by Marguerite Cook
850 Years Celebration
In the presence of kings, O Lord, I will declare your will, for your commands have been my delight (Psalm 119, 46-47)
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was born in London in the year 1118. Thomas was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170 by four knights after coming into conflict with King Henry II. Thomas and King Henry had been friends, and Thomas had been Chancellor of England before becoming head of the English church.
Thomas, as Archbishop of Canterbury, insisted that God and Rome were the supreme authorities; and not the King of England. This situation led to bitter quarrels between Thomas and King Henry II.
The town of Northampton has adopted St Thomas Becket as its saint, as Thomas stayed in the town, and when his life was in danger the local people helped Thomas go into exile.
In the centre of Northampton is the Guildhall, and on the Guildhall’s front edifice is a statue of St Thomas Becket. Local historians have planned historical walks around Northampton which highlight numerous references in the town to St Thomas past and present. These references include; hospitals, a school, and the beautiful Becket Park that curves around the river. At the edge of Becket Park is my favourite; Becket’s Well. St. Thomas is said to have sat down by this well to drink.
Northampton, in St Thomas’ day, was one of the largest towns in all of England. Northampton was one of the regional seats of government, and also contained a splendid castle; little of which now remains. King Henry II and Thomas hunted in the vast deer forests that surrounded Northampton, and they stayed in the Priory of St Andrew. Some local churches known to St Thomas can still be visited today.
The people of Northampton loved Thomas and would greet him in large crowds when he came through the town gate. In 1164 King Henry’s quarrels came to a head, and Archbishop Thomas was called to trial before a Grand Council of Barons in Northampton Castle. Archbishop Thomas refused to recognize their authority and he fled with help from an English religious order; the well respected Gilbertines. In October 1164 Thomas stayed with the Gilbertines at their Priory at Chicksands in Bedfordshire.
However, it was no light matter to brave the anger of King Henry II, and the Gilbertines, fearing for the Archbishop’s safety, took him to Kent where he sailed for France. Archbishop Thomas stayed at Pontigny Abbey in exile.
After six years Archbishop Thomas returned to Canterbury Cathedral; only to be murdered there within months of his return. St. Thomas died near the great Cathedral altar, where he had prayed to his heavenly Father to be a worthy Archbishop. The people of England were shocked and outraged at the murder. The Gilbertines at Chicksands Priory, who had done so much to keep Archbishop Thomas alive, were also distraught at his death. The Gilbertines built a chapel named after the saint in the village of Meppershall, Bedfordshire. The chapel was used as a place of pilgrimage by people who could not make the long journey to Canterbury. Sadly the de-consecrated chapel is now a farmer’s barn.
Today in Northampton Cathedral, St Thomas stands near Our Lady. The patrons of our Diocese are Our Lady Immaculate and St Thomas of Canterbury.