Saint Thomas Becket

800th anniversary of the translation of the relics of Saint Thomas Becket
Matt Betts

Early this week, Christians around the world commemorated the anniversary of Saint Thomas Becket’s remains being moved to a new Shrine in 1220. Fifty years after his martyrdom, on 7 July 1220, the relics of Saint Thomas were removed from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, where he had been buried, to the magnificent shrine prepared between the high altar and the apse of the cathedral, in the presence of the papal legate, of King Henry III, and of Archbishop Stephen Langton.  

The murder of Becket was a pivotal moment in the history of the cathedral. He was murdered in the north-west transept (also known as the Martyrdom) on Tuesday, 29 December 1170, by knights of King Henry II. After his martyrdom, pilgrims flocked from miles around to visit the Shrine of St Thomas Becket – including a remorseful King Henry II. Fictional pilgrims to the Shrine are portrayed in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Unfortunately, the shrine was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on orders from King Henry VIII. The king also ordered that Becket's bones were to be destroyed and declared that all mention of Becket’s name should be obliterated.

Nevertheless, and fortunately, King Henry VIII's wish to obliterate Becket's name failed and the the modern-day visitor (subject to visiting times in this Covid-19 era), can visit a candle which marks the place where St Thomas Becket’s shrine was situated (with some stunning windows behind). Surrounding the Shrine is the tomb of King Henry IV and his wife; plus opposite them, their cousin, the famous Black Prince. 

As 2020 is such a special anniversary, York University have reconstructed the Shrine using CGI. Researchers at York University have used all currently available evidence to reconstruct how the shrine would have looked in 1408. Read more here.

It is also possible to visit a modern sculpture marking the spot of St Thomas Becket's martyrdom. It was installed in 1986, and the dramatic sculpture represents four swords for the four knights (two metal swords with reddened tips and their two shadows). The design is the work of Giles Blomfield of Truro. 

Before the sculpture had been installed, Saint Pope John Paul II knelt and prayed with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1982 and a plaque (see below) can be seen there.

Bringing us into the 21st Century, how should we reflect on this martyrdom 800 years later? On this, I would like to share the thoughts of the Archbishop of Canterbury..

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a personal reflection on the continuing significance of Thomas Becket during a symposium held at Lambeth Palace in 2016. Archbishop Justin Welby noted the ecumenical significance of Becket, who he said "has become one of the symbols for the whole church, a sign to the whole church; he calls us together." Becket is "a figure who brings us together and enables us to reflect on the task and call of the church in the light of the challenges we face...” Within the church, he added, Becket is "a sign of eternal hope", and someone who calls the church to political awareness. Noting Becket's significance for him personally as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Justin had said: "For me Becket is challenge and reassurance, inspiration, but ultimately a fellow receiver of the grace of God."

Let us pray...

O God, for the sake of whose Church the glorious Bishop Thomas fell by the sword of ungodly men: grant, we beseech Thee, that all who implore his aid, may obtain the good fruit of his petition. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who livest and reignest with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.