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This is a CGI reconstruction of Thomas Beckets shrine.           Source: Dr John Jenkins / Taylor & Francis Group

Thomas Becket’s Sacred Healing Shrine Digitally Reconstructed


800 years to the day since the body of England s legendary Saint Thomas Becket was moved to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, in southeast England, this mysterious and deeply sacred building has been digitally reconstructed using new evidence and the resulting computer-generated imagery (CGI) posted online.

Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 AD. He lived a life defending the rights of the Catholic Church until his murder, in 1170 AD, by the knights of his former friend, King Henry II. Regarded as a martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, he was venerated as Saint Thomas Becket and his tomb became the most important pilgrimage site in England - among the most sanctified in Europe.

“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” King Henry II and Thomas Becket. (Public domain)

“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” King Henry II and Thomas Becket. (Public domain)

Digital Reconstruction by Blindfolded Scientists

Located within the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury, Becket’s shrine was destroyed in 1538 AD after King Henry VIII broke from Rome causing the Reformation in England which saw the greater part of England’s Catholic churches, chapels and cathedrals being destroyed by Protestants. Now, exactly 800 years after the first jubilee of Saint Thomas' Becket’s death, when his body was moved to the cathedral, a new paper published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association describes how a recently made, “freely viewable, stunning video digitalization” is the most accurate recreation of the shrine to date.

The historical investigators’ closest existent references were the shrines of St. Edward the Confessor at Westminster and St. Etheldreda at Ely, both dating to the mid-to-late 13th-century. Dr. John Jenkins, a historic researcher on the shine reconstruction team, from the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York, explains that because there are no contemporary comparators, the CGI reconstruction uses “all currently available evidence including eyewitness accounts; theories from past historians for potential usage of the shrine; date of construction; materials used; specific features; accessibility and location with the church; similar examples elsewhere; as well as those who created it; to reconstruct how the shrine could have looked.”

The Assassination of Thomas Becket. (Tony Baggett / Adobe Stock)

The Assassination of Thomas Becket. (Tony Baggett / Adobe Stock)

Computer-Generated Imagery Based Firmly on Reality

A report about the new reconstruction, published at Kent Online, explains that the team's design is the first to be based upon surviving fragments of the shrine. These fragments have been discovered by archaeologists in and around Canterbury Cathedral since the 19th century. Although some historians debate whether these fragments originally came from Becket’s shrine, the team behind the CGI say they “feel sure.”

Among the evidence that has helped give them confidence in these findings are the trefoil and stiff-leaf decoration on some of the fragments that stylistically indicate a common origin. They are “very close in type and quality to the carved capitals of the Trinity Chapel,” said Dr. Jenkins. The fact that this type of marble is only found in the Trinity Chapel, “surely indicates that these fragments come from St. Thomas' shrine rather than any others,” explains Dr. Jenkins,

New Archaeological Tools Aid Historic Interpretation of Thomas Becket’s Shrine

The team’s new model is based on how the shrine would have looked in 1408 AD, at a time when over 100,000 pilgrims visited the sacred site every year. Dr. Jenkins highlights in the paper that the shrine was a “collaborative effort”. The model includes many features such as “a major finding” of iron grilles enclosing the saint’s shrine, which would serve to enhance “a sense of mystery" for pilgrims arriving at the low-lit sacred site. Pilgrims would have tied offerings for the saint onto the metal bars to request miraculous cures. Dr. Jenkins explains that belief in Becket’s healing powers was so strong that in the decade after his death “over 700 healing miracles had been recorded at his tomb.”

This association with healing caused the saint’s tomb to become one of the most important centers of pilgrimage in Europe. It is an honor that this paper and reconstruction have been made public on the 800th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s shrine. You can watch the video free on the website for Pilgrimage and England's Cathedrals: Past and Present. While it is entertaining for armchair archaeologists to see, this video is essentially a new archaeological tool which helps visitors to Canterbury Cathedral gain a more realistic, multi-dimensional picture of what this highly-significant site would have looked like.

Top image: This is a CGI reconstruction of Thomas Beckets shrine.           Source: Dr John Jenkins / Taylor & Francis Group

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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