The saint’s relic will be loaned to mark the 850th anniversary of his murder.
To mark the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket, the Vatican will be sending back the martyred saint’s bloodstained tunic to Canterbury Cathedral.
Becket served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170 by followers of King Henry II, following a dispute over the rights and privileges of the Catholic Church.
While they had long been friends, Henry and Thomas fell out over the Church’s independence from and authority over the crown.
According to tradition, Henry once famously said of Becket’s insistence on the independence of the Church, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Historian Simon Schama contends that Becket’s contemporary biographer got the quotation right, when he recorded him as saying:
“What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”
Becket was murdered on December 29, 1170, and soon after was venerated across Europe as a martyr. Pope Alexander III canonized him only two years after his death. Canterbury Cathedral, where he was murdered, then became home to his shrine, attracting pilgrims from all over England and Europe, until Henry VIII destroyed the shrine in 1538.
The popular devotion to Becket inspired Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is structured as a story-telling contest among a group of pilgrims traveling from London to visit Becket’s shrine in Canterbury.
Becket’s tunic managed to survive the Reformation and the subsequent looting of the monasteries, because Henry VII had sent it as a gift to the pope 50 years earlier.
According to The Guardian the decision by Rome to lend the Church of England the tunic is the result of years of negotiations involving the British Foreign Office, the British embassy to the Holy See and Father Robert McCulloch, procurator general of the Missionary Society of St. Columban, who first suggested that the tunic might be loaned to commemorate the anniversary.
Scientists from Munich have asserted that the bloodstained tunic is probably authentic, according to a report in The Guardian, which noted that tests were conducted on it after it was rediscovered in 1992:
According to John Butler, author of 1995 book The Quest for Becket’s Bones: the Mystery of the Relics of St Thomas Becket, a reliquary, or casket for holding a sacred object, was opened at Santa Maria Maggiore in 1992. It was said to contain Becket’s tunic sprinkled with his blood.
Jane Walker of Canterbury Cathedral told The Guardian that the loan of Becket’s tunic still needs the approval of the Vatican’s culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi.
“We are at the planning stage for our 2020 commemoration of Becket. It’s very exciting if the tunic comes from Rome,” said Walker.