Becket at the British Museum in 2021

English alabaster sculpture (c 1450–1550) depicting the murder of St Thomas of Canterbury

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is the major Becket 2020 exhibition which will open at the British Museum on Wednesday 22 April.

The exhibition was scheduled for earlier this year but as with most St Thomas Becket anniversary events was postponed.

The array of objects associated with Becket will include jewellery, sculptures and reliquaries.

In addition to artefacts from the Museum’s own collection there are loans from Europe and the United States.

The British Museum exhibition will run for four months until Sunday 22 August.

Archbishop Welby at Southwark for Becket anniversary

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby next to the Thomas Becket icon by Susan Moberley in Southwark Cathedral. (Photo: Southwark Diocese)

“Becket’s cause is not our own,” said his successor Justin Welby speaking at Southwark Cathedral on Friday.

“We do know better than him in some areas. But too often his courage is not our own either; the courage that puts our all in the hands of God, and like the modern martyrs sees death as simply the cost of discipleship.”

The present Archbishop of Canterbury was preaching during Choral Evensong on the 850th anniversay of predecessor St Thomas Becket visiting the cathedral days before his murder.

Justin Welby reminded the congregation that today the Church does not usually seek to avoid secular law. But he did invoke the example of ‘the 20th-century Becket’ St Oscar Romero whose national shrine is at St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark.

Dean of St George’s Richard Hearn brought a relic of St Thomas from his cathedral for the service.

“What is wrong is wrong, and at times that necessitates confrontation with the courage of Becket – albeit not his cause,” said Archbishop Welby.

“That courage was found in Jeremiah and in St Paul. In the apostles before the Sanhedrin. In Paul before the Emperor. In our living memory, Bonhoeffer before the Nazi court. Oscar Romero before his Government.”

“It is found around the world, anonymously, today in hidden fields in Northern Nigeria, on the beaches of Libya, in prisons unknown and dark places forgotten. It is found where brave people stand for the light that Christ sheds, sometimes unknowingly, and hold to the truth that the darkness will never quench the light.”

Later the Archbishop added: “When children go hungry in 21st century Britain, we must speak – because God says so in scripture. We heard it in the Magnificat just a few moments ago.

“When aid to the world’s poorest is cut, we must speak – because Christ commands a bias to the poor, not the trickle-down theory of economics; to love our neighbours like the Good Samaritan did when the ‘neighbour’ was just a human being in trouble from an enemy country of which he knew little.

“When the refugee or the immigrant are vilified. When a Muslim woman cannot go on public transport without insult, or a Christian cannot read a bible without persecution. When a man has his neck knelt on till he suffocates. When a pastor is arrested for speaking of Christ, the Church of that and every country must say this is wrong, whatever the democratic vote or popular thinking or Government collusion.

“Paul is on the point of death when he writes to Timothy. He speaks of the love of Christ and the hope of salvation proclaimed whether it leads to trouble or not. He speaks of truth which a loving Church seeks and proclaims in each generation. He speaks of urgency, not political expedience.”

The service remembered not just Southwark’s Becket anniversary but, due to the virus, was the opening of the delayed Becket 2020 programme marking the 850 murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Its cathedral is marking the actual anniversary on Tuesday 29 December.

Both cathedrals are preparing for the resumption of pilgrimage along the Southwark to Canterbury Pilgrims’ Way next year.

The Archbishop’s full text is on his website. A recording of the service is on YouTube.

The Archbishop preaching with the St Thomas relic on the altar. (Photo:Southwark Diocese)
Two tall candles representing St Thomas (right) and Marion Marples (left) made to their height by artist Michelle Rumney. Pilgrimage expert Marion was working on highlighting the London-Canterbury route when she died suddenly last year.

Becket in Southwark: Live online anniversary feed

View of Southwark Cathedral from Borough Market

Friday 11 December

Today 850 years ago St Thomas Becket was at Southwark Priory.

St Thomas of Canterbury had been welcomed by crowds along the Old Kent Road and in Borough High Street.

The occasion will be recalled tonight in Southwark Cathedral, the old priory, during choral evensong.

A relic of the saint is being brought by the Dean of Southwark’s Roman Catholic St George’s Cathedral.

A candle made to the height of St Thomas will be lit.

The Dean of Canterbury will lead the prayers.

Whether Thomas Becket arrived on Thursday 10 December or today is a matter of continuing debate. What is certain is that he was in Southwark on Friday 11 December 1170.

This was just eighteen days before his murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

On arrival in 1170 Archbishop Becket was met at the church door by the canons and tonight in 2020 the canons are welcoming Archbishop Justin Welby to preach.

In 1170 St Thomas spent the night next door in the Bishop of Winchester’s house. The entrance is now Winchester Walk opposite the cathedral and the remains of the main building can be seen behind Borough Market in Clink Street. The kitchen is now a Pret a Manger.

The service is being broadcast live this evening Friday 11 December at 5.30pm on Facebook, YouTube and the Southwark Cathedral website .

The Candles: The Becket candle was part of Michelle Rumney’s Lenten art installation featuring pilgrimage but seen only for a short time before the Covid lockdown. A second candle is made to the height of pilgrimage pioneer Marion Marples who died suddenly last year having worked on the reawakening of the Pilgrims’ Way for Becket 2020.

Remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s dining hall in Clink Street

Pilgrims’ Way in London

Southwark Cathedral below The Shard which is visible from Shooters Hill.

The three-tier system for controlling the virus means that walkers should not enter Kent.

If already in the county you are free to walk although pubs are not open for accommodation.

However, walking the route from London to Erith is possible as this is all within Greater London which is in the middle tier.

Dartford is in Kent.

If walking out of London you will be able to obtain a passport at the start in Southwark Cathedral‘s shop from Thursday 3 December.

The Red Lion is open on Shooters Hill.

At Lesnes Abbey you will find the Chestnuts refreshment kiosk with outdoor seating open daily until 3pm (weekends 4pm) up to Christmas and in the New Year.

The Pilgrims’ Way within Greater London is a two day walk. Until allowed to go further you could walk back to Southwark from Erith on the Thames Path.

St Andrew & Rochester

Rochester Diocesan shield with pilgrim shell

St Andrew’s Day 30 November is not an important day only in Scotland.

St Andrew has been patron of Rochester Cathedral since 604 when Justus established the first church.

Justus arrived from Rome to support the existing mission of St Augustine who had come from the monastery of St Andrew & St Gregory in Rome, now known as San Gregorio Magno al Celio.

Justus was the first Bishop of Rochester and later Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Rochester Diocesan shield features of the Cross of St Andrew and a pilgrim shell. The latter is a reminder of St William of Perth who was murdered outside Rochester in 1201 whilst on his way to visit the then crypt shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury.

Rochester Cathedral

Rebel Hildegard Von Bingen

A detail from Clare Kormoczy’s portrait of Hildegard Von Bingen.

Joanna Moorhead’s lovely book of Rebel Saints for 21st-century Girls reveals many feisty female saints.

Her choice of forty is inspiring and the illustrations of each one by Clare Kormoczy are delightful.

The inclusion of Hildegard Von Bingen reminds us that St Thomas Becket and Henry II met an equal when they corresponded with her and sort her advice.

She wrote books on medicine and science, founded convents and fought for the right of nuns to control their own finances.

At the age of 60 she set off on a preaching tour of Germany ignoring suggestions that only men should do this.

As the title suggests this is a book written for young girls but older boys and girls and adults are likely to find it rewarding.

**Rebel Saints for 21st-century Girls by Joanna Moorhead with illustrations by Clare Kormoczy is published by Alive Publishing (£14.99).

Martyrdom by Catherine Pepinster

This year “is full of anniversaries: 40 years since Oscar Romero was assassinated; 100 years since Joan of Arc’s canonisation; 850 years since the killing of Becket; 50 years since the canonisation of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales,” says Catherine Pepinster.

Catherine Pepinster’s new book Martyrdom: Why Martyrs Still Matter embraces St Thomas Becket and is extremely timely despite Becket 2020 events being postponed by the virus.

Her main six page section on Becket, who appears again and again through the book, is a good introduction.

Also featured are a number of the PW saints. On pilgrimage we meet St Oscar Romero in Southwark’s Roman Catholic St George’s Cathedral and again in Canterbury.

Catherine devotes a chapter to Oscar Romero, a 20th-century ‘Becket’ murdered in church by the state. Within hours of Romero’s assassination Archbishop Robert Runcie publicly knelt to pray for his soul at the site of Becket’s murder.

It is suggested that both Becket and Romero were considered to be irritants who were expendable.

Also making an appearance is St Thomas More. Walkers meet him in Southwark where his head was put on a London Bridge stake and find that head in St Dunstan’s Church on approaching Canterbury’s city gate.

He famously declared himself, like Becket, to be “the king’s good servant and God’s first”.

Thomas Becket and Thomas More “are people of conscience whose sacrifice resonates with contemporary audiences,” claims the author.

St John Fisher of Rochester is shown as standing by Katharine of Aragon despite the consequences. The Pope tried to save the bishop from death by making him a cardinal but Henry VIII threatened to send Fisher’s decapitated head to Rome for the red hat.

Much more is covered in this thorough book: many countries, eras, other faiths claiming martyrs and 20th-century suffragettes.

Also included is a look at the English Reformation which paused pilgrimage. At this time the new English College in Rome had a large painting of Becket to inspire students. Now the annual Martyrs’ Day at the college is a Christian unity occasion with Anglicans and Methodists present.

The book was completed after Covid shut down the country which enables the author to reflect that, although the planned Becket 2020 events are cancelled, many were to have been ecumenical. Pilgrimage today is one of the great signs of living and growing Christian unity as people of all churches and none begin to understand history.

In the 21st-century it is natural for Canterbury Cathedral and Santa Maria Maggiore to be ready, as Catherine reports, to cooperate in honouring Thomas Becket.

Martyrdom: Why Martyrs Still Matter by Catherine Pepinster is published by SPCK (£25).

Southwark remembers Thomas Becket’s visit

Replica of a 14th-century pilgrim token showing Thomas Becket on a horse is available from Canterbury Cathedral shop (£14.99).

With the approach of Advent we can soon start to follow in real time the weeks before the murder of Thomas Becket 850 years ago.

At the start of December the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket returned to from exile in France by landing at Sandwich in his diocese.

His ride into Canterbury through cheering crowds was compared to Christ on Palm Sunday.

The following week, Becket set off for Southwark. Although it was winter with short daylight hours, he managed to ride in a day.

A brief confirmation service at Newington near Sittingbourne took place by the main road saving the archbishop from having to turn off to the church which lies to the north.

The 850th anniversary of Becket’s visit to Southwark Cathedral (called Southwark Priory in 1170) is being marked during Choral Evensong on Friday 11 December when the saint’s successor Justin Welby will preach.

Representatives from nearby St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral Southwark will be present. The Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd Robert Willis, is coming up the PW for the occasion.

Flickering before the altar will be a candle made to the height of St Thomas Becket and another the exact height of Marion Marples who promoted the Santiago pilgrimage and, just before her unexpected death last year, helped to prepare the reawakening of the PW for this anniversary year.

Becket spent at least the first night of his visit in the house near to the cathedral which is now the familiar preserved ruin in Clink Street.

After about a week, having gone to Harrow and been snubbed by Henry II’s courtiers, Becket returned home. That journey took two days and after Dartford was by way of the Darenth Valley and Otford with an overnight stop at Wrotham.

This is the route we follow today from Southwark to Canterbury.

**The service will be streamed live on the Southwark Cathedral website. Those wishing to be present should register via Eventbrite.

Alfred the Great weekend

The prominent statue of King Alfred looks across Winchester where he is buried

Monday 26 October is Alfred the Great Day in the Anglican and Winchester City calendars marking the King of West Saxons death in 899.

Alfred was a pupil of St Swithun and like his teacher is a key figure in Winchester’s history.

We come across Alfred at the start of the PW when passing through Hyde Abbey. The Wessex king is buried in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s opposite.

Details of the King Alfred Weekend & Community Dig starting today at Hyde Abbey are on the Hyde900 website.

It is interesting that Southwark, the London starting point for the PW and closely associated with Winchester, has Alfred in its early history. Nine years after making Winchester the capital of Wessex he made Southwark a borough.

The 14th-century figure of Alfred in Southwark’s Trinity Church Square is London’s oldest outdoor statue

The Royal Oak reopens

Repainted Royal Oak tonight shortly before reopening

The Royal Oak, the first pub out of Southwark on the Pilgrims’ Way, has reopened this evening.

Arrivals are finding the pub repainted outside and in with the downstairs feeling light and airy. Without the old curtains there is now a view of the street.

The present Royal Oak is a well-preserved Victorian building standing in Tabard Street which is the start of the road to Kent. It was once called Kent Street and joins the Old Kent Road at the Bricklayers Arms junction.

Henry V after Agincourt and Charles II at the Restoration both came up the road.

Pilgrims to Canterbury went down the road to Canterbury as they still do.

At present it is just a trickle being brave in this year of virus. Not all pubs, teashops and bed and breakfasts in the countryside have yet reopened.

But walkers can get their pilgrim passport stamped now at The Royal Oak just half mile after setting out from Southwark Cathedral.

The Royal Oak belongs to Harvey’s of Lewes which is the successor to the Lewes Priory brewery shut down by Henry VIII.

The Priory monks owned an inn by London Bridge ( News Building site) where Canterbury bound pilgrims could spend their first night before setting out on foot or horse.

In 2018 the award-winning Royal Oak, aware of its heritage, hosted special Pilgrims’ Way evening.

It’s a good stop for lunch on the first day or a drink the night before.

The Royal Oak pilgrim stamp.

To Canterbury from Winchester and London / Leigh Hatts