Saturday, December 29, 2018

Not Exactly Five Golden Rings . . .

For the traditional feast on the fifth day of Christmas, we are off to Canterbury, and a tale of defiance and intrigue for inspiration. The date—December 29—is, in fact, the anniversary of a murder, of all the unlikely acts to be celebrated in a religious calendar. The day brings us to the Canterbury Cathedral itself, and taunts us with echoes of the originating event as they reverberate through history.

The murder was that of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury for eight years during the reign of Henry II, Norman king of England during the twelfth century. The king was displeased over Thomas Becket's unwillingness to go along with royal wishes to limit clerical independence—not to mention lessening the ties to the church at Rome—and through a process involving a trial, self-imposed exile, papal intervention and truce-making, Thomas Becket returned from France to England.

He wasn't there for long. Whether misunderstanding the king's comments over yet another incident involving the recently-returned archbishop or following a direct order, four knights left the king's presence and headed to the Canterbury Cathedral, where they confronted the archbishop. The knights first demanded that Becket reconsider his stance against the king's will, and at the archbishop's refusal, murdered him in the cathedral on December 29, 1170.

One would have thought that that would be the end of the incident, but the controversial Thomas Becket, after his death, was to inspire more controversy over his controversy. Though demands arose for his veneration as a martyr through much of the European world, the monks at the cathedral were afraid that his body would be stolen, thus arranging for his burial beneath the floor of the eastern crypt of the cathedral.

So many pilgrims came to Canterbury, over the following years, that eventually the remains of Saint Thomas Becket were removed to a more appropriate setting—a gold-plated and jewel-studded shrine—in 1220. Though Canterbury was always the destination of pilgrimages, following the saint's death, the number of pilgrimages increased. It is not surprising—learning also that in England in the years following Becket's death, storytelling was a main form of entertainment—to realize that Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth century collection known now as The Canterbury Tales was set around a plot line of a pilgrimage specifically headed to the cathedral to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket.

Don't think the arrival of the 1400s was the end of the saint's notoriety. With the coming of the Reformation, King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries—of which the Canterbury property was involved—and Thomas Becket's shrine was destroyed in 1538. That, apparently, was not quite enough to satisfy King Henry VIII, and he had Becket's bones destroyed and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated.

Becket's assassination had been felt far and wide—noted even in such places as Spain, Sicily, and Italy, and elsewhere under Norman influence. Over the centuries, his story has inspired many works of literature, drama, and art.

But how does one celebrate such a day? Watch Richard Burton stand his ground in the face of Peter O'Toole in a 1964 movie recounting the original history? Make a donation to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty? Re-enact a pilgrimage to Canterbury (and take in London while we're there)?

One thing that struck me while I was connecting the dots on Thomas Becket's story was to see how widely spread the Norman culture and influence was at that time. Here on this end of Time's spectrum, we—especially genealogically-inclined Americans—like to report ourselves in terms of our hyphenated American roots. Those who claim to be of English extraction think they were, well, English. That may not be entirely true, as some of us have discovered upon receiving our ethnicity reports from our DNA tests. The English weren't exactly just English. A great many of them were once from France—to be specific, from Normandy. And even that wasn't a pure, isolated form of ethnicity, as the Normans owed their roots to the Franks, Romans from Gaul, and—how could we not include these sea-roving Scandinavians?—Vikings.

Just as those of us who fancy ourselves to be "English" turn out to owe our existence to a multiplicity of migrating people groups over history, and just as the most saintly of us may turn out, at times, to be recalcitrant—and downright grumpy while we're at it—we can let this patchwork of history speak to us. I'm not sure how we can turn this one into a feast day celebration—brain mold for your jello, anyone?—but it does allow us to spin off some food for thought.

Above: Colorized photograph of the Canterbury Cathedral, taken sometime between 1890 and 1900; courtesy of U. S. Library of Congress, via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

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