[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The bones of Thomas Becket, the 12th Century Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered at the behest of King Henry II, are to return to the cathedral where he was killed and buried at the conclusion of a pilgrimage tour through south east England from their home in Hungary. The arrival of the relics of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on Saturday will be the culmination of Becket Week - an ecumenical series of events organised by the Hungarian government.
Becket hadn’t been ordained by the time he was appointed to the see of Canterbury. He was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 and consecrated as a bishop the following day to enable him to take on the role as Archbishop of Canterbury. But the King’s man became the Church’s man and as the new Archbishop continued to assert the Church’s independent authority; the King became increasingly frustrated; leading to Becket’s temporary exile in France; before Pope Alexander III secured his right to return.
But months later, four knights interpreted the King’s purported exclamation – “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” – as a request for Becket to be killed; and they set off to Canterbury where they attacked him with swords in the cathedral itself. He died on the spot. His remains were venerated and the number of visitors to the cathedral led to his remains being reburied in an elaborate shrine. At the time of the reburial, small sections of bone were removed and taken to different churches as relics – and it is believed by many that this is how a section of his elbow came to be venerated at Esztergom, at a church which already bore his name.
Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII as part of the dissolution of the monasteries and his remaining bones crushed.
That relic from Esztergom has today joined relics from St Magnus the Martyr and St Thomas of Canterbury churches in London, St Thomas Church in Canterbury, and Stonyhurst Jesuit estate in Lancashire, at Westminster Cathedral – the leading Roman Catholic Church in London – for what has been termed Becket Week.
The relics arrived at the cathedral at 4 pm this afternoon. A special service of vespers is getting underway at 5 pm ahead of a solemn mass celebrated by Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom, Budapest, in the presence of the Hungarian President János Áder, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster.
The relics will remain at Westminster Cathedral until tomorrow evening when they will be taken to Westminster Abbey – the Queen’s church in London – ahead of a solemn evensong sung jointly by the Cathedral and Abbey Choirs. President Áder will once again be present.
The bones will then be on display for most of the week at St Margaret’s Church – the parish church of the Houses of Parliament, adjacent to Westminster Abbey and a range of services and special events will take place. On Friday they will be taken to Rochester in Kent, ahead of a service attended by Bishop László Kiss-Rigó of Szeged-Csanád; the Mayor of Esztergom, , Etelka Romanek; and the Hungarian foreign minister István Mikola.
On Saturday, pilgrims will assemble at at St Michael’s Church in Harbledown, just outside Canterbury, ahead of a walk to Canterbury Cathedral where a special “welcome service” will be held in the presence of religious and civil leaders.
And on Sunday afternoon, Becket Week will conclude with a Catholic Mass in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral and an open air concern in the cathedral precincts.
The site of Becket’s martyrdom continues to draw pilgrims and is where, in 1982, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie knelt and prayed together during the first visit of a Pope to the United Kingdom.