Western Crypt (North Aisle)

Wall paintings in St. Gabriel’s Chapel. ©2020 guides-guide.org

Western Nave

Fire Watchers Memorial
Great West Window

Eastern Nave

Pulpit
Altar
Compass Rose

Western Crypt (South Aisle)

Huguenot Chapel
Our Lady Undercroft
St Gabriel Chapel

Eastern Crypt

Watching Chamber
"Transport"
Jesus Chapel

Western Crypt (North Aisle)

Ch. of Holy Innocents
St Nicholas Ch.
St Mary Magdalene Ch.

Martyrdom

Altar of the Sword Point
The Deans' Chapel

Pulpitum Steps

Royal Window
Bell Harry
Great South Window

Choir

Parclose Screen
Archbishop's Throne
St Augustine's Chair

North Choir Aisle

Chichele Tomb
Bible Windows
Northeast Transept

Trinity Chapel North

Opus Alexandrinum
Miracle Windows
Henry IV Tomb
Becket Shrine

Trinity Chapel South

Corona Chapel
Black Prince
Miracle Windows

South Choir Aisle

St Anselm's Chapel
Bossanyi Windows
Southeast Transept

Southwest Transept

Stairs to the Crypt
Level access to Martyrdom
Exit

Cloister

Heraldic shields
South, East, North & West panes
Cloister Garth

Great Cloister

Heraldic shields
South, East, North & West panes
Cloister Garth

Chapter House

Wagon Vault
Victorian stained glass

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

MapThe Western Crypt is the oldest part of the Cathedral and the largest crypt in England. Unusually for a crypt there is daylight here – because of the height of the water table, the crypt was built above ground. It was constructed between 1096-1100 during the time of the second Norman Archbishop, Anselm, though sections of wall (e.g. the hatched section of the stairwell, on the right, as we come down from the Martyrdom) are earlier remnants of the small crypt of Lanfranc, dating from 1071-77.

Note the Norman “Romanesque” style of architecture at this point, characterised by rounded arches and carved columns and ‘capitals’ in a variety of designs.

Accessible Itinerary. For step-free access to the crypt, please use the North Door at the rear of the Cathedral.

  • Western Crypt constructed 1096-1100
  • Eastern Crypt constructed 1179-1181 
  • Overall length of Crypt: 88 m  290 ft
    • Western Crypt: 58 m 100 ft
    • Eastern Crypt: 30m 100 ft
  • Height: 4.5 m 14.5 ft
    • Eastern Crypt:  6.7 m 22 ft
  • Width: 26m 66 ft
    • Eastern Crypt:  20 m 66 ft
  • Width at Transepts: 48 m 158 ft

What's here?

Orientation. At the foot of the the steps leading from the Martydom we are in the north aisle of the Western Crypt, facing east. The North Transept with its two small Chapels of St Nicholas and St Mary Magdalene is off the north aisle, to the left. Opposite the north transept, forming the main part of the central area of the crypt, is the chapel of Our Lady Undercroft . Beyond this, also off the north aisle, is the Chapel of the Holy Innocents with its remarkable carved columns and capitals.

Just a year after the Norman Conquest, in 1067, the Saxon cathedral at Canterbury was completely destroyed by fire and the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070-1089) set about rebuilding it between 1071 and 1077. His cathedral consisted of a nave and single transept (consisting of a sanctuary with altar raised on a small crypt) at its Eastern end.

Lanfranc was also responsible for establishing the community of Benedictine monks and the Priory of Christ Church that was attached to the Cathedral. By the time Lanfranc’s successor, St Anselm became Archbishop in 1093, it was clear that that a much larger church was required to serve the growing needs of the Benedictine community.

Work started on the extension of the Cathedral to the east in 1096 under the supervision of Prior Ernulf (1096-1107) and was completed c.1100. A significantly larger crypt was built as the foundations for a new and “glorious” Choir above. Lanfranc’s small crypt was demolished and a substantially larger crypt built, with 22 columns arranged in pairs to underpin the new Choir. This is the structure of the Western Crypt largely as we see it today – with two processional aisles either side of the main crypt leading east to the sanctuary and altar of Our Lady Undercroft.

Note. The only remnants of Lanfranc’s small crypt visible today are a section of the rear (western) wall of the former Silver Treasury, now an exhibition space (currently closed), and the hatched portion of the staircase wall to the left of the northern steps leading down from the Martyrdom. A semi-elliptic groove, cut into the floor of the north aisle, close to the bottom of these steps, marks the eastern extent of the Lanfranc crypt.

The North Transept contains the small Chapels of St Mary Magdalene (to the left as you face them) and St Nicholas (to the right). They have been used regularly for the morning celebration of Holy Communion (prior to Covid-19 measures) when it was held in a different chapel in the Cathedral every day of the week.

The 13th century French stained glass in the windows of these chapels is part of the William Randolph Hearst collection, acquired by the Cathedral in 1956 from St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan, South Wales.

The Chapel of St Mary Magdalene

The Chapel of St Nicholas

The Quest for Becket’s bones

This Chapel occupies the central area of the Western Crypt and is reserved as a quiet place for prayer and contemplation. Notice the carved columns and capitals here – and in the chapels of St Gabriel (south aisle) and Holy Innocents (north aisle). The capitals of many of the columns are carved with mythical beasts and other figures of no particular religious significance, and include a man on horseback, a lion, a juggler with a man on his head and dragons locked in combat.  Much of the carving would have been done ‘in situ’ using an adze – an axe-like hand tool with its blade at right angles to the shaft. These carvings, may have been done on the stonemasons’ own initiative and appear unfinished in places  – possibly because of the pressure by Prior Ernulf to complete the work quickly.

The sanctuary of the chapel itself is surrounded by beautiful perpendicular screens dating from 1363-70. These screens were probably the work of Henry Yevele, master mason to Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (The Black Prince). It is probable that the cost of the screens was defrayed from the proceeds of the Prince’s gift to the Christ Church Priory, in c.1363, of his manor at Fawkes’ Hall, Vauxhall, which was intended to pay for the construction of the chantry chapel in the south crypt transept – the Black Prince’s Chantry – now the Huguenot Church.

 More

This chapel is the “twin” of the Chapel of St Gabriel on the south side of the crypt.

The carvings on the capitals of the columns are some of the most elaborate and along with those in the St Gabriel chapel are considered to be among the finest Romanesque sculpture in existence. The pillars in the Western Crypt and in these two side chapels were once as richly decorated as those that can still be seem on the walls and ceiling of the St Gabriel chapel. Originally, the pillars were just as colourful as the wall-paintings and there are still slight traces of colour if you look closely.

The first of the two columns in the Holy Innocents features dragons on two sides and floral designs on the other two. In the 15th century, the apse of this chapel was replaced with a square perpendicular window.

Collapse all

Where next?

Next Stop. Continue through the archway (one step down) into the X Eastern Crypt. A ramp is available next to the south aisle entrance for Access  – please ask a member of staff.

Or… exit through north transept (north door) for the gardens, X Great Cloister and X Chapter House.