St William's Shrine

A pilgrim is shown making an offering at the shrine.

1324AD - 1472AD

Archbishop William Fitzherbert was declared a saint in 1224. About a hundred years later a new Archbishop, Thomas Melton, gave the incredible sum of £20 for the creation of a shrine to be placed over William’s grave in the newly reconstructed west end of York Minster.

St. William’s shrine was one of the largest in England, even rivalling that of St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury. Much of the surviving sculpture is of what is called marginalia figures, that is figures that have no a direct biblical meaning. These include a Falconer, a Mason and some Pilgrims. The carving is of the finest English style. There were also figures of saints, located all around the top. One that still remains is St. Margaret, identified with the dragon that she defeated through prayer. The sculpture would originally have been painted with bright colours.

Pilgrims would travel to the shrine to pray to St. William. They would pay for access to it. Sometimes they left wax models near the shrine representing their prayers, such as a foot to heal a limp, or a ship to invite safe passage. The pilgrims and their offerings are illustrated in St. William’s window in the Minster.

The importance of the pilgrimages was demonstrated by the fact that in 1472 it was decide to created a second shrine in the Eastern end of the Minster, in a space called the Scanctum Sanctoru. It was designed by the Master Mason, Robert Spillesby. This shrine was made from fossil limestone probably from Teesdale, this harder stone was long thought to be a marble and required craftsmen from London to be brought to York to work it. The shrine had four niches on either side for pilgrims to kneel and pray; each one had elaborate architectural carving and whimsical green men peering out from the foliage.

It is thought that both shrines were dismantled during the Reformation, certainly no later than 1541. It appears that they were broken up and buried for safe keeping within Precentor’s Court in York. In 1835 sections of both shrines were uncovered, more were found during later excavations the last of which took place in 1928.  It is thought that there may still be some sections of the shrine buried beneath the houses in Precentor’s Court.


  • Yorkshire Museum
    Sections of the shrine are on display at the Yorkshire Museum

Related themes

Here is a list of themes to explore.

More themes