Sunday, 29 December 2013

St Thomas Becket, 'Holy Thomas of heoueriche'

Thomas Becket at Nackington, Kent

Archbishop Thomas Becket, murdered before his altar in Canterbury Cathedral late in the winter afternoon of 29 December 1170, quickly became one of the most popular saints in medieval England. He was not the first archbishop of Canterbury to die by violence, nor would he be the last, but unlike St Alphege, martyred after long captivity in a Viking camp amidst the Greenwich marshes, or Simon Sudbury, killed by an angry mob on Tower Hill, Thomas died within his own church, in the middle of Vespers, and his sudden and dramatic death captured the imagination. There are a number of ways of measuring a saint's popularity, and along with the speed of his canonisation (just two years after his death), the proliferation of depictions of his martyrdom, and the evidence of the many pilgrims like Chaucer's who 'from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury... wende, the hooly blisful martir for to seke', we can see tokens of St Thomas' impact in the number of surviving vernacular poems about him. I've previously posted four different songs about St Thomas:

'Listeneth, lordings, both great and small, I shall you tell a wonder tale'
'Saint Thomas honour we, through whose blood Holy Church is made free'

'I pray you, sirs, all in fere, worship St Thomas, this holy martyr'

'As stories write and specify'

But there are still more, and today I'll post two of them. They are especially to be treasured, because memorials of Thomas Becket were targeted for suppression at the Reformation, as this British Library blogpost explains; everything we have of Thomas Becket in art or in song has survived against the odds.

The murder of St Thomas

So this is 'Clangat tuba, martir Thoma':

Clangat tuba, martir Thoma,
ut libera sit Cristi vinea.

Oute of the chaffe was pured this corn
And else the church had ben forlorne;
To Godes grange now were thow borne,
O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma.

In London was bore this martir sothely;
Of Caunterbury hadde he primacy,
To whom we syng deuotely:
O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma.

This means:

Let the trumpet resound, Thomas the martyr,
so that the vine of Christ may be free.

Out of the chaff was sifted this corn
And else the church had been forlorn;
To God's grange now wert thou borne, [i.e. carried]
O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas.

In London was born this martyr, truly;
He held the primacy of Canterbury,
To whom we sing devoutly:
O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas.

The song appears in the late fifteenth-century Ritson Manuscript, BL Additional 5665, together with a large number of other English carols and songs (there's a list here). The imagery of the wheat and the chaff which occurs in this song echoes the Sarum liturgy for St Thomas' Day, which describes Thomas' murder in these terms: 'sic itaque granum frumenti oppresit palea' ('thus the chaff overwhelms the grain of the fields') and 'iacet granum oppressum palea' ('the grain lies overwhelmed by the chaff'; for the medieval liturgies in honour of St Thomas, see this book). But the song proclaims that the grain will be sifted from the chaff, and will spring up to glory, when carried to God's 'grange' (that is, granary). The imagery is developed still further in the song 'Saint Thomas honour we', which contains the lines:

The corn is cast down, the chaff lies low:
The king in his ost is overthrown:
The tiller on the ground his brayn hath sown;
As Christ said to him at Pontigny,
'My church with thy blood hallowed shall be.'

There is wordplay here on the word 'brayn', which refers both to grain (like bran) and to the fact (which I vividly recall learning on a primary-school trip to Canterbury Cathedral!) that Thomas' brains were scattered across the ground by his murderers. 'Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.'

Just because I like it, this is 'Saint Thomas honour we' (words here):

An earlier poem about St Thomas survives in a manuscript of the second half of the thirteenth century (Jesus College Oxford MS. 29).

Haly thomas of heoueriche
alle apostles eueliche,
þe martyrs þe vnderstone
godfullyche in heore honde.
Selcuþ dude vre dryhtin,
þat he water wende to win;
þu ert help in engelaunde
vre stephne vnderstonde.
þu ert froure among monkunne,
help vs nv of vre sunne. Amen.

This series of rhyming couplets is older than the other poems by more than a century, and the language is noticeably more archaic; words like dryhtin 'Lord', selcuþ 'miracle' and froure 'comfort' belong to the traditional diction of Old English religious writing, which survived the Norman Conquest but was not to survive into Modern English. This would be my rendering:

Holy Thomas of the heavenly kingdom,
equal to all the apostles,
the martyrs receive thee
graciously in their hands.
Our Lord performed a miracle,
when he turned water to wine.
Thou art our help in England,
hear our prayers.
Thou art comforter among mankind,
help us now from our sins. Amen.

Here's the fifteenth-century carol 'Listeneth, lordings' (unmodernised text here):

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

Listen, lords, both great and small,
I shall you tell a wondrous 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.

This afternoon I'll be attending Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral in commemoration of St Thomas and of the service of Vespers which was so violently interrupted by the four knights acting in the name of Henry II. Every year the events of this fateful evening are liturgically re-enacted. It's a particularly dramatic service: it begins in the lighted choir, in the presence of the current Archbishop, and the opening of Vespers is sung in plainchant. Then it is interrupted, as on the day of Thomas' death, by a crashing on the doors. Bearing lighted candles, the clerics, choir and congregation process, as Thomas fled, to the site of his martyrdom below, and pause for a moment. Then all move into the crypt, where his body was taken, and the service concludes with joyful polyphony in honour of the martyr, still by candlelight. A few years ago I took some photographs of the darkened cathedral after this service, which you can see here. On this occasion the cathedral is always crowded with people; who would have thought on that December evening in 1170, or when Henry VIII was doing his best to ensure Thomas was forgotten, that this would be possible?

Since I grew up near Canterbury I feel a personal interest in St Thomas, and I encounter him in many of the churches I visit in Kent. Here are a few pictures from my collection. Above is a medieval wall-painting of Thomas' murder from Brookland, Kent. and here's one of the earliest depictions of St Thomas, from Godmersham:

From an altarpiece at Elham, Kent:

And from Canterbury Cathedral:

A decapitated statue of St Thomas on the outside of the cathedral:

Pilgrims to St Thomas' shrine:

And the site of Thomas' tomb, destroyed at the Reformation, and now marked by a candle:


True Blue said...


I know it has been several years since you posted this blog, but this post intersects with my own research at a point you might find interesting!

I'm currently researching the liturgies of Thomas Becket as a first year Phd student, and I have also come across a version of 'Haly Thomas'. It was in Materials for the history of Thomas Becket, Vol 1, p. 151 by Robertson, and it was written thus:

'Hali Thomas of hevenriche,
Alle postles eve[n]liche,
Dhe martyrs dhe understand
Deyhaumliche on here hande.
Seleuth dede ure Drichtin
Dhat he dhi wette wente to wyn.
Dhu ert help in Engelande.
Ure stefne understand.
Thu hert froure imang mankynne,
Help us nu of ure senre.’

It appears in a collection of miracles of Thomas by William of Canterbury. William was a monk of Christ Church Canterbury and joined with another brother, Benedict of Peterborough, in becoming the 'feretrarians' of the Becket shrine and therefore set about collecting miracles through engagement with pilgrims who came to the shrine. This song was apparently brought to William's attention by Reginald, a priest of Wretham who had a vision of this English antiphon being sung instead of a Latin one by two monks who debated whether it was right to sing a Latin antiphon for a saint who had yet been canonised (this miracle can be dated to about 1172). The fact that it appears in a dream is very strange, as does it mean Reginald was the composer? Or did he hear it somewhere else and only bring it to the shrine? I read somewhere else that the dialect of the song suggests it is from the Kent area, but then why did William claim it was brought by Reginald, who was from Norfolk? I can't remember off the top of my head which manuscript Robertson found this in, but I think it's interesting nevertheless!

I love your blog and hope you keep going!

Clerk of Oxford said...

That's very interesting! Especially since it can be dated quite precisely - and the idea that it might be debatable whether one should sing a Latin or English antiphon for a not-yet-canonised saint is fascinating. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! I hope your research continues to bring up such interesting information :)

Thalia Sanders said...

Thanks very interesting