It was on this day in 1170 that Thomas a Becket was assasinated in the Canterbury Catheddral. We made a visit there in 2010 and plan to actually stay a few days there in the coming year. Here is a little of what I wrote after our visit:
The history of the cathedral dates back to 597 when St. Augustine was sent to England as a missionary and eventually became an archbishop. He established the “cathedra,” the seat of the archbishop, within the Roman walled city of Canterbury and the cathedral was begun. Since his reign as archbishop there have been 103 successive archbishops including the famous Thomas Becket.
Our delightful tour guide pointed out the different types of architecture that dated the various parts of the cathedral. Most, if not all, of the churches and cathedrals in Europe are a combination of many different eras as monarchies rose and fell, countries were conquered, and ideals and philosophies affected not only the spiritual lives of the people but the physical facilities of the faithful. History is written in the walls, windows, and reliefs of church buildings.
The most notorious history of the Canterbury Cathedral dates back to the reign of Henry II who appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury thinking he could have the upper hand over Rome with his friend in a place of power. Henry didn’t count on Becket changing his allegiance from the king to the pope and the church. There were many conflicts between the two. Disappointed and in a fit of anger, Henry is said to have muttered, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
Four knights took him literally and set off to Canterbury to please the king. They lured Becket into the cathedral and murdered him in a spot that is marked today by a modern sculpture mounted on the wall. The two swords represent the knights, but as our guide said with a sly smile, the four knights are represented—two in the shadow cast on the wall. This little proper English lady also explained in proper English terms and somewhat graphically how Becket was killed. The top of his head was apparently sliced off and his brains were spread on the floor beneath our feet. Somehow I wasn’t too sure we ought to be walking there if that were true.
Henry II was penitent for years after Becket’s death. He really had loved his friend. He set up a shrine that brought thousands of pilgrims who reported many miracles happening at the spot of where Becket’s remains lay. Later the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII and Becket’s body disappeared. A lone candle now burns at the spot where it had been.
Our guide was also quick to point out several places in the cathedral that were connected with America and Australia since there were several in our group from those two countries. We came home with a pamphlet that describes 11 different places in the building that have some sort of connection to the USA including a stone from the Bell Harry Tower that was used to carve a pulpit for the Washington National Cathedral.
Just as we were nearing the end of our hour and a half tour, bells chimed and a voice rang out in the huge sanctuary calling all within the walls to stop and take a moment for prayer. This has happened several times when we’ve been in cathedrals or churches on a tour. It is a great reminder that this is a house of worship as well as a vault of history. And it is very uniting to say the Lord’s Prayer with hundreds of visitors from all over the world.