Eight-hundred and fifty years after Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral, and 800 years after the creation of his shrine, the Vatican has planned to send back his bloodstained tunic for the anniversary of his death in 2020.
Canterbury has long been linked to the figure of Thomas Becket and to the remembrance of his martyrdom.
Following his disagreement with King Henry II over, among other things, the way in which clergy who committed secular crimes should be dealt with—Thomas Becket argued they should only be trialled by an ecclesiastical hierarchy—the Archbishop of Canterbury famously went into exile.
After Henry II complained about Becket, famously saying ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Four knights set to Canterbury in order to confront the Archbishop on 29 December 1170.
After a gruesome assassination, and famous last words ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death,’ the four knights were excommunicated and the number of pilgrims to Canterbury rose during that time period.
Becket was made a saint three years later, in 1173, as a testimony of reparation for the crime committed.
Since then, Becket has become a figure of British, and even European, culture and history. His story inspired Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and T.S. Eliot wrote the verse drama Murder in the Cathedral portraying his assassination.
To this day, many schools and churches in England are named after Thomas Becket.
It is, however, quite interesting to note that in a 2006 poll by BBC History, Becket came second after Jack the Ripper for the ‘worst Briton of the previous millennium’.
While he is an important figure for British history, Professor John Hudson of St Andrews University named Thomas Becket as ‘worst villain of the 12th century’ and stated: "He divided England in a way that even many churchmen who shared some of his views thought unnecessary and self-indulgent."
"He was a founder of gesture politics. He was also greedy. Those who share my prejudice against Becket may consider his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170 a fittingly grisly end."
Despite the debate in the historiographic community around the validity of Thomas Becket’s position as a saint and a holy figure within the religious community, but also within British history, the return of the relic to Canterbury seems celebrated.
Jane Walker, spokeswoman for Canterbury Cathedral told Kent Online on the 8th of November: ‘The tunic is one of a number of pieces we are looking at to commemorate the Becket anniversary in 2020. We are still waiting for final
confirmation, but we would be very excited to see it back here.’