When someone falls to pieces, it’s not a good thing. It
means that they’re unable to cope with life, that they’re overwhelmed by mental
illness or alcoholism or some other big problem. That’s in the modern world, at
least. In the Middle Ages, falling to pieces could be a very good thing.
It happened to Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury
who served under King Henry II and died in his own cathedral on December 29,
1170. But he didn’t die naturally: he was hacked to death by four
sword-wielding knights who thought they were carrying out the king’s will.
Becket’s death turned him into a saint, which is why he fell to pieces in time.
The bones of a saint are seen as holy in Catholicism,
physical symbols of the spiritual power that brought the person God’s favour
during his or her life. They’re called relics and they serve as the focus of
prayer in countless Catholic churches and shrines around the world. That’s why
Thomas Becket’s grave was opened some years after his death and bones taken
from his skeleton. They ended up in different places: part of his skull is in
Lancashire, more bones are in London at Westminster Cathedral and other
churches. And part of one of his elbows went to Hungary, enclosed in a
jewel-encrusted gold case.
But now England is being given the elbow: the relic is
returning to Becket’s birthplace for a time, after five hundred years of honour
in Esztergom Cathedral, the most important religious centre in Hungary. How did
it get there? Nobody is sure, but it’s a sign of how revered Thomas Becket was
by Catholics not just in the British Isles but right across Europe. He had been
murdered because he defied King Henry, with whom he had once been close
Henry assumed that the friendship would continue when he
made Becket into Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket would do what Henry wanted,
not what was best for the Catholic church. Or so Henry thought. When he
discovered his mistake, he became very angry, criticizing Becket in stronger
and stronger terms, until that fateful day at the end of December in 1170. “Who
will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry is said to have cried.
Four of his knights decided that they would be the ones. By
ending Becket’s life, they ended Henry’s problem – and created a new and much
bigger one. The church and people of England proclaimed that Becket was a
martyr, a holy man struck down in a holy place. Henry ruled England, but he
didn’t rule heaven and he had to repent for his evil deed. The death of Becket
proved that the church was the most powerful institution in England, not the
Canterbury began to attract pilgrims from all over Europe,
riding to pray at the shrine of St Thomas Becket, martyr and hero. The
pilgrimage inspired one of the greatest works of English literature, Geoffrey
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But the popularity of Becket as a saint and
Canterbury as a shrine doomed them both. When church and monarchy battled again
during the reign of Henry VIII, this time it was the king who won.
He refused to accept the pope as head of the church and
began closing monasteries and shrines up and down the country. Canterbury was
an obvious target. The shrine to Becket there was destroyed and it became
dangerous to worship him as a saint in his homeland. But history never stops
and today Becket is honoured again. His elbow is only a small thing, but it’s
very important as a symbol of a saint’s ability to conquer death and turn
physical defeat into spiritual victory.