It is told that on December 29th 1170, King Henry II of England exclaimed in a burst of anger and in the presence of four faithful knights, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights interpreted the King’s words as an order to execute the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who had been disturbing the King’s peace by insisting on the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the independence of the church from the king.
By evening, the four knights arrived to Canterbury Cathedral as the monks gathered to pray Vespers. They knocked on the door which connected the monastic cloister and the church. As soon as the door was opened, they drew their swords and executed the archbishop.
The execution of the beloved Thomas proved tragic to Henry’s reputation. Thomas was immediately hailed a martyr and the king had to do public penance by walking to Canterbury in sack cloth and ashes. A beautiful shrine was built at Canterbury Cathedral to entomb Thomas’ remains and the mother church of England became a major pilgrimage site. This beautiful shrine was the destination of the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
After the dissolution of all monasteries in England ordered by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the shrine to Saint Thomas Becket was vandalized and his remains scattered. Henry, who wished to consolidate all secular and religious power in himself, wished to erase all memory of Saint Thomas Becket portraying him as a disobedient English subject who dared to defy the king. Today only a marker and a candle stand where once the magnificent shrine stood in the apse of the cathedral.
On December 29th, 2008, I had the opportunity to visit Canterbury Cathedral. I bumped into an English acquaintance who happened to be visiting Canterbury at the same time and he invited me to attend a Catholic Mass in a secluded chapel of the Cathedral. Father Ignatius Harrison, Provost of the Brompton Oratory of London, celebrated Mass. It was a surreal experience. Not only because I was attending Mass on the feast of Saint Thomas Becket in the place where he was martyred, but because the Anglicans had allowed a Roman priest to celebrate Mass in Canterbury Cathedral!
Later that evening I attended Evensong led by the Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, Rowan Williams. After Vespers, we descended with candles to the area where Thomas was martyred. After keeping silence for a brief moment, three loud knocks were heard on the very same doors through which the four knights entered many centuries ago. The door was opened and freezing air chilled my bones. All the faithful stood in silence remembering that on that very same day, at that very same time, on that very same location, Thomas Becket gave up his life to the Lord.
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