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Thomas Becket relic to return to Canterbury Cathedral via Rochester

By Clare Freeman

A relic from a “troublesome priest” is set to visit Rochester on a week-long pilgrimage back to the cathedral in which he was murdered 800 years ago.

A bone, thought to be from Saint Thomas Becket’s arm, has been kept in Esztergom, Hungary, for centuries and is returning to England today.

Following a Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral this afternoon, the relics will travel via Becket’s birthplace at Cheapside in the City of London to Rochester then onto Canterbury.

John Opie's Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, painted about 1793
John Opie's Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, painted about 1793

The Kent leg of the bone's journey starts on Friday, when it is transported to Rochester in the afternoon, before an evensong at the Cathedral.

It is briefly displayed there on Saturday, before being transferred to Canterbury Cathedral in the afternoon.

Pilgrims will meet at St Michael's church in Harbledown at 2.45pm on that day before setting off on foot to Canterbury Cathedral.

The relic will then be met by the Dean and religious and civic leaders.

Dean Philip Hesketh of Rochester Cathedral said: “We are very honoured to have been included in this historic event and welcome the delegation from Hungary as a sign of friendship and solidarity between our two countries.

Rochester Cathedral.
Rochester Cathedral.

“Hundreds of thousands of mediaeval pilgrims would have passed through Rochester on their way to Becket’s shrine and so is fitting that the pilgrims and official delegation should stop and pray at Rochester and rest overnight.”

Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until he was murdered in 1170 by followers of King Henry II - the two men had disagreed over the rights and privileges of the church.

Although historical accounts differ, the King is alleged to have said “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”.

This was interpreted as a royal command and four knights confronted him in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29 before killing him with their swords near to the cloister.

He was canonised by Pope Alexander III and is revered as a saint and a martyr by the Catholic and Anglican churches.

The nave of Canterbury Cathedral
The nave of Canterbury Cathedral

Legends about the saint include one in which he caused the inhabitants of Strood and their descendants to be born with tails.

The men of the town had sided with King Henry II against the archbishop and cut off his horse’s tail when he passed through Strood.

It is not known how the bone arrived in Hungary but relics were taken in 1220 when his body was moved from a tomb to a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

Records from Esztergom Cathedral in 1528 show part of his arm was kept there in a gold plated silver container.

King Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the rest of Becket’s bones and the shrine when he dissolved the monasteries in 1538.

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