03 April 2016

The hooly blisful martir for to seke

Back in high school, my favorite class was British Literature. Not only did I enjoy reading works like Beowulf and Le Morte D'Artur (which, by that point, I had already read), Mrs. Lohmeyer was a challenging teacher with a great sense of humor who helped bring the literature, as it were, to life.

In addition to simply reading some of the works of some of the great English authors, we also had to memorize (and recite before the entire class) the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales - in Middle English. Among these lines, a few have always remained with me:
And specially, from every shires end 
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Or, in modern English:
And specially from every shire's end
Of England to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.
That blessed martyr whom they sought was, of course, Saint Thomas Becket, the fortieth archbishop of Canterbury and sometime Lord Chancellor of England, who gave his life in defense of the liberty of the Church against the encroachments of King Henry II. Ever since that class, I have wanted to visit Canterbury, the hooly blisful martir for to seke. So it was that I made something of a last minute and impromptu decision last week and took the train from London to Canterbury (I was in London to visit the grave of J.R.R. Tolkien, of which I'll write later) to visit what remains of the ancient pilgrimage site of the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket which was destroyed by order of King Henry VIII.

As the train pulled into the Canterbury West station, I was fully prepared to ask for directions to the (now Anglican) Cathedral of Christ, but as I made my way out of the station it seemed such would not be necessary:

Walking towards the cathedral, I was struck by the charm and beauty that the ancient city has maintained, especially as I crossed the Great Stour:

The West Gate
Upon arriving at the cathedral precincts, pilgrims and tourists enter through this splendid gate:

The cathedral itself is, of course, most impressive, beautiful, and fully gothic in architectural style:

The Cathedral of Canterbury is, I think, the best gothic church I have yet visited, especially from the inside:

As you can see from the above picture of one of the side aisles, the cathedral itself is massive, consisting of the upper church (seen above) and a crypt below.

Before taking a look at the architectural splendor of the building, I quickly made my way to the places associated with Saint Thomas Becket.

It was here that Saint Thomas was murdered by Reginald fitz Urse, William de Tracy, Richard Brito, and Hugh de Morville as he attended Vespers with the monks on 29 December 1170:

Saint Thomas heard the four men coming into the cathedral and knew they were coming to kill him. Still, when the monks sought to secure the cathedral against the four men, the Archbishop said, "The Church is a house of prayer and is not to be made into a fortress."

Not wishing to spill his blood inside the cathedral, they tried to drag Saint Thomas out of it, but he clung to the one of the pillars and could not be moved. "I will not leave this church," he exclaimed. "If you wish to kill me, you must kill me here."

William de Tracy struck the first blow, his sword glancing off Saint Thomas' head and striking his shoulder. As Saint Stephen and so many others after him, Saint Thomas then cried out, "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," and de Tracy struck again, this time hitting his head. Saint Thomas' dying words were these: "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death." The other three assailants then struck Becket, as well, and he died near an altar dedicated to Saint Benedict.

Saint Thomas was buried in haste in the crypt of the church, where photographs are strictly forbidden. However, after I explained that I had come solely to visit the sites associated with Saint Thomas, one of the priests of the cathedral kindly allowed me to take one photograph of what remains of his initial tomb:

The Saint Thomas of Canterbury lay between the two pillars for fifty years, before his body was translated to the upper church because of the great number of pilgrims who came to pray at his tomb from all over England.

Though nothing of it survived the destruction and pillaging of King Henry VIII, the location of the second tomb and shrine is still marked by a burning candle in what is now called the Trinity Chapel:

After praying at these three sites, I made my way through the rest of the cathedral, completely awed over by its grandeur:

By God's good grace, I visited the cathedral on a sunny day on which the beauty and color of the stained glass windows was especially vidid:

When I boarded the train in London, I only expected to spend the morning at the Canterbury, but Canterbury so caught my attention that I decided to spend the entire day there and I was glad I did so. I was under the impression that no relics of Saint Thomas remained, but this is not the case.

As I wandered about the streets of Canterbury, I came upon the Catholic church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury:

I stopped in just for a quiet moment of quiet prayer and was delighted to discover a chapel which housed a few relics - a piece of bone (probably a finger) and some cloth - of Saint Thomas Becket:

The chapel also contained two stained glass windows,one of which depicted his martyrdom:

After spending some time in prayer before the relics of this courageous and faithful bishop, I grabbed a bite to eat and continued exploring Canterbury by visiting a hospital established for pilgrims to the shrine and the ruins of the great abbey established by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

Inside the church, near a stand with votive candles, was this prayer to Saint Thomas of Canterbury:

It was an excellent day and I am glad to be numbered among the many pilgrims who visited Saint Thomas. I wish, though, that I could have spent a few more days in Canterbury. If you have the chance to visit it, I highly recommend it.


  1. Many thanks for this great post and photos. I have followed up on my own blog: Putting Becket's name out of all the bokes. Congratulations on finishing your thesis!

    1. Thanks very much, Father, for your kind words and excellent post! I've been informed by another reader (Pete) that a relic of Saint Thomas of Canterbury will soon visit London: http://www.stmagnusmartyr.org.uk/events/special-notice/400pm-wednesday-25th-may-pontifical-solemn-vespers-preceded-veneration-relic

  2. There is a relick of S.Thomas coming to London; the Church of S.Magnus the entrance to the old London Bridge which had a chapel dedicated to S.Thomas in the middle; here are the details http://www.stmagnusmartyr.org.uk/events/special-notice/400pm-wednesday-25th-may-pontifical-solemn-vespers-preceded-veneration-relic

    1. Thanks for sharing this information, Pete! I may try to attend the ceremonies.

  3. Loved both these blog spots and thought it very generous of you Father to enable me to enlarge then copy your beautiful photographs. I was in Canterbury in 1973 with my late husband on our honeymoon but did not know the wherabouts of St Thomas's relics nor indeed the history.

    1. You're welcome, Anne! I only knew of the relics because a friend on Facebook saw was in Canterbury and sent a quick message.