This is “out of order”, as readers will soon conclude. There’s a reason for that. The reason is that the writer just recently returned from a somewhat extended vacation to the United Kingdom (if you like, you may wish to insert the word “pilgrimage” in place of “vacation”. The result is the same.
“Pilgrimages”, as any reader of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” will recall (and that includes everybody who took Senior English at South Marshall County High School, and probably everybody who attended Marshall County, as well), constituted the primary preoccupations of English people between, oh, say 1350 and 1450, AD. Now, they had taken them earlier, and they took them later, but between rounds with the plague, in the 1300s, and the Protestant Reformation in the late 1500s, lay that Century or so when it seems that everybody went on pilgrimages.
The most popular destination in Chaucer’s day was, according to the Prologue to the “Tales”, Canterbury. There, in the midst of the great Cathedral that still stands on the same spot, was the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, and that was the place to go for Englishmen and women at the turn of the 15th Century.
This writer had an opportunity to go there a couple of weeks ago, and took it. It was a wonderful visit. He did not, though, see Becket’s shrine. It was moved, you see, by King Henry VIII during the Reformation of the English Church. There is a sign there, pointing to where it used to be, though, and a modern-day pilgrim can go and stand where Beck was murdered by knights of King Henry II. The rest of the Cathedral, or “Minster” is completely lovely, too. There are huge stained glass windows, massive Gothic columns and arches, and, well, just about every kind of religious experience. It’s well worth a trip. Also in Canterbury are a couple more very old Churches, such as St. Mary’s, which is still active as a parish Anglican Church, and St. Martin’s, which is built on a foundation dating to Roman times.
Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II. The two were close friends, and Henry thought Thomas would support him against the Pope. Becket himself was not a priest, even. Henry had him ordained a Deacon, then promoted him directly to Archbishop. Thomas, though, took his job seriously, and caused Henry all sorts of trouble. One day, it’s said, Henry exclaimed “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Four of his knights overheard and went directly to Canterbury, where they found the Archbishop in the Cathedral, where he had just said Mass. They killed him, right there in the Sanctuary, or just outside it, and in no time he was made a saint and the hero of virtually the whole English people. That’s how his grave became a shrine, and his shrine a pilgrimage destination, and you can still go there and visit the very place where it happened.