The Martyrdom

The Martyrdom. © guides-guide.org 2021

Western Nave

<q>Fire Watchers Memorial</q><br><q>Font</q><q>Great West Window</q>

Eastern Nave

<q>Pulpit</q> <q>Altar</q><br><q>Compass Rose</q>

Western Crypt (South Aisle)

<q>Huguenot Chapel</q><br><q>Our Lady Undercroft</q><br><q>St Gabriel Chapel</q>

Eastern Crypt

<q>Watching Chamber</q><br><q>"Transport"</q><br><q>Jesus Chapel</q>

Western Crypt (North Aisle)

<q>Ch. of Holy Innocents</q><br><q>St Nicholas Ch.</q><br><q>St Mary Magdalene Ch.</q>

Martyrdom

<q>Altar of the Sword Point</q><br><q>The Deans' Chapel</q>

Pulpitum Steps

<q>Royal Window </q><q>Bell Harry</q><q>Great South Window</q>

Choir

<q>Parclose Screen</q><br><q>Archbishop's Throne</q><br><q>St Augustine's Chair</q>

North Choir Aisle

<q>Chichele Tomb</q><br><q>Bible Windows</q><br><q>Northeast Transept</q>

Trinity Chapel North

<q>Opus Alexandrinum</q><br><q>Miracle Windows</q><br><q>Henry IV Tomb</q><br><q>Becket Shrine</q>

Trinity Chapel South

<q>Corona Chapel</q><br><q>Black Prince</q><br><q>Miracle Windows</q>

South Choir Aisle

<q>St Anselm's Chapel</q><br><q>Bossanyi Windows</q><br><q>Southeast Transept</q>

Southwest Transept

<q>St Michael's Chapel</q><br><q>Whall Window</q><br><q> Crypt access & Exit</q>

Great Cloister

<q>Heraldic shields</q><br><q>South, East, North & West panes</q><br><q>Cloister Garth</q>

Chapter House

<q>Wagon Vault</q><br><q>Victorian stained glass</q>

 Hint. View the map ‘landscape’ on small screens.

MapThe Martyrdom (the Northwest Transept) contains the Altar of the Sword’s Point, which marks the place where the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket took place on 29th December 1170.

This part of the Cathedral was remodelled several times in the 300 years following the murder, as the result of earthquake damage, ordinary wear and tear and the need to balance the needs of thousands of pilgrims with those of the Benedictine monks who lived and worked here. The main structure as it is seen today was completed – in Perpendicular style – between 1472 and 1487. Also accessible from here is the Deans’ Chapel (Chapel of Our Lady) with its early example of a fan-vaulted roof and several notable tombs of post-Reformation Deans of the Cathedral.

  • Constructed 1472-1487 (Deans’ Chapel 1448-1445)
  • Master masons Richard Beke / William Glazier
Milestones –
  • 1077 Lanfranc’s original North Transept, completed 1086
  • 1170 Murder of Thomas Becket. Altar of the Sword’s Point (1172)
  • c.1200 NW Transept partitioned – the ‘Red Door’. Removal of central pillar.
  • 1382 Dover Straits Earthquake causes significant damage to transept roof.
  • 1472-1487 Remodelled in Perpendicular style – roof & window heights raised to match height of rebuilt Nave.
  • 1538 Destruction of the Altar of the Sword’s Point
  • 1734 Partition wall & ‘Red Door’ removed. Transept repaved.
  • 1986 Visit of Pope John Paul II

What's here?

Orientation. At the top of the steps from the crypt, the Altar of the Sword Point is immediately to your right and the wall tablet commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II to Canterbury in 1982 is to your left…

The Altar of the Sword’s Point, is a modern replacement of the altar put here by the monks of Christchurch Priory in 1172 and subsequently swept away, along with the shrine, tomb and all other relics of Thomas Becket, by command of Henry VIII in 1538. The original altar was so-named because it contained the broken sword point of Richard le Breton, the knight who dealt the fourth and final deadly blow to Becket as he lay on the floor – a blow struck with such force that it shattered le Breton’s sword.

The modern altar of the Sword’s Point, installed in 1986 (the first new altar in Canterbury Cathedral in 448 years), is by Giles Blomfield. It is striking for its dramatic representation of two jagged sword blades suspended from an iron cross. The shadows cast by a spotlight from the wall nearby represent the swords of the four knights who carried out the murder.

 Martyrdom Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral, c.1408

On the south wall, close to the Altar of the Sword Point is a wall tablet commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II in May 1982. The Pope, attended by five Cardinals, was received by the Archbishop Dr. Robert Runcie (1980-91) and Charles, Prince of Wales at the West Door of the Cathedral.  This was an historic and remarkable visit – the Pope not only arrived by helicopter but he was the first ever reigning pontiff to visit the UK.

At the time of the Pope’s visit, 444 years after the removal of the Altar of the Sword’s Point at the behest of Henry VIII, there was nothing here to mark the place of the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket. The Pope and Archbishop Runcie knelt together in silent prayer facing the south wall at the place now marked by the commemorative tablet. 

The Deans’ Chapel (or Chapel of Our Lady), constructed in 1445 and with an early example of a fan-vaulted roof, is so-named because it contains the tombs of several notable post-Restoration Deans of the Cathedral. The wrought iron gates at the entrance to the chapel date from the 17th century.

Among the tombs on the South wall of the chapel is that of Dean Dr. John Boys (1619 to 1625) is the grandest monument in the chapel. Robed in a red cassock, gown and ruff, he sits in his library in the Deanery, with a book in front of him. One of his last acts was to bless the marriage of Charles I to Queen Henrietta Maria, when they visited the Cathedral in June 1625.

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The tomb of Archbishop John Peckham (1279-1294) on the north wall of The Martyrdom is the only surviving monument in the Cathedral  in the Decorated Gothic style. His effigy is carved in oak, though his silver mitre has long since disappeared. Peckham was the only Franciscan archbishop of Canterbury (the monks of the cathedral priory were Benedictines). He was the archbishop who presided at the wedding  of Edward I to Margaret of Anjou in 1299, which took place here in the Martyrdom.

Alongside Peckham is the tomb of Archbishop William Warham (1503-1532) friend of Erasmus and Holbein, and the last pre-Reformation archbishop. He supervised the coronation of Henry VIII and conducted the service for his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Warham presided over the Convocation of 1532 that gave approval to Henry VIII’s Act of the Submission of the Clergy, finally conceding that the Crown was the ultimate authority in all matters ecclesiastical. It seems apt, or ironic perhaps, that the Warham should be buried in the place where Becket’s murder took place. It was Becket who, with his death and martyrdom, had defeated Henry II’s attempt 360 years earlier, to achieve the same ends.

The fifteenth century York Royal Window (c.1480) on the north side of the Transept is best viewed from the vantage point of the Pulpitum steps (next stop).

The modern Coronation Window (1954) on the west side of the transept was presented by the freemasons of Kent to mark the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.

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There is a Latin inscription, in red, over the door leading outside to the Cloister that reads:

Est sacer intra locus venerabilis atqui beatus praesul ubi sanctus Thomas est martyrizatus.

The holy place within is where the blessed Saint Thomas was martyred.

This may seem a little odd – the inscription should surely be on the other side of the doorway?  In fact, the inscription was originally over a different door entirely – “The Red Door”. This door was set into an internal wall (built c.1200) in the Northwest Transept that separated the throng of pilgrims visiting the Martyrdom from the monks going about their daily devotions. The partition created an unimpeded corridor between the monks’ entrance from the cloister and the stairs leading to the Choir. The inscription over the monks’ side of the doorway, served to remind them of what lay within.

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Where next?

 Exit from here to the X Pulpitum Steps.

Accessible Itinerary. Return to the X Southwest Transept via the crossing tunnel.