|A blog to think about, possibly over a mulled cider at the Thomas Becket pub.|
|Altar of the Swordpoint. I'm not sure if I was allowed to take this, but didn't use flash...|
|Beautiful Canterbury Cathedral - the shed to the right is a life-size nativity scene.|
|Old London plane tree frames the view of Canterbury Cathedral.|
Thomas a Becket was the ultimate party animal until his friend Henry II gave him the top Church job at Canterbury in Kent. He then turned into rather a boring, perhaps (whisper it) sanctimonious sackcloth-bloke... or so Henry II thought.
Actually Becket wasn't even a priest until 2 June 1162. A month later he was the Archbishop of Canterbury - hardly a career priest. Thanks to my scattergun knowledge of history and T S Eliot's verse play Murder in the Cathedral we all know a bit about "St" Thomas a Becket. It's a shocking story - Becket fearing the King's displeasure took "sanctuary" in Canterbury Cathedral, then a very sensible precaution which usually saved you your life. Unfortunately four of the king's more brute knights rode their horses into this astonishingly beautiful building and hacked Thomas to death. Although Henry VIII destroyed the first shrine to his memory, Ii's easy to find the spot in the cathedral that so many pilgrims have headed towards (that's where they were going in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) as it's now by the Martyrdom Chapel, with an altar that seems to have a fearful collection of sculptural weapons above (the Altar of the Swordpoint).
Thomas a Becket was murdered on 29 December 1170. He was Catholic. Did services in Latin. But despite being a Medieval celebrity it's quite possible that he'd recognise the services still crowded-out at Canterbury Cathedral today... the ritual, the splendour of the gowns, the high Church choir and the knock-em-dead 's building. Strangely the Cathedral's interior is probably the one thing he wouldn't recognise (so said the lovely lady in a red coat who I used as my primary source this weekend at the cathedral), but practically anyone in the Cathedral could lead you to the spot he died thanks to the tourist signage.
Recently I've taken considerable pleasure in trying to imagine conversations with historical big names - quizzing them to find out if they'd recognise the rituals, ceremonies and culture that we all know. It's a good game.
If you're interested in thinking about this yourself you could even go to Canterbury Cathedral for the annual 29 December memorial which involves a mix of Latin-read service and theatricals. This year (2012) the 3.15pm Saturday evensong includes a procession to the Altar of the Swordpoint...
Here's the story as remembered by Canterbury Cathedral website:
Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?The best known event in the Cathedral's history was the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. Canterbury, always on the medieval pilgrim route to Rome, became an end in itself, as thousands came to worship at Becket's tomb, especially after his canonization in 1173. Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims in his poem, The Canterbury Tales, were by no means unique. They represented the hundreds of thousands who travelled to the Cathedral to pray, repent or be healed at his shrine. (The word canter comes from the pace of the pilgrims' horses as they rode to the Cathedral.) The tradition of pilgrimage is very much alive today, although the journey is faster and considerably more comfortable. Thomas' shrine was destroyed in 1538 on the orders of King Henry VIII; today, a simple candle marks the place where it once stood and the pink stone before it bears the imprint of thousands of pilgrims' knees.
When Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II in 1162, he changed his total allegiance from the King to the Pope and the Church.
Henry had expected his full support, and there were many conflicts between them, the final one being Thomas' excommunication of the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury for their support for Henry's attacks on the rights of Thomas as archbishop; not only had the king’s agents used Thomas’ property while he was in exile in France but, in the summer of 1170, King Henry had his son crowned as his heir by these and other bishops, usurping a long standing right of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Four knights, Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse, and William de Tracy overheard the King's rage and took seriously his shout of "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" On 29 December 1170, returning from France where Henry had held his Christmas Court, they entered the Archbishop’s lodgings from Palace Street; the monks persuaded Thomas to enter the Cathedral from his Palace through the Cloisters and into the North West Transept. Vespers was in progress when the knights burst in, and found Thomas kneeling at the altar. According to Edward Grim, a monk who watched the murder, Thomas refused to absolve the Bishops and told the Knights that "for the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death."
It was not long before he did so. The knights wielded their weapons and administered three mighty blows, the last one breaking off the tip of a sword. Three days after his death, there began a series of miracles attached to his martyrdom. These are depicted in the miracle windows of the Trinity Chapel.
In 1173, Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander III. Pilgrims began to flock to Thomas' shrine in the Cathedral; a year later Henry, in sackcloth, walking barefoot, was among them.
Over to you
I hate rubbernecking - the idea of it anyway - where you go to a place that's seen a tragedy, and goggle, or pay your respects - but when such a spot has been "cleansed" by a big chunk of time, then I seem drawn to them (eg, Tower of London for all those executions...). Do you have the same double standard reflected between daily life and holiday/time-off tourist life? I added a photo of the Thomas Becket pub in a nearby Canterbury backstreet - as that's the obvious place to retire and discuss life choice inconsistencies.