I read William Cash’s article in the July Herald magazine, Canterbury Trails, with pleasure. I feel a slight but enduring affinity with St Thomas Becket when, as an undergraduate, I joined a troupe called the Pembroke Players who performed TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in Germany and Poland during one long vac. I had to run onto the stage, in black leggings and black jumper, at the head of the chorus of women, as we wildly chanted our lines to the music of Verdi’s Dies Irae.
This year is the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder on 29 December 1170. Following the Herald article, I was sent Devotions to St Thomas Becket by John S Hogan (Gracewing £7.99). The book includes a short introduction which reminds readers that Canterbury “was a medieval Lourdes”, drawing thousands of pilgrims and witnessing many miracles until the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII. The author, a parish priest in Meath, Ireland, has written a brief biography, linking Thomas to our own times in “his experiences, his mistakes, his trials and sufferings.”
Hogan makes the point that despite his love of fine living, hunting and hawking, during his time as chancellor to Henry II, Becket always preserved his chastity. This, in a typically licentious courtly atmosphere, must have been difficult, leading one to think that perhaps, along with the piety instilled in him by his mother, Becket had some premonition that at some future stage he would be an instrument in God’s hands and thus set apart from other men.
His cult emerged very quickly after his death. The ordinary people of England, deeply Catholic in belief if not always in practice, as Chaucer’s pilgrims so artfully remind us, would have seen this “low-born clerk” (as Henry II described him) as their tribune: standing up to a powerful sovereign in defence of the rights and privileges of the Church. They would have known of Becket’s turning from the world to God after becoming Archbishop, his holiness and severe ascetical practices. And they would have been horrified and scandalised by the sacrilege attendant on his butchery by four knights near the altar of his own church.
In his book, Hogan includes a new Christmas novena to St Thomas. Its reflections do not gloss over Becket’s human faults: “He was often angry and impulsive. His battles with King Henry brought out the worst in him…”, but they also emphasise his change of life after his conversion: like St Stephen, the first martyr, “he was ready to endure what he had to endure to fulfil the will of God.” Cash relates that in his last moments “Becket declared his allegiance to God and ‘the Church’s cause.’”
Fr Hogan includes a short pilgrim’s guide within the city of Canterbury itself: the Seven Stations of St Thomas of Canterbury start at St Dunstan’s church, proceed along the “Pilgrim Walk” to the Cathedral, then move from the cloister to the place of Becket’s martyrdom, on to the crypt, the site of his tomb, concluding at the Martyrs’ Chapel in the parish church of St Thomas of Canterbury. Doubtless, during the lockdown access might be difficult but it would be well worth planning for a future occasion. We still need St Thomas’s intercession; today it is the overweening power of a secularist state that Christians have to contend with, rather than a medieval over-powerful king.
The drawings that introduce each chapter, based on illustrations about Thomas’s life from medieval manuscripts, have been skilfully executed by a monk from Silverstream Priory in County Meath.