Why St. Thomas Becket’s elbow still matters in the 21st century

RNS-CONVERSATION-BECKET

Source: RNS

A small piece of bone thought to belong to St. Thomas Becket is, after centuries of exile in Hungary, returning to Canterbury Cathedral where the archbishop was murdered in 1170. Encased in a dazzling modern reliquary, the bone will be displayed in several Catholic and Protestant churches on its way to Canterbury. Venerating medieval saintly relics such as this may seem quite unusual in these days of the modern Anglican Church, and one might wonder why anyone today should care about an 850-year-old bone.

Almost from the day he was cut down in the cathedral by four knights acting on behalf of Henry II, the martyred Becket was the most famous saint in England. Canterbury became the most popular site of pilgrimage in the land, with untold numbers of pilgrims travelling to pray before the shrine of what Chaucer later called this “holy blissful martyr.” What might have been a source of national humiliation – the murder of a leading clergyman at the apparent behest of the monarch – became instead a source of national pride.

Saints then

Though the medieval English Church was then part of Catholic Christendom, there was always a special pride (and profit) in homegrown saints. Among the most venerated were St. Alban, the first saint martyred on British soil, by the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd century AD; St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, buried in Durham Abbey; St. Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon king whose shrine still dominates Westminster Abbey, and St. Wulfstan, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Worcester before the Norman invasion. But in his standing as a saint and focus of pilgrimage, Becket was greater than any of these.
But this status provided no protection for his remains during the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, during which monasteries, abbeys, saintly shrines and holy relics were abolished, torn down or destroyed. The only survivors were the shrines of Edward the Confessor and the obscure St. Wita in Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset. While some saints’ bodies were removed from their shrines and given anonymous burials within the church, as Thomas had rebelled against his king he was the target of particular wrath by Henry VIII’s commissioners. The fate of his bones and relics remains mysterious, although contemporary reports claimed they were burned and scattered to the winds.
The martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket turned him into a cause célèbre, much to the annoyance of the king. Book of Hours/British Library
Saints today

Since the Reformation, the Anglican Church has maintained an ambiguous, ambivalent attitude toward traditional saints – celebrating their feast days, but declining to pray to them or grant them any special status. No saints have been added to the calendar. The veneration of saints’ relics has always been viewed with considerable suspicion as something medieval, distinctly Catholic, superstitious, and not least, in poor taste.

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