For one place in particular, this really matters: Canterbury Cathedral, which should have been marking the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom there of Thomas Becket. Many events commemorating his death have had to be abandoned. The Anglican Centre of Rome was one of the organizations that helped persuade the Vatican to loan Becket’s bloodstained tunicle to a special exhibition at the cathedral but the event is no longer taking place.


However, the cathedral is now open again for pilgrims wanting to make their own anniversary visit while the cathedral will begin special events around the actual anniversary of Becket’s death on 29 December. It was during the singing of vespers that Becket, then Archbishop of Canterbury, was pursued and killed by four armed knights who believed they were carrying out the wishes of the king, Henry II, by ridding the monarch of his troublesome archbishop.

Becket’s martyrdom horrified the Christian world and for hundreds of years Canterbury was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. In recent times interest in both pilgrimage in general and Becket specifically have become popular once more.

Two books recently published highlight this popularity. One, The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket recounts the discovery by the author, Christopher de Hamel, of Becket’s psalter. During his time as librarian of the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, de Hamel became aware of a collection of medieval manuscripts there that had belonged to Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559-75.Parker had helped himself to the remains of the discarded medieval library. One day a visiting medievalist showed de Hamel an inventory from Canterbury Cathedral, made out by a sacrist in 1321, which included a psalter apparently owned by Becket in a silver-gilt binding inset with gemstones. The description matched exactly the psalter in Corpus Christ’s stash of Parker’s books.

That book has in a corner, believed to be written in the sixteenth century, a Latin note, saying: This Psalter, in boards of silver-gilt and decorated with jewels, was once that of ‘N’ Archbishop of Canterbury [and] eventually came into the hand of Thomas Becket, late Archbishop of Canterbury, as is recorded in the old inscription.”

Until now, this inscription had been considered fiction. But now it seems as if the never-traced psalter that Becket once prayed with, has finally been found.

Those who do make a post-lockdown visit to Canterbury will see the Altar of the Sword’s Point – the exact spot where Thomas was killed. Becket is recognized as a saint by both Anglicans and Catholics and a special ecumenical moment is commemorated at the cathedral by a plaque – when Pope John Paul II and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie prayed together at Becket’s shrine in May 1982, during the first ever papal visit to England.

The growing popularity of Canterbury and other pilgrimage places is highlighted in a new book, Britain’s Pilgrim Places, written by Guy Hayward and Nick Mayhew-Smith and published by the British Pilgrimage Trust. The charity and the guide also highlight pilgrimage routes, many of which had been forgotten until very recently. They include three that lead to Canterbury. They are:

  • The Old Way: a 250 mile route from Southampton to Canterbury, taking in Chichester and the shrine of St Richard and the 11th century Cluniac priory at Lewes.
  • The Augustine Camino – a 70 mile way from Rochester to Ramsgate via Canterbury, visiting 12th and 13th century wall paintings at Rochester, Faversham, Harbledown and Canterbury, the earliest depiction in England of St Francis at Doddington, Rochester Cathedral and St Augustine’s shrine in Ramsgate.
  • The Pilgrims Way, 153 miles from Winchester to Canterbury, plus The Becket Way, 90 miles from Southwark to Canterbury – the two come together at Otford. Pilgrims can request a formal sending off from St Swithun’s Shrine at Winchester, while if you start from London, you follow the route of pilgrims immortalized by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, and take the journey that Becket himself is said to have made to and from London.


Britain’s Pilgrim Places is packed with information and Q codes to give you even more information as you go on pilgrimages. Or you can access them on the British Pilgrimage website

As the authors say: “Meaningful journeys are one of the few universal patterns of human behaviour, seeking out special places…they are places where all can find wholeness, be part of something bigger.”

With lockdown easing and the last summer days, 2020 can still be a time to remember Becket in his anniversary year.