MapThis is the focal point of the Cathedral and, from the foot of the steps leading into the Choir, it is the ideal place to view the Nave below, the magnificent fan vault above your head and, though the Pulpitum arch, into the Choir and Trinity Chapel beyond. Two significant stained glass windows – the (north) Royal Window (c. 1480) and the Great South Window (c.1428) – can also be viewed from here.
In a nutshell
This part of the Cathedral was subject to energetic rebuilding and remodelling between c.1420 and 1508, the end result of which was, in greater part, the Cathedral that you see today.
- Height of fan vault above floor: 38 metres (125 feet)
- Overall height of “Bell Harry” tower: 75.9 metres (249 feet)
- Width across NW-SW Transept: 38 metres (125 feet)
Note the contrasting styles of Gothic architecture visible from here. The Nave and SW Transept are built in the Perpendicular style whereas the Choir (1174-1180) is a fine example of the Early English style.
Orientation. Facing east, the Pulpitum Screen is front of you, the (north) Royal Window is to your left and the Great South Window is to your right..
The Pulpitum Screen with six royal statues (c. 1450-58)
On either side of the Pulpitum arch there are statues of six “kings” – though recent research suggests that the second figure from the left is not, as sometimes thought, Richard II, but Queen Bertha, wife of King Ethelbert of Kent, who at the end of the sixth century played a key part in the restoration of Christianity to the kingdom, and to the foundation of the Cathedral itself. The identification of the statues at either end of the screen as Henry V and Henry VI has also be re-assessed – see note below.
- Henry VI 1422-1461
- Queen Bertha, and
- King Ethelbert 580-616 – holding a small cathedral
- Edward the Confessor 1042-1066
- Henry IV 1399-1413 – his tomb is in the Trinity Chapel
- Henry V 1413-1422
Note. The fleurs de lys in the crown of the leftmost royal statue suggest that this is Henry VI and not his father Henry V as previously assumed. Whilst Henry V’s famous victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 entitled him (under the 1420 Treaty of Troyes) to inherit the French crown on the death of king Charles VII of France, he did not live long enough to claim it (both died in 1422). In the event, it was Henry V’s infant son, Henry VI who became King of France – thus the fleurs de lys in his crown.
The Royal Window (c.1480)
The Yorkist Royal Window, was made at the height of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87). When it was completed, c. 1480 it was named “Our Lady’s Window” as it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and contained images of Christ and the 12 Apostles, seven panels depicting the Virgin Mary, as well as Thomas Becket ‘in full proportion’. The window was a gift of Edward IV. It is said to have been “one of the most magnificent stained glass windows in England”.
In December 1642 the Rev. Richard Culmer – “Blue Dick” – at the head of a group of Puritan iconoclasts arrived at the Cathedral with ladders and pikes and, declaring, “I am doing the work of the Lord”, set about smashing as much of the sacred stained glass, statuary and other “papist” artefacts as he and his followers could reach.
The lower register (row of glass) containing the portraits of Edward IV and his family was spared significant damage. It was subsequently moved up by one register to fill the space left behind by the broken glass.
From left to right, the royal figures are –
- Prince Richard of York (1473-83)
- Edward (V) Prince of Wales (1470-83)
- King Edward IV (1471-1483)
- His wife, Queen Elizabeth Woodville (m. 1464)
- Princesses Ann (1475-1511), Catherine (1479-1527), Bridget (1480-1517), Elizabeth of York (1466-1503) and Cecily (1467-1509)
On Edward IV’s death in 1483, Parliament annulled the marriage and declared their children illegitimate. Edward IV’s brother, Richard III (1483-1485), took power. The two young Princes were imprisoned in the Tower of London and never seen again.
In 1485 Henry Tudor – Henry VII – defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and, in 1486, Princess Elizabeth of York married Henry VII, thereby bringing to an end the struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York.
Bell Harry Fan Vault (1504)
Please exercise caution when looking up -stand clear of the edge of the steps.
Soaring 39 metres (128 feet) above the Pulpitum platform is John Wastell`s magnificent fan vault, completed in 1504. The circular wooden centrepiece bearing the arms of Christ Church Priory (a white cross on a blue background with gold surround) is a trapdoor, 2 metres (6.5 feet) wide, through which building materials, including 480,000 red bricks for the construction of the bell tower above, could be hoisted from the floor below.
The hoist, housed inside the bell chamber was powered by the Great Treadwheel (c. 1495) operated by two men, with a third on the brakes. Though no longer used, it is still in working order after 519 years!
The Great South Window (c. 1428)
A genealogical window – “The Ancestors of Christ”
This impressive window, the widest in the cathedral at 7.6m (25ft) and almost 17m (55ft) high, dates from the remodelling of the Southwest Transept in the Perpendicular style in 1428. Almost all of the original glass in this window was smashed by Puritan iconoclasts in 1642-3.
The window was eventually reglazed in the1660s, following the Restoration of Charles II, though the glass was of poor quality. By 1790, the replacement glass and the original 1428 stonework had deteriorated to the extent that extensive repairs were needed so, in 1799, it was decided to relocate a number of the genealogical glass panels from their positions high up in the clerestories of the Choir and Trinity Chapel to the large South and West windows, where they could be more easily appreciated. Made between 1130-1220, the genealogical windows portrayed 86 ancestors of Christ, as named in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, starting with Adam and ending with Christ. Ironically, they survived the Puritan destruction by virtue of their inaccessibility. The South window contains 22 of the original ancestors and 2 duplicates.
Among the more familiar Old Testament ancestors in the window (to the contemporary eye) are Abraham (second row, left), Noah (bottom row, 2nd left) and Methuselah – who lived to be 969 years old (bottom row, 5th left).
Who’s Who in the South Window
The top row, left to right: Joanna, Er, Joseph, with sceptre, David, his son Nathan, holding a sceptre topped with a dove, Jonah, Jose and Judah.
The second row, left to right: Abraham, Salmon, Hezekiah (Ezekias), with the dial of Ahaz in his hand, David, with harp, Nathan (speculatively), Josiah, with the scroll of the law, Boaz and Zorobabel. The David and Nathan figures in this row are described as “copies” – inaccurate ones, if intended to be of those above(!) – presumably introduced c.1799 when the window was re-instated.
The bottom row, left to right: Lamech, Noah (Noe), Terah (Thear), Jared (Iareth), Methuselah (Mathusala), Phalec, Ragau and Enoch. All are seated against a deep blue ground. Methuselah’s immense age is suggested by the way he leans his chin on his hand, as if too feeble to hold it up, unsupported. He is depicted in pensive mood, indicative of his enormous wisdom. Enoch, “who walked with God”, is gripped by a divine hand, which comes from the clouds above.
The spaces above and below the genealogical figures in each row are filled with fragments of ancient glass. There are many coats of arms of royal and noble families, brought from other parts of the Church and re-arranged here with great skill. After the destruction of the main lights by the Puritans, all that remained was the pinnacle work, which is still in place. The figures of saints and censing angels can be seen in the tracery at the top of this window, together with the coats of arms of Christ Church Priory, the See of Canterbury and St Thomas, all dating from the 1420s, when this window and the glass were installed.
Dating the Ancestors
The genealogical glass that is now in the Great South and West windows had previously been dated to between 1178 and 1220 – the period of 42 years, covering the reconstruction of the Choir following the disastrous fire of 1174, to the grand opening of the new Becket Shrine, Trinity and Corona Chapels in 1220.
In the 1980s, the art historian Prof Madeline Caviness suggested that four of the ancestors’ portraits, including the two central panels in the top row of this window depicting King David and his son (not the prophet of the same name) Nathan, appeared to be from an even earlier period, as they are stylistically different from the others in the series.
In 2021, this hypothesis was tested by researchers from University College London (UCL) using a custom-built, handheld spectrometry device that they called a Windolyser, which dated the portrait of Nathan to around 1130, forty years before the Becket murder, making it the oldest surviving stained glass anywhere in the world.
In June 2009 part of a stone mullion fell from the window. Nobody was hurt, but a structural inspection revealed that a major overhaul of metal reinforcing bars, inserted into the window in the 18th century, was required. The complex restoration project, carried out between 2013 and 2016, involved sourcing 40 tons of compatible limestone from Lavoux in central France and the painstaking restoration and re-assembly of the stained glass.
The Seat of the Ostiarius
To the right of the Pulpitum arch, looking through into the Choir, is a stone bench known as the Seat of the Ostiarius. The Choir was reserved for the sole use of the monks of the adjoining Christ Church Priory (until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1540). The Ostiarius Chori (“the Guardian of the Choir”) was the monk charged with ensuring that only those connected with the Priory entered.
Continue through the Pulpitum arch into the X Choir