St. Thomas Becket Returns to Canterbury

by Rodney Pelletier  •  •  May 25, 2016   

Saint's relic returns to England after nearly 500 years

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CANTERBURY ( - The relics of St. Thomas Becket are being returned to Canterbury Cathedral for the first time since the Protestant revolution of the 16th century.

Saint Thomas was born in 1119, ordained archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 and died at the hands of the men of King Henry II in 1170. His remains were enshrined in the Cathedral in Canterbury until 1538 when they were destroyed by order of King Henry VIII.

But following the saint's death in the 12th century, a bone fragment was sent to Hungary, where it has been venerated for the last 800 years at the Esztergom Basilica — the seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary.

After a brief tour in England it will be enshrined on the spot of the original shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

Canterbury Cathedral, however, was confiscated by the Church of England in the 16th century, and to this day continues to be part of the Anglican Protestant church. Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, led the initiative to bring the relics back to England — which Cdl. Vincent Nichols, head of the bishops' conference of England and Wales, considers a great move forward in ecumenism with the Church of England.

Although they are Protestant, high-church Anglicans retain many Roman Catholic practices, including veneration of saints' relics.

Even among Anglicans, St. Thomas is seen as a patron saint of religious liberty. His life was dramatically portrayed in the 1964 film "Becket," with Richard Burton playing St. Thomas and Peter O'Toole playing King Henry II.

Excommunication scene from the film "Becket"

Saint Thomas Becket had been excommunicating members of the royal court for violating the prerogatives of the Church. King Henry II, frustrated with Becket, is said to have remarked, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" Four knights interpreted the king's statement as a command and murdered St. Thomas while he was praying Vespers at the cathedral.

A contemporary who witnessed St. Thomas' martyrdom describes it thus.

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." But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, "Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more."

Saint Thomas Becket was considered patron saint of the men who fled England during its anti-Catholic persecution, became priests in France and Belgium, and returned to England to almost certain death by the government.

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