On Tuesday, 7 July, after a two week, 150 mile pilgrimage on foot from Winchester to Canterbury, I knelt in prayer on the worn marble flagstones on the Trinity Shrine of the cathedral to commemorate the memory of Archbishop Thomas Becket.
Instead of the thousands of bishops, priests and members of the public expected for the 800th anniversary of the Translation of Becket’s saintly bones, only a tiny handful of pilgrims made it to the cathedral in which he was famously murdered in 1170.
The original 1220 service had been at the the third canonical hour of the day, at 9am not 3pm. Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury noted this as he led our small pilgrim band of three – myself, Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT) and his trustee Abigail Rowe – through the cloisters and up the Dean’s Steps into the north transept close to the site of Becket’s murder.
Here we prayed by the candle light, its flame signifying the spirit of Thomas Becket, the saint whose legacy and golden shrine was destroyed in 1538.
Back then, statues of St Thomas and other saints were pulled down – not so unlike today. Henry VIII issued an order declaring that “henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed and called a saint… and that his images and pictures throughout the whole realm shall be plucked down and that from henceforth the days used to be festival in his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but raised and put out of all the books.” This included removing any references to ‘St Thomas in carols, prayers and in any liturgy.
Due to Covid-19, the planned programme of festivities to mark his 800th Translation have now been “turned on their head” by six months so that they will now be more sequentially correct.
They will – God willing – start around the date of his murder on 29th December and will last until July 2021. These will include a loan from the Vatican of a reliquary containing the famous tunicle (vestment) that Becket wore when he was killed in his own cathedral.
Choral singers have been banned from singing due to health risks attached to flying throat molecules. – William Cash
As we stood kneeling close to the candle, Guy – a former choral scholar at Cambridge – began to sing a medieval 15th century lament called “Saint Thomas honour we”. It was a song Guy had been practising as we had spent the day walking the final part of the Pilgrims’ Way from Chilham to Canterbury via Harbledown, where Chaucer’s cook gets so drunk in the Canterbury Tales that he can’t continue to the shrine (it’s only half a mile). It’s also the village from where Henry II walked barefoot to the cathedral on July 10 1174 in penance, before being scourged by his own bishops and monks. It begins: “Saint Thomas honour we/Through whose blood Holy Church is made free”.
The next time Guy sang, the opening stanza of the song was beside the miraculous holy well of St Thomas in the grounds of St Nicholas Hospital, a former leper hospice which is now pretty almshouses. The water of the hospital’s St Thomas’s well was as clear as a rock pool. We dipped our hands in the cool and fresh spring water as pilgrims have done for 800 years.
As such, I was expecting a virtuoso third rendition of the song as the Dean stood beside us in the Trinity Chapel, an elegant and charming man dressed in canonical black, who could have walked out of a Trollope novel.
About a dozen feet away stood a sign showing an image of a medieval shrine informing visitors of the symbolism of the lonely flame in front of us: “The candle burns where the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury stood from 1220 to 1538.”
When Guy began to sing his lament to “Seynt Thomas”, without warning, the Dean stood motionless for a moment but, in the most kindly, polite but firm manner, cut him short, after a few chords had filled the sacred altar area. “No singing is allowed”, he said.
Choral singers have been banned from singing due to health risks attached to flying throat molecules. Health and Safety had not been such an issue 800 years ago when many pilgrims had crawled up the steps to the shrine, which became the most popular in Christendom.
After Becket’s shrine was dedicated in 1220, hundreds of miracles were reported, as well as divine signs – or revealing coincidences – reported by pilgrims. On a pilgrimage, it’s easy to get carried away by the meaning of random coincidences. But it was strange that the only other pilgrim we encountered inside the cathedral (and I met only two other Canterbury-bound pilgrims over two weeks walking the Pilgrims’ Way) was Will Parsons, the co-founder, with Guy, of the BPT. Neither of them knew the other was going and arrived at the same time. Will had walked for the last few days along the last part of the Old Way, an ancient route to Canterbury from Southampton.
It was very opposite of the pomp of the consecration 800 years ago. – William Cash
Parsons carried a wooden staff, a pilgrim’s hat and also carried vials of water freshly taken from the well at Saltwood Castle, where Becket’s killers had stayed the night before his murder. In addition to dabbing my face with the holy spring water that had once cured lepers, I now had “assassins water” rubbed into my skin.
The mood at the cathedral was low-key, with just twenty or so public at Evening Song at 5.30pm where the Dean referring to the bravery and “example” of Becket in standing up for church rights. We all sat several feet from one another and St Thomas themed medieval music was piped through speakers – no choir was in sight.
It was very opposite of the pomp of the consecration 800 years ago. The Dean gave me a copy of the service on Sunday for the Devotion for the Consecration of the Shrine. This included an account of the Translation from 1220. “So great was the crowd of bishops, abbots, priors, retinues, lords, rich and poor folk that poured into Canterbury .. that the city and its surrounding village could hardly contain it.”
Another part of the Becket legend is that all the key moments in Becket’s life apparently happened on a Tuesday – from his birth to his exile to his death. Perhaps it was fitting that despite only a few pilgrim stragglers making it to honour the memory of a man who was killed defending his faith and freedom, July 7 2020 fell on a Tuesday.
William Cash is the Chairman of the Catholic Herald. Part two of his pilgrimage will be published next week.
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