Canterbury Cathedral today calls it ‘Evensong’ but in the 12th century it was known as ‘Vespers’ – or ‘the lighting of the lamps’. As every British schoolboy knows – or used to know – it was whilst celebrating Vespers on 29th December, 1170, around 5.30pm, that Archbishop Thomas a Becket was hacked to death by four knights loyal to Henry II in the north-west transept.
Exactly 850 years to the hour that Becket’s head was left severed on the bloodied stone floor, I stood close to the very ‘Martyr’s Door’ (the door is the original) through which the knights had barged after Becket had ordered the doors to be opened, knowing full well the fate that awaited him.
Several of the knights were – according to eyewitness accounts – drunk, and had come from France, staying the previous night at Saltwood Castle, home of Baron Ranulf de Broc. After murdering Becket, they galloped back to Saltwood.
The dramatic events of that infamous night were to change British history with Becket canonised as a saint in 1173. His shrine at the Cathedral swifty became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe.
Normally, on the 29th December, the Dean of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Canterbury lead a special candle-lit Evensong service in the packed cathedral, which stopped off – like a passion play or stations of the cross – at the various parts of the cathedral where the dramatic events of Dec 1170 took place.
But this 850th anniversary year, the usual thousand strong congregation was reduced to perhaps 80 members of the public. The Herald appeared to be the only press present. In addition to marking the 850th anniversary of the ‘Martyrdom of Thomas of Canterbury’ the service also marked the final service – after 40 years – of Cathedral organist Dr David Flood.
In the Dean’s introduction to this ‘very significant act of worship’, which began ‘as darkness falls’, the Very Rev Robert Willis reminded the audience that it was because of Becket’s martyrdom that ‘a flowering of pilgrimage began’ to Canterbury. The popular holiday journey – practically the only medieval form of travel – was both satirised and celebrated by Chaucer two hundred years later in the Canterbury Tales. Numbers may have been curtailed in 2020 but pilgrims ‘will come again as soon as the pandemic is over’.
Also assisting in the service were priests Father Anthony and Father John from the Catholic church of St Thomas Becket adjacent to the cathedral. The church, built in 1875, contains a martyr’s shrine to Becket with some relics – including a piece of his finger. Alas the saintly bones that lay in the bejeweled gilt cathedral shrine to Becket opened in July 1220 were destroyed by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1540.
This year over 1000 events were planned to celebrate the double Becket 2020 anniversary, including the loan – from the papal church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome – of the blood splattered ‘tunicle’ (vestment) worn by St Thomas Becket during his fateful last Vespers as archbishop.
Yet almost the only official cathedral event was this socially distanced 850th anniversary service around the hour of his murder. The atmosphere was less baroque than usual due to scaffolding and more sanitisers than candles and social distancing. T.S Eliot was given top billing in the service, with two readings from his play, Murder in the Cathedral, commissioned by the cathedral in 1935.
No public singing. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — the 105th — held a rather disappointing new-looking wooden crosier – I was expecting at least a few jewels. The highlight was some noisy banging on the original 12th century oak doors of the Cathedral that Becket ordered to be opened.
This came during a reading from Eliot’s Murder play: ‘Unbar the door! unbar the door!… We are not here to triumph by fighting…..Now is the triumph of the Cross…Open the door! I command it’.
Here Eliot helps us to unlock the mystery as to why the Becket cult and his popular appeal as a saint have remained so powerful for 850 years. In short, his appeal is that Becket was no saint before becoming anointed as a priest. His conversion is that of a man who loves his hunting, his money and his status. His conversion is all too human.
As Eliot has him reflect in the play: ‘While I ate out of the King’s dish/To become a servant of God was never my wish’. It’s worth remembering – few do – that he had only been ordained as a priest shortly before being made Archbishop of Canterbury by his one time close friend Henry II.
In the Antiphon sung by the choir at the beginning of the service, the Chapter of the Cathedral aptly chose the following Latin verse:
Summo sacerdotio Thomas sublimartus
est in virum alium subito mutatus
“When raised to the highest priestly office
Thomas was suddenly transformed into another man
Becket’s own ‘conversion’ from worldly, ambitious, hunting-mad chancellor to hair-shirt ascetic saintly defender of canon law, was what turned the London-born, middle-class draper’s son into the patron saint of England and European pilgrim travel. The English like a popular rebel who sticks it to authority, whether it’s royal or council tyranny.
Which is why Eliot was clever to portray the ‘tipsy’ knights as public minded ‘nationalist’ brawlers only wanting to serve their country (‘It is our country. We care for the country’). We heard such dangerous arguments from Sir Oswald Mosley (running the British Union of Fascists in 1935).
The English like any sort of freedom fighter who takes on the state which is the battle that made Becket a martyr. In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot hints that Becket may have staged his own dramatic death and is guilty of spiritual vanity. But nobody can say that Becket didn’t die for the cause of church freedom.
After a brief friendly socially distant exchange with the Dean after the service — my third meeting with him since July, the last being for a December funeral of a close friend in the cathedral crypt — I drove the fifteen miles to Saltwood castle, a mile north of Hythe by the Kent coast, under a nearly full moon.
I drove the old cross-country way to Saltwood through Domesday villages like Otham, Lening and Charing, probably the same route to the coast as that of the escaping knights. On arriving at the castle lodge, I tried to imagine the scene when they arrived back, shocked by their deeds and splattered with blood. That the gates today are so close to a terraced row of ugly modern houses on Castle Road, many entirely decorated with kitsch neon Christmas lights and flashing Santa Claus figures, made the visit surreal.
Despite our secular age, it was reassuring to know that the Becket cult is very much alive and well. In the new digital age, his ‘followers’ are only multiplying. Part of Becket’s enduring appeal is that his life and ‘conversion’ was an epic journey itself that crosses through all faiths and religion. Even if you are not religious, we seem to be living in a new age where people are looking for a renewed sense of meaning; or, a ‘journey with purpose’ to use the new ‘bring-your own-beliefs’ pilgrim philosophy.
As I left Saltwood, my nocturnal pilgrimage reminded me that we are drawn back not so much into the ‘nostalgic past’ but into the living past of real events. Our buildings tell the story of England, and few flint ancient walls have played witness to events as momentous as on the night of 29th December 1170.
William Cash is chairman of the Catholic Herald
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