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Thomas Becket: his miracles and relics
Written by Rebecca Howard   
Friday, 13 June 2008 16:49

Thomas Becket is one of the most famous saints of medieval Europe, his shrine in Canterbury the destination for thousands of pilgrims for over 350 years. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the journey of one such group of pilgrims. Becket was venerated not only in England, but throughout Europe, with churches dedicated to him in countries as far apart as France, Norway and Italy.

Why did he become such a focus of pilgrimage? His high profile in English politics, his brutal martyrdom apparently at the hands of the king’s men, and his multitude of miracles helped his fame to spread, and give hope to those in need of physical or spiritual healing. It suited the church to make Becket a saint as it strengthened their position against their political opponents.

He was born in London around 1118 to Norman French parents. He spent 7 years as chancellor and confidante of King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189), enjoying the pleasures of courtly life, such as hunting and fine clothes. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Despite not being a priest at this time, he was ordained and instantly given the top position in the church in England. This was a largely political appointment, Henry hoping to gain control over the church through his friendship with Becket. In this Henry was to be disappointed, Becket embracing his spiritual side, defending the rights of the church, and on a personal note eschewing the luxury and pomp he had formerly enjoyed. Indeed, on his death the monks at Canterbury discovered he wore a hair shirt infested with lice under his vestments.

Not popular with the king and some other leading English clerics, such as the Bishop of London, Becket spent 6 years in exile in France. On his return in 1170 four knights inside the cathedral murdered him almost at once, on 29 December. It has been suggested that he sought martyrdom when it could possibly have been avoided by negotiations and compromise. This seems to have added to his sanctity, dying because of his rigid defence of church rights. The miracles began immediately after his death. The blood from his head wounds, which formed a pool on the stone floor, was soaked up by the cloth rags that several of the laity present in the cathedral had. One man took his home to his sick wife, who was instantly cured. Similar reports of cures followed in the next few days, involving predominantly poor and sick local women. Becket’s blood touched the cloth, imbuing it with his saintly powers. Later, the blood would be watered down so much that the water contained the merest hint of a drop of blood in it, and sold to the pilgrims.

How do we know about the miracles? Expecting a popular reaction to the death, and suspecting that the king may attempt to remove the body, the monks at the cathedral guarded the tomb in the crypt. There was always someone there, and as the people came to give thanks for the miracles they had experienced, they reported it to the monk, who then wrote it down. There were two monks in this role, Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury. Each took a different approach to his task. Benedict stated he questioned the pilgrims, tried to filter out fabrication, and record the miracles chronologically and accurately. William took over in 1172 when the shrine was becoming fashionable, and the wealthy and powerful were visiting. He grouped miracles into types (healing, driving out demons, finding lost items), and the stories became increasingly fantastic. For instance he records a Breton woman who taught a starling to invoke St Thomas, and when a kite seized the bird it repeated this phrase and the kite dropped dead, releasing the starling.

William was anxious to record the stories of men, preferably wealthy and powerful, secular and clerics. These people were more respectable and influential. Benedict, on the other hand, recorded many cases of poor women, widows and the sick, who came from the locality of Canterbury. Each monk had his own reasons for recording the miracles as he did, though which is the most reliable historical source is debatable. Both cited miracles which were imitations of those of Christ and his Apostles, healing leprosy (defined as any skin disease), driving out demons, restoring sight. Physical ailments were seen as the result of spiritual sins, thus physical blindness was caused by spiritual blindness, and physical leprosy was caused by leprosy of the soul. What is clear is that Becket’s shrine had an incredible hold on the minds of the people from all sections of society. They may have been motivated by genuine belief, by desperation for a cure, by curiosity of the latest fashion, or by a desire for a kind of holiday.

Over the course of the ten years covered by Benedict and William, 703 miracles were recorded. There are estimated to have been 100,000 visitors to the shrine in 1171 alone, so the number of miracles is relatively small in comparison to all the pilgrims. Becket was canonised in 1173, less than three years after his death, one of the fastest canonisations of the twelfth century. His feast day is 29 December, the date of his martyrdom. His shrine was covered in precious jewels that pilgrims, including King Louis XI of France, donated. A whole industry developed round it over the course of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Metal pilgrim badges depicting Becket were sold as souvenirs. Some of these are on display at various museums, including the Museum of London and Canterbury Museum. The shrine was destroyed in 1539 during the Reformation, one of the first targets for King Henry VIII’s men.

Surprisingly, Canterbury still possesses some reminders of Becket. In the cathedral, the visitor can see the place of martyrdom, the site of the original tomb (1170-1220) in the crypt, and the site of the shrine (from 1220). The treasury has a chalice with a rock crystal set in it, said to be from the buckle of Becket’s shoe. The nearby Catholic church houses a small bone and fragment of cloth, relics of the saint. Much of the splendour of the cathedral and the town itself owes its existence to Becket’s popularity. In London, St Thomas’s hospital was dedicated to Becket as a healer. If you make a trip to Canterbury in 2008, make sure you hunt out Becket’s legacy.

Last Updated on Friday, 13 June 2008 16:49
 

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