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Canterbury Cathedral in talks to borrow bloodstained tunic of St Thomas Becket

09 November 2018


Fresco showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in the Church of St John and St Paul, Spoleto

Fresco showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in the Church of St John and St Paul, Spoleto

THE bloodstained tunic of St Thomas Becket, the 38th Archbishop of Canterbury, might be loaned to Canterbury Cathedral to mark the 850th anniversary of his murder.

A spokeswoman for the cathedral confirmed that “early discussions” had taken place for the return of the reliquary containing the tunic, which is housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome.

“We would be very excited if it were to come to Canterbury in 2020,” she said.

Becket was killed in Canterbury on 29 December 1170, after a dispute with King Henry II. The two had been friends, but fell out over what should happen to clergy who committed “secular” crimes. The murder provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173, and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its destruction in 1538, on the orders of King Henry VIII.

The tunic in which Becket died survived the destruction — unlike most of England’s shrines and relics — because it had been given to the pope by Henry VII.

Canterbury is planning to hold a series of events to mark the 850th anniversary of the murder, and the 800th anniversary of his shrine, in 2020.

The tunic returned home for a brief period in 1997, as part of celebrations to mark the 1400th anniversary of the arrival of St Augustine in Kent.

The reliquary containing the tunic is made of glass in a silver gilt frame, and dates from the 17th century. In 1992, it was opened by scientists from the University of Munich, who found that it dated from the mid-12th century, and had been made for a very tall man, which matched descriptions of Becket from the period. Also attached to the tunic was a piece of paper which identified the tunic as belonging to Becket.

In 1997, the cathedral displayed the tunic alongside the Becket châsse, a casket depicting Becket’s murder, which had been bought the previous year by the Victoria and Albert Museum, with support from the National Lottery.

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