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Giving England the Elbow

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 friends.

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 monarchy.

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.