Henry II’s penitential Canterbury pilgrimage: 850th anniversary

Canterbury Cathedral

Friday 12 July is the 850th anniversary of Henry II visiting Canterbury for the first time after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket four years earlier. In 1174 the 12 July also fell on a Friday.

The king, who had decided on his penitential pilgrimage only six days earlier, landed at Southampton from Normandy. Some maintain that he followed the Old Way which hugged the coast to Kent rather than heading for the ancient route out of Winchester.

However, on the morning of Friday 12 July 1174 he arrived in the village of Harbledown near Canterbury which was on the main road from London and is part of today’s pilgrim route.

Here the King dismounted to pray in the Hospital of St Nicholas which was 90 years old. As part of his penance for Becket’s murder he gave an annual grant of 20 marks to the lepers of Harbledown hospital.

St Michael & All Angels Church at the top of the hill was barely 15 years old.

it was a damp morning and from here the king, rather than remounting, walked along the road dotted with puddles to St Dunstan’s Church on the edge of Canterbury.

At the church he removed his rain protection clothing and shoes.

Henry then walked barefoot for quarter of a mile to enter Canterbury at the West Gate. Still barefoot he continued along the main street crossing a second braid of the River Stour where he granted the mill to Becket’s sister Rohesia. ASK on the site has plaque recording this.

After a further 300 yards on the cobbles he arrived at the cathedral as the bells rang. At once he knelt in the porch.

Inside Henry went directly to the martyrdom site where he kissed the flagstones on which Becket had fallen. It was another three years before the bloodstained stones were lifted

Finally he made his way to the crypt to kneel at the tomb of Becket the new saint. This where monks were required to whip the King.

The visit was not brief for the King kept overnight vigil at the tomb.

Pageant on Saturday 6 July

Canterbury is marking the Henry II anniversary a few days early with a Medieval Pageant and Family Trail on Saturday 6 July.

The Pageant, with giant models of the King and St Thomas Becket, starts at 11am from the West Gate and finishes in the Cathedral’s Precinct where at 11.45am there will be a scene depicting the King making his apology for Becket’s murder.

Canterbury Cathedral grounds will be open with free entry.

Translation of St Thomas 1220 on Sunday 7 July

The Translation of St Thomas, marking the moving of Becket’s body in 1220 from the Canterbury Cathedral crypt to the new shrine upstairs, was always a bigger day for pilgrimage than the murder anniversary at Christmastime. Solemn Evensong with Procession to the shrine site is at 5.30pm and will be live-streamed on the cathedral website.

850th anniversary of Henry II’s Pilgrimage on Friday 12 July

Canterbury Cathedral Sung Evensong is at 5.30pm.

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