ALMOST translucent, and the size and shape of a broad bean, a fragment of bone from the elbow of St Thomas Becket rested on the high altar at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday after more than 800 years abroad and a journey of 1000 miles.
Mounted in a gold-plated reliquary, the bone fragment from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in 1170, is believed to have been taken to Hungary by priests who were present in England at his reburial in 1220.
The relic’s visit is a joint initiative by the Hungarian Embassy, the Church of England, and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Travelling with it were the President of Hungary, János Áder, and the Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Cardinal Péter Erdo.
They were welcomed to the Abbey on Tuesday by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, and attended a solemn evensong during which Dean Hall described Becket’s difficult relationship with the state under a king who sought to “rule the Church”.
The day before, the relic had been venerated by the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, in front of an estimated 3000 people in Westminster Cathedral.
The Sacrist of Westminster Abbey, Canon Paul Arbuthnot, recalled Becket’s “protection of the Church from secular power”, before praying for leaders who were “wise in the ways of the gospel”.
The relic has its home in the Basilica of Esztergom. It is believed that the Archbishop of Esztergom, Bánfi Lukács, who had studied with Becket in Paris, adopted the cult immediately after his old friend’s canonisation in 1173. Under Communist rule in the 1970s, Banfi’s successor, Cardinal László Lékai, reintroduced a commemoration of the saint’s feast day.
Emphasising Becket’s importance to Hungary, Endre Szvetnik, a Hungarian reporter, described him as “someone who stood up for his people against the prevailing powers and authorities. He gave courage and strength to people in the last years of Communism in Hungary, to stand up for their rights and what they believed in.”
The relic rested overnight in the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, and is scheduled to be displayed at the Houses of Parliament before being taken to Rochester Cathedral, arriving finally in Canterbury Cathedral, the site of Becket’s murder, on Saturday.