Shrine of St. Frideswide, Christ Church Cathedral Oxford.

Monday, December 24, 2012

St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 29 December. (Also known as Thomas of Canterbury)

Stained glass image of St. Thomas from Canterbury
     December 29 is the day on which one of England's most famous churchmen, Thomas of Canterbury, is remembered as the saint who stood up for the Church and was killed in the Cathedral Church of Christ at Canterbury. Thomas' actions leading up to his martyrdom are sometimes criticized as self-serving but all of these actions, and the martyrdom which surpassed them all, were and remain symbols of the Church's rightful position next to or above civil and secular authority in the world.
     Thomas was born into a Norman merchant family in London in around 1120. He was educated in a few monastic schools in London and spent some time in Paris before he returned to England to serve the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, who was a Norman like Thomas and perhaps even related to him. Thomas was made the Archdeacon of Canterbury and held several ecclesiastical positions in Kent, the Cathedrals at London and Lincoln and even at the Yorkshire Benedictine Abbey at Beverly. His success as an administrator in these churches allowed him to become the Chancellor to King Henry II. During his time as chancellor, Thomas and Henry became close friends, and he for now, enjoyed the freedoms of a secular administrator. But after the death of Theobald, Henry nominated Thomas for Archbishop of Canterbury, the primate of all the Church in England,  thinking that as a friend Thomas would resolve the Church vs. State controversy by acknowledging Henry as his superior.
     On becoming Archbishop however, Thomas decided that his allegiance now lay directly and primarily with Christ and his Church. He also adopted a lifestyle of asceticism, wearing a hair shirt to mortify his skin and a black benedictine habit under his episcopal robes to symbolize humility and the vow of poverty. His first conflict with civil authority came at the Council of Clarendon, when Henry tried to take more control over the Church from Rome. Thomas refused to sign and was tried before the for not cooperating. In 1164, Thomas fled to France where he took sanctuary in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigy in Picardy. Before his return in 1170, Henry tried to secure the succession of his son to the English throne by holding a coronation for him. Since Becket was not present, Henry allowed the Archbishop of York instead to crown the prince, which was traditionally a prerogative of the Archbishops of Canterbury. For this, Becket excommunicated York, the other bishops who attended the ceremony and a whole cast of candidates for privileged ecclesiastical offices who had taken to traveling with Henry. Finally after six  years of living as a monastic in exile,  Thomas was allowed to return to England. From Calais, he left for Canterbury in early December 1170. But Henry, while at Rouen, soon learned of the excommunications and, naturally infuriated by them, uttered that fateful phrase: "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" as T.S Elliot wrote it. Meanwhile, Thomas preached a sermon on Christmas Day on Christian martyrdom which included a prediction that this would be his last sermon. On the 29th of December, four knights, who had been with the King at Rouen, arrived at the Palace of the Archbishop in Canterbury. Thomas was leaving with his attendant to go to vespers in the Cathedral. He was pursued through the cloister  but turned to face his murderers at a pier near the entrance of the chapel of St. Benedict. The knights demanded that he renounced the excommunications or come with them out of the Church. Thomas refused to do either and held fast to the pier while one of the knights tried to drag him out. Another knight struck him on the head and after falling to his knees where he received two more blows, saying "I  commend my soul to Christ and the Church." The tomb began to attract pilgrims immediately and hundreds of miracles were recorded. He was canonized just three years later and in 1174, Henry II did penitence there, receiving three blows from each of the eighty monks of Canterbury. His relics were translated into a new shrine in 1220 under Archbishop Langton into the chapel behind the high alter. The shrine remained there until 1538, when Henry VIII had it demolished and Thomas proclaimed a rebel in an effort to eliminate all vestiges of papal power in England.
The Place of Martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. The metal swords and cross                                                                  make a great memorial though the small altar is a bit of a let down.
     As says a booklet from Canterbury Cathedral, now the mother-Church of the Anglican Communion and still a place of pilgrimage for those who "seek the holy blissful martyr quick" (from Chaucer), "there is a law higher than the will of worldly princes, and that secular tyranny, in God's name, be resisted even unto death." By his example in martyrdom, Thomas shows that to protect the Church and its faith, martyrdom may even come by the hand of another Christian. Like Thomas, it is essential that all priests, especially bishops, must guard the traditional and continuing mission and faith of the Church perhaps even to other bishops. There are bishops in the Anglican and the Roman Churches who believe that the faith is too 'medieval' for modern Christians, and that the Church should be stripped of its faith to become a sort of moral, community force without borders. That is the very act of abandonment of Christ's mission to us, his Church. So, like St. Thomas of Canterbury, every archbishop, bishop, priest and layperson must stick fast to the Church and to its faith even if it means to be shunned, to be scolded, to be mocked, to be insulted, and yes, to be martyred. There is nothing more precious than the blood which is the love which Christ shed for us and we must be willing to shed that blood also for the love of Christ and his Church.
The Martyrdom on the tomb of Henry IV of Lancaster.
O God, our strength and our salvation, who didst call thy servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of thy people and a defender of thy Church: Keep thy household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel and who are willing to serve your holy Church even unto death; through our Lord Jesus Christ the Shepherd of our souls who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
Canterbury Cathedral high altar. Behind is where Thomas's shrine stood.

An artist's interpretation of the shrine of St. Thomas.
Pilgrim's badge depicting the shrine.
The Shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury. 
     As the most popular pilgrimage site in England and in much of northern Europe, the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury became one of the most lavishly decorated shrines in Christendom. When the Cathedral was rebuilt after the fire of 1174, the east end was designed with the tomb in mind. Behind the high altar steps were built up into a sort of second chancel which formed a smaller gothic apse. Pilgrims could pass the quire and the altar and ascend into the apse to circumnavigate the shrine which was built in the center of the apse. The shrine itself was a typical English one in structure. The golden reliquary-coffin which contained the body of St. Thomas rested on raised arches into which pilgrims could crawl to be closer to the relics. Over the reliquary was another lid, in the same shape as the reliquary and draped in precious cloths. This could be lowered and raised to allow pilgrims to view the reliquary and to protect the precious shrine from thieves. Over most of the ensemble there was a golden net upon which the gifts of any pilgrims from smaller relics to jewelry to ex-votos were hung. At the foot of the shrine was an altar and around the shrine were large, free-standing candlesticks. This kind of 'table'shrine was very popular in England and can still be seen with the shrine of St. Frideswide at Oxford, St. Alban, St. Thomas Cantilupe at Worcester and St. Edward at Westminster. In around the year 1500, a Venetian pilgrim left this account of the shrine: 

“The tomb of St. Thomas the Martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, exceeds all belief.  Notwithstanding its great size it is all covered with plates of pure gold ; yet the gold is scarcely seen because it is covered with various precious stones, as sapphires, ballasses, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds ; and wherever the eye turns, something more beautiful than the rest is observed, Nor, in addition to these natural beauties, is the skill of art wanting ; for in the midst of the gold are the most beautiful sculptured gems, both small and large, as well as cameos ; and some cameos are of such a size that I am afraid to name it ; but everything is far surpassed by a ruby, not larger than a thumb nail, which is fixed at the right of the altar.  The church is somewhat dark, and particularly in the spot where the shrine is placed ; and when we went to see it the sun was near setting, and the weather was cloudy : nevertheless, I saw that ruby as if I had it in my hand. They say it was given by a king of France.”

Canterbury Cathedral, which already hosted the shrines of many saintly Anglo-Saxon archbishops, was turned wholly into a church built for pilgrims. St. Thomas's shrine was the most important part, but like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem there were many other altars and shrine's associated with Becket. 
The following is a list of the various shrines in Canterbury associated with Thomas and the offerings made at them on April 18th, 1303. Each of these were relics associated with Becket's martyrdom (It was common atin English Cathedrals to build a separate shrine for the saint's head as it was at Lincoln with St. Hugh, Lichfield with St. Chad, and at Croyland Abbey with St. Guthlac). Becket's crown (of his head), which was struck of when he was killed, was kept in a part of the Cathedral called 'Becket's Crown,' a chapel at the extreme east end which is circular in shape. 

"At the Shrine of S. Thomas the Martyr, one brooch of gold.
At the same shrine in money . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7s.
At the Head of the same saint . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . 7s.
At the Point of the Sword whereby the same saint
     underwent his martyrdom . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7s.
At the Cloak of the same saint . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7s.
At the Tomb of the same saint in the vault . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7s."
-From J. Charles Wall's Shrines of the British Saints

As Becket became an 'international saint,' there are images of him and his marytrdom all over Europe, here are some of my favorites: 
Some vestments worn by Thomas at Sens Cathedral.
Boss in Norwich Cathedral 
Sens Cathedral, the burial.
The Martyrdom in Bayeux Cathedral. 

The Martyrdom on a Limoges reliquary. 

1 comment:

  1. I had fun choosing this particular painting online that now hangs in my downtown office, from, who sells canvas prints of art masterpieces. While the original is treasured in some art museum in England, my print, of this painting by Edward Burne-Jones is very much appreciated by my staff and clients. The print quality is really excellent.