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Sacred spaces

30 September 2016

Shrines are precious, and draw in pilgrims and the curious, Leigh Hatts finds



Famous martyr: St Thomas Becket in a window in Canterbury Cathedral

Famous martyr: St Thomas Becket in a window in Canterbury Cathedral

Shrines and Saints in England and Wales
Michael Tavinor
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18



THE Dean of Hereford Cathedral, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor, has not only written the first survey of English and Welsh cathedral shrines, but has also considered their influence today.

The Reformation brought terrible scenes of destruction, as shrines were plundered and destroyed by licensed vandals. Only Durham and Westminster Abbey kept their saints’ relics intact. In 2010, Pope Benedict was able to kneel before the original shrine of St Edward the Confessor during evensong at Westminster Abbey, and is said to have been deeply impressed by the experience.

St Edward was canonised thanks to St Thomas Becket, whose own shrine at Canterbury, according to Dean Tavinor, rivalled Rome and Santiago de Compostela in popularity. The Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury begins in Winchester, where St Swithun’s shrine was one of the first to be recreated in the 20th century. Although the saint’s bones are missing, the canopy depicting rain on one side and sun on the other immediately connects with visitors who are familiar with the annual saint’s-day weather forecasts.

The importance of distinguishing between tourist and pilgrim was raised in 1925 by Dean Bennett of Chester, whose cathedral was the first to reopen its refectory. He claimed that the heritage of the religious past should be made alive for the needs of today. An authentic saint’s shrine cannot be invented. Wells rashly built one, hoping for a canonisation that did not happen. Salisbury had to wait 350 years before Osmund was declared a saint, and within 80 years the Reformation had shut down the pilgrim flow.

The evidence in this book is that recovered shrines are considered precious, and are again attracting both pilgrims and the curious. People from a variety of backgrounds leave prayers at St Ethelbert’s shrine in Hereford. The author’s conclusion is that in such places the boundary between heaven and earth is extremely thin.


Leigh Hatts is author of The Pilgrims’ Way: Winchester & London to Canterbury, to be published next year by Cicerone Press.

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