Canterbury Cathedral, the Reformation, and the Elbow of Thomas Becket

It’s not every day that the bones of a medieval saint turn up. Precious historical artifacts rarely move or they have been lost forever. But a fragment of the elbow bone of Thomas Becket was transferred from Hungary back to Canterbury Cathedral again on May 27, 2016—after 800 years away. The week was dubbed ‘Becket Week’ by Hungary’s president, János Áder, who accompanied the relic back to England.

Since this story may seem strange to modern ears, a few things can be said about the backstory.

Who Was Thomas Becket?

Thomas Becket had been Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until 1170 when he was murdered in the middle of Canterbury Cathedral at the order (or at least strong suggestion) of Henry II, his former friend and king of England.

The background to the story is complicated but essentially boils down to Thomas coming between Henry II and the pope. Like some other medieval kings, Henry II began to loath the independence of the English clergy and their adherence to the papacy. Kings never really liked subjects they could not control, even within the church. For example, clergy were immune to secular courts, effectively putting them out of reach of the king’s justice (or manipulation). Much of this problem was solvable if Henry had not wanted too much or if Thomas had not been so stalwart in his resistance to the king. The problems grew worse, however, and eventually the pope sided with Thomas.

The final crisis occurred when other clergy, including the Archbishop of York, usurped the prerogative of Canterbury to coronate the heir apparent, provoking Becket to excommunicate these men as sycophants to the kings. When Henry II heard this he famously uttered the words, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”—at which point four of the kings knights rode to Canterbury with murderous intentions.

When they arrived the knights planned for the worst, choosing weapons before entering the cathedral and hiding their chainmail underneath their cloaks. They first harassed Becket to come to Westminster to answer for his crimes. Becket refused and headed off with the other clergy to chant vespers (evening prayer). In response, the knights drew their swords and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. One eyewitness account tells the story’s grim conclusion:

“…The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.”

In terms of medieval politics, this was nearly the dumbest thing a king could have done to opposition within the church, as now Becket’s story became a tale of righteous martyrdom. Later on February 21, 1173, the pope officially named Becket a saint.

Why Was His Bone Lost?

The legend grew over the centuries and by 1220, in a practice typical for medieval saints, Becket was reburied in Canterbury and fragments were sent all over Europe to be venerated. The fragment of the elbow ended up in Esztergom, Hungary.

The reason why Becket’s tomb was lost in England stems from the Reformation in the 1530s. After Henry VIII was unable to secure an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he wound up somewhat in league with the small minority of Protestant sympathizers in England. Not fully in league with Protestants, of course, but close enough to make decisions in their favor. Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and worked feverishly behind the scenes to convince the king to embrace reform of the English church. Henry did not always agree, content more to throw out the pope than to throw out all of Catholic practice.

Henry did however turn on the monastic communities on England. The powerful monasteries that would resist the king’s desires to remove the pope as the head of the church were dissolved, their coffers emptied into the king’s treasury.

In the midst of this turmoil the shrine of Thomas Becket was particularly annoying to Henry. The legend of Becket’s death had taken on a new tone, such that by the time of the Reformation in England the story of Becket was firmly fixed in Catholic minds as an example of resistance to tyrants. So as Henry VIII grew hostile to the pope, and as that hostility bubbled over to schism, Becket became the target posthumously of Henry’s anger. The shrine was torn down and the bones lost forever. Years later a candle was replaced to remember the history of Thomas Becket and his stance against political rulers.

Why Is the Bone Returning to England?

Simple answer: it’s a rare piece of English history and the church is not as concerned about people prostrating before it. Indeed, recent arguments in the British press wonder if the majority of the population is capable of genuflecting before anything religious, much less the elbow bone of a saint. The return of the bone, most think, will become a fascination for tourists and English wonks who have read Canterbury Tales, where the characters are on pilgrimage to the Becket shrine. Others may just find it a cultural curiosity in a country long since Protestant and long since shorn of its Catholic reliquaries.

The shrine has become something of a beacon, also, to those struggling to recover the heritage and orthodoxy of the church, as the rise of post-Christian life is far more obvious in the UK than in some other countries of Europe or in most of America. Thomas Becket, then, is situated in a strange part of English lore: alien to the official Church of England for his Catholic heritage, yet embraced in a quirky way by those who find his stance against the king noble enough to inspire their struggle for the church.

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