Wednesday, 29 December 2010
St Thomas Becket
The v day longeth to Sent Thomas,
That as a strong pyllar of brass
Held up the Chyrch, and slayn he was,
For he stod with ryghtwessness.
(From a fifteenth-century carol in Bodleian MS. Eng. Poet. e. 1 which has the refrain Make we myrth / For Chrystes byrth / And syng we Yole tyl Candlemas)
This is the fifth day of the twelve days of Christmas, and since the twelfth century it has belonged to St Thomas Becket, who was killed on this day in 1170. I won't rehearse the whole story; read about it all here. His chaplain's eyewitness account is also worth reading. The martyred Archbishop became one of England's most popular saints, his shrine at Canterbury perhaps the most famous in the country (and not just because of Chaucer's pilgrims!). At Canterbury Cathedral they commemorate his death with an absolutely wonderful celebration of Vespers, during which the death of St Thomas is liturgically re-enacted. The Archbishop was celebrating Vespers when he was interrupted by the four knights acting in the name of Henry II. The service begins in the choir, sung entirely in plainchant, in the presence of the current Archbishop. Then it is interrupted, as on the day of Thomas' death, by a crashing on the doors, and the clerics, choir and congregation process, as Thomas fled, to the site of his martyrdom. Then they go on into the crypt, where his body was taken, and the service concludes with joyful polyphony hailing the martyr's sacrifice.
It's so awesome! I've been for the past two years and am going today as well. For more on the general wonderfulness of Canterbury Cathedral, see this article.
Pictures: two medieval depictions of St Thomas' death, at the top an alabaster altar-piece from the church at Elham, and at the bottom a thirteenth-century wall-painting from the church at Brookland, both in Kent. We like him here in Kent, of course.