On the 800th anniversary of the Translation of the saintly bones of St Thomas Becket, The Times reported that York University had built a 3D computer version of the famous shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury. The virtual shrine looks a little like a computer game, showing pilgrims prostrating themselves in a fever of religious devotion.
Curiously, when pilgrims from across Europe pay homage to the candle that burns in the cathedral where Becket’s magnificent bejewelled shrine once stood, it is often forgotten that there is already an existing Canterbury shrine to St Thomas – with Becket relics – and it is within a hundred yards of the Cathedral.
Canterbury, I came to learn, isn’t just a place, or the home of the primate of the English church. It is also a state of mind. – William Cash
I was not aware of this myself until I walked across Canterbury’s ancient Burgate to the Catholic church of St Thomas, just across from the Postern gate of the cathedral. Two of Becket’s relics can still be seen in a reliquary above the altar of the Martyr’s Chapel. When I visited, four candles in brass holders were lit on the altar, dressed with a red altar cloth bearing the the coat of arms of the City of Canterbury (attributed as the arms of Thomas Becket, chancellor of King Henry II).
The relics stand next to a piece of vestment belonging to another murdered archbishop, Oscar Romero. He was assassinated in 1980 by the San Salvador state after calling for the military to stop carrying out government orders.
The Canterbury Catholic church dates to 1875 and is built in the Pugin style. Today its grounds and benches are popular with the homeless. The two Becket relics have a pedigree that is well authenticated: trade in faked relics was big business in the middle ages.
The story of the Catholic church of St Thomas has often been muffled out in comparison with the hoopla surrounding the controversial events of 1170 – the murder of Becket in his own cathedral on 29th December, the Translation of his bones in 1220 to a new shrine and its 1538 destruction by Henry VIII.
The importance of the cathedral and its shrine was, of course, made even more famous by Chaucer, with his Canterbury Tales being the first book that Caxton printed. As he wrote: “of England they to Canterbury went/ The holy blessed martyr there to seek”.
But, in a sense, the much smaller church of St Thomas is just as important part of the Canterbury and Becket story. The Becket relics include a finger bone from the saint that was given to the church by a relation of one of the four knights who murdered Becket, as some form of family contrition.
Provenance for such relics are often shrouded in some mystery. But that has long been the case in the pilgrimage trade, where saintly bones were essential for drawing pilgrims and income. In the middle ages, piety and profit were always close companions.
What exactly happened to Becket’s bones is another source of mystery. The monks and priests of Canterbury – and that includes today’s senior clergy – have always shown much loyalty to Thomas Becket. When I asked the Dean, Robert Willis, about this claim, he said he thought it unlikely that the casket had survived the destruction of the shrine by the church commissioners in 1538. Some believe that his bones still lie hidden under the floor of the cathedral. The Dean made the convincing point that had the bones survived, the prior of Canterbury would surely have unearthed them when Queen Mary – a Catholic – ascended to the throne in 1553.
The real journey is as much looking for the spirit of God, or the divine, within ourselves. – William Cash
Some say Becket’s bones were burnt, and another theory is that they were placed inside a canon by commissioner Thomas Cromwell and blown to dust by gunpowder.
As I prayed close to this lesser-known Catholic shrine, I thought that the authenticity of such relics is not what really drives the pilgrim spirit. God is all around us. The real journey is as much looking for the spirit of God, or the divine, within ourselves.
After lighting a candle in the church, I read that the origin of the two Becket relics probably dated back to the opening of the original shrine 800 years ago – July 1220 – when “small relics of the saint were removed and taken by the cardinals to the Continent on their return journey”. This must be how the vestment scrap ended up being authenticated by Bishop Gubbio of Italy in 1794. The finger bone was brought to Canterbury in 1953 by Dom Thomas Becquet – apparently a descendent of Thomas a Becket – from the Abbey of Chevetogne in Belgium.
I had walked over 100 miles from Winchester along the Pilgrims’ Way to get to Canterbury. Although reaching my destination gave a sense of purpose, what mattered more was feeling renewed by the divine spirit of place, regardless of whether one has collected the stamps on one’s pilgrim’s passport or not. That pilgrimages continue in our (largely) godless age means that they answer to some calling within us to reach out to the divine.
When Hilaire Belloc reached the former shrine of St Thomas Becket on 29 December at the turn of the last century, after walking to Canterbury from Winchester, he reflects about how the world has changed and its great Gothic soul has been “emptied of every meaning, tragic and blind”. As I stood in prayer in the Martyr’s Chapel, Father Anthony came up to me and introduced himself. He gave me a prayer card that contained the words and music of a prayer to St Thomas, a 13th century Antiphon for St Thomas’s feast day:
O Thomas, help us.
Guide the upright. Raise the fallen.
Correct our morals. deeds and lives
and lead us to the way of peace.
Unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims, who never make it to Canterbury, I did. His Tales remain unfinished. They are a form of time travel, as much about the quest for Canterbury – and what that means to individuals – rather than the journey itself. Canterbury, I came to learn, isn’t just a place, or the home of the primate of the English church. It is also a state of mind. It is that place on our life’s own highway – where the old way meets the new – where we seek our truths, and confessions, regardless of creed or beliefs.
Perhaps we all have our own internal Road to Canterbury which is why pilgrims will always continue to visit Becket’s shrine’ – virtual or physical.
William Cash is Chairman of the Catholic Herald. You can read about Part One of his pilgrimage by clicking here.
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