On Dec. 29, 1170, four knights loyal to King Henry II crept up on the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in the city’s cathedral and murdered him with their swords after he clashed with the monarch.And, if that's not enough, there is the fact that the Knights Bachelor escorting the relics to Canterbury did so in defiance of a curse, and with some unease.
More than eight centuries later, a bone fragment believed to be from Becket’s elbow traveled this week from Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, where it had been kept for centuries, back to England, where it will make several stops before returning to the site of his assassination.
Becket had been a dear friend of King Henry II’s. But after he became archbishop of Canterbury, he resisted the monarch’s attempts to tame the church’s power. The knights, thinking the king wanted the archbishop dead, killed him. Becket was canonized in 1173, and he became one of the most revered saints in England. His shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a popular pilgrimage site, and it was immortalized in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which followed the journey of a group of pilgrims to his tomb.
In medieval times, Becket’s bones were viewed as having mystical powers. According to legend, they could stop dogs from barking, and they cured a man who said he had suffered for 30 years from nocturnal attacks by a demon called the Incubus.
In another account of Becket’s prowess, a young girl who misplaced some cheese and who feared being beaten for the transgression prayed to Becket, who was said to have led her back to it, according to William MacLehose, a lecturer in the history of science and medicine at University College London.
The journey of the bone relic, which is held in a gold case, was celebrated on Monday with a Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London attended by President Janos Ader of Hungary and Cardinal Peter Erdo, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest.
Along its journey, the elbow fragment will be temporarily reunited with a piece of Becket’s skull — normally kept at Stonyhurst College in northern England — before stopping at Rochester Cathedral on Friday and Canterbury Cathedral on Saturday. It will then return to Hungary.
However flawed Becket and his cause may have been, he carries a savor of myth, and a historical power of heroism that's lasted over 800 years. And people want touch that, even today. An odd atavistic thing, this fascination with relics--condemned in the Thirty-nine Articles, of course, but that one is more honored in the breach, even now--because the touch of the past, however desiccated, however withered, brings that past and all its emotional resonance to bear.