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Rome to lend St Thomas Becket relic to UK

28 February 2020

Vestment though to have been worn by Becket to return to Canterbury Cathedral

Robert Willis

The Becket tunicle, encased in a 17th-century glass reliquary, pictured in Rome

The Becket tunicle, encased in a 17th-century glass reliquary, pictured in Rome

A VESTMENT thought to have been worn by St Thomas Becket at the time of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 is to return to the UK from Rome, in July.

The relic, a 12th-century tunicle, encased in a 17th-century glass reliquary, is being loaned to the cathedral from the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome, with the permission of the Vatican. It marks 850 years since the saint was murdered, and 800 years since his remains were moved from the cathedral crypt into a separate shrine.

Then Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket was brutally murdered on 29 December 1170 by four of King Henry II’s knights, who had believed that the King had wanted the Archbishop assassinated. A monk who witnessed the attack, Edward Grim, describes how one of the sword strokes was so violent that it sliced the crown off Becket’s skull and shattered the blade’s tip on the pavement.

Miracles were attributed to Becket shortly after his death.

The arrival of the relic will coincide with the Lambeth Conference, which is being hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the cathedral, the University of Kent, and Lambeth Palace, in July.

The Precentor of the cathedral, the Revd Max Kramer, said: “The relic reminds us of the cost of bearing faithful witness to Christ. Many of the bishops who will be attending the Lambeth Conference lead Christian communities suffering violent persecution and oppression for their faith.

“We hope that seeing the garment associated with Becket’s death, and being reminded of his extraordinary legacy, will help them to find the strength and encouragement of God as they continue to witness to our shared faith with great courage in difficult times.”

Visitors can view the Becket tunicle from 4 July to 3 August. The cathedral’s normal precinct charges apply. The loan is part of Becket 2020, a programme of services, events, and exhibitions to be held in Canterbury, London, and elsewhere in the UK to commemorate the saint’s life, death, and legacy.

The cathedral had previously housed another relic from Rome, when Primates gathered in Canterbury in January 2016 to discuss the future of the Communion (News, Comment, 15 January 2016). The San Gregorio Monastery loaned the head of a crozier that is believed to have belonged to Pope St Gregory the Great, who began the mission to the Angles by sending his emissary, St Augustine, in 595. It was brought from Rome and placed in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, where the Primates gathered to pray each day. After the conclusion of the week-long talks, the relic, a 12-cm-high artefact of carved ivory, was returned.


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