Thursday, 29 December 2011

A Song for St Thomas Becket

Murdered Archbishops of Canterbury are something of a specialism of this blog, and St Thomas Becket, who died on 29th December 1170, is the most famous of them all (I'll continue to do my bit for the memory of St Alphege, however). I've written before about the dramatic service of Vespers which every year commemorates the anniversary of Becket's death at Canterbury Cathedral. There they sing Palestrina and plainchant, all in Latin (and very beautiful it is by candlelight), but there are also English songs composed in honour of St Thomas surviving from the medieval period. When Henry VIII ordered that all memorials of St Thomas be destroyed, some of these songs were crossed out of their manuscripts, or the name 'Thomas' scratched out; but a number survived, and this is one of them.

It's found in four manuscripts but this text, no.24 in Richard Greene's A Selection of English Carols, is based on the fifteenth-century MS. Sloane 2593 (which also contains some of the most famous medieval Christmas carols, including 'Myn lykyng, 'I sing of a maiden', and 'Adam lay ybounden', among others).

Canterbury Cathedral

Refrain: A, a, a, a,
Nunc gaudet ecclesia

Lestnytgh, lordynges, bothe grete and smale,
I xal you telyn a wonder tale,
How Holy Cherche was browt in bale
Cum magna iniuria.

The greteste clerk of al this lond,
Of Cauntyrbury, ye understonde,
Slawyn he was with wykkyd hond,
Demonis potencia.

Knytes kemyn fro Henry kyng,
Wykkyd men, withoute lesyng;
Ther they dedyn a wonder thing,
Ferventes insania.

They sowntyn hym al abowtyn,
Withine the paleys and withoutyn;
Of Jhesu Cryst hadde they non dowte
In sua malicia.

They openyd here mowthis wonder wyde:
To Thomas they spokyn mekyl pryde,
'Here, tretour, thou xalt abide,
Ferens mortis tedia.'

Thomas answerid with mylde chere,
'If ye wil me slon in this manere,
Let hem pasyn, alle tho arn here,
Sine contumilia.'

Beforn his aunter he knelyd adoun;
Ther they gunne to paryn his crown;
He sterdyn the braynys up and doun,
Optans celi gaudia.

The turmentowres abowtyn sterte;
With dedly wondys thei gunne him hurte.
Thomas deyid in Moder Cherche
Pergens ad celestia.

Moder, clerk, wedue and wyf,
Worchepe ye Thomas in al your lyf;
For lii poyntes he les his lyf,
Contra regis consilia.


Refrain: A, a, a, a,
Now the Church rejoices.

Listen, lords, both great and small,
I shall you tell a wonderous tale,
How Holy Church was brought in bale [into sorrow]
By a great wrong.

The greatest cleric in all this land,
Of Canterbury, you understand,
Slain he was with wicked hand,
By the power of the devil.

Knights came from Henry the king,
Wicked men, without lying;
There they did a terrible thing,
Raging in madness.

They sought for him all about,
Within the palace and without;
Of Jesu Christ had they no thought
In their wickedness.

They opened their mouths very wide:
To Thomas they spoke in their great pride,
'Here, traitor, thou shalt abide,
To suffer the pain of death.

Thomas answered with mild chere, [in a meek manner]
'If ye will me slay in this manner,
Let them go, all those who are here,
Without injury.'

Before his altar he kneeled down;
There they began to cut off his crown;
They stirred the brains up and down;
He hoped for the joys of heaven.

The tormentors began their work;
With deadly wounds they began to hurt.
Thomas died in Mother Church
Attaining to heaven.

Mothers, clerics, widows and wives,
Worship Thomas all your lives;
For 52 points he lost his life,
Against the king's counsels

The '52 points' refers probably to an expanded list of the 16-point Constitutions of Clarendon, on which Becket disagreed with King Henry, ultimately to his own destruction.


Victoria said...

I was unaware that there were any medieval hymns about Thomas Becket. I love medieval songs, so I was rather excited to see this. Thanks for posting! (And thanks for translating it. It's pretty funny to need one's own language translated, isn't it?)

- Victoria

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the remembrance of Sir Thomas.

Theodric the Obscure said...

St Thomas Becket: Can't get enough of him. I hope some day I can time a trip to be at Canterbury for his feast day. I got to lead Evening Prayer at our Cathedral on his feast day, and was particularly happy when I got to his collect.

Thanks for the hymn!