder, and Canterbury rapidly became a significant place of Christian pilgrimage within Europe – ranking alongside Rome and Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.
These reconstruction plans made it necessary to enlarge and extend the crypt to the east, and the St Augustine chapel was demolished in 1179 – though construction work carried on around and above the Becket tomb, and pilgrims were readmitted almost immediately. The Becket tomb was re-sited between the two central Purbeck marble columns in the new crypt, at the point where Anthony Gormley’s “Transport” now hangs. Though Becket’s mortal remains were eventually translated to the new shrine in July 1220, the tomb itself continued to attract many thousands of pilgrims over the next 318 years, until it was demolished on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538.
Video: The Becket tomb c.1408
There was a well here, from which the “Holy Water of St. Thomas” was drawn, blessed and dispensed to the pilgrims. The holy water – mixed with drops of the Martyr’s blood – was said to have miraculous properties and the monks who were charged with overseeing the tomb witnessed some 700 miracles, which they ascribed to Saint Thomas. The stories behind the miracles were carefully recorded by the monks and later depicted in the stained glass Miracle Windows at the eastern end of the Trinity Chapel.
In the centre of the Eastern Crypt, suspended between two slender Purbeck marble columns, is the Antony Gormley sculpture, “Transport“. The two metre long figure was constructed from antique iron nails recovered from the roof of the Southeast Transept during repairs. The core of the work is a delicate filter-like membrane outlining the space of a floating body. The membrane is pierced with nails passing through it from inside to outside and vice versa.
Gormley won the Turner Prize in 1994 and was awarded OBE in 1997
Looking back from the centre of the Eastern Crypt, you will notice two windows over the entrance. These windows look out from a room adjacent to the steps leading up to the Trinity Chapel immediately above our heads.
These are the windows of the Watching Chamber (now Wax Chamber) where between 1180 – 1220 the two Benedictine monks, Benedict and William sat and observed pilgrims visiting the original tomb of St Thomas, which was here in the centre of the Eastern Crypt. In a period of 40 years, Benedict and William recorded over 700 miracles attributed to St Thomas – several of which are depicted in the stained glass Miracle Windows that you will see later in the Trinity Chapel.
This room is now called the Wax Chamber – it was once used for storing candles – and is now the office of the Vesturer (Head Virger).
The Jesus Chapel forms the foundation for the Corona above it, and is the Eastern extremity of the Crypt, completed by William the Englishman in 1181. The M‘s stand for Mary and the I’s for Jesus, with each initial surmounted by a crown. The decorative style of the vault, or roof, of the Chapel dates from the late 1300s and the chapel was carefully restored and repainted in this style in 1981-82.
In the apse of the chapel, is a table in Italian walnut, which was formerly the High Altar of the Cathedral from 1880 until 1977. The altar cloth (1895) contains a shield, bearing the “arms of faith” (scutum fidei), often used on Cathedral pamphlets and documents.
The Chapel contains some fine examples of 13th century stained glass, though not all originating in Canterbury. At the top, there is an original border and a panel showing the Virgin and Child, with censing angels. The space below this pane contains figures of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jacob and Isaac, originally from Petham Church, to the south of Canterbury.
Almost the first thing visitors notice on entering the Eastern Crypt from the south aisle (in our case, looking back on leaving) is an outline of a hooded figure, in black, on the pillar. Nobody seems to know how it got here or what it is supposed to represent. There has been speculation that it may be an erased mural of Archbishop Thomas Becket, as it is adjacent to the site of the Becket tomb as it was between 1180 and 1220.
In 1538, Henry VIII decreed that the Becket Shrine, his remains, all images and references to St Thomas be eradicated, as if he had never lived. In the years following the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries on Henry’s orders, the Eastern Crypt was walled off and the public denied access for almost 300 years, between 1546 and 1838. “The vault called Becket’s Tomb” was assigned as a cellar for the personal use of the First Prebend (an administrative post) – Richard Thornden, Bishop of Dover. It was subsequently used as a coal cellar – and this curious piece of black “graffiti” may have originated during this time.