Henry III and Becket’s shrine

The 7th of July 1220 marks the 800th anniversary of the translation of Thomas Becket, who had been martyred 50 years earlier by knights in the service of King Henry II, to a glittering new shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. King Henry III, all of 12 years old, welcomed scores of foreign dignitaries for the occasion, some from as far away as Hungary. Even Richard the Lionheart’s widow Berengaria of Navarre made her first and only visit to England to attend the ceremony (and ask for the arrears of her pension). The archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, did not perform the mass itself, rather gave the honour to the archbishop of Reims. The arrangement was deliberate. In his struggles with King John, Langton had imitated Becket by seeking the support and protection of the French. He wanted the shrine to be as much a political statement, a warning to all English monarchs not to pick a fight with the church. He even chose 7 July for the ceremony because it was the day on which Henry II had been buried in relative obscurity following his embittered end in 1189. In doing so, however, Langton antagonised the young king, who revered the memory of his ancestors, and Henry III would prove very much like his father and grandfather in his determination to bend the church to his will. Canterbury never made his list of popular shrines and he stole Langton’s thunder by building a glorious shrine to another saint, Edward the Confessor, in Westminster Abbey, which still exists. Becket’s shrine has long since disappeared, pillaged and destroyed on orders of another Henry, number 8. The looted gold and jewels were said to have filled two enormous chests that took six men to haul away. The image shows what the shrine might have looked like.

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