8 June 2024

To my dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Thomas Becket laid down his life with courage and faith in defence of our Church and the Pope. When the four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of the 29th December 1170, Thomas did not attempt to hide from them, assured in his knowledge that upholding his faith would lead him to the Kingdom of God.

Thomas Becket’s connection to Northampton town is notably marked by a significant episode in his tumultuous relationship with King Henry II. In October 1164, Becket was summoned to Northampton Castle to answer charges of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. The trial, which took place over several days, was a critical moment in the escalating conflict between Becket and the king. Becket’s refusal to submit to the king’s authority and his dramatic exit from the trial, during which he sought sanctuary, highlighted his steadfast commitment to the autonomy of the Church. This event in Northampton was pivotal, leading to Becket’s subsequent flight into exile in France, where he remained for six years before returning to England, ultimately leading to his martyrdom in 1170. The trial at Northampton thus stands as a significant episode in the broader narrative of Becket’s struggle for ecclesiastical independence.

Saint Thomas Becket’s Feast Day is celebrated on 29th December each year. This date is not the best time, sitting between Christmas and New Year, for people wishing travel to our Cathedral to celebrate. However, I know that an important figure and co-patron of our diocese deserves a time when we come together as a diocese to celebrate and venerate the relics of the martyr.

Soon after Becket was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral people from England, France and further afield began to come to the Cathedral on a pilgrimage to the place where Becket lay. The first miracle attributed to Saint Thomas was recorded on the night of his murder. As the miracles multiplied, the hesitant monks charged with overseeing the crypt of the Cathedral, reluctantly opened the crypt to the pilgrims. Over the next decade over 700 miracles were attributed to Becket and by 1200 the cult and ampoules of the martyr’s blood had spread all over Europe.

As the cult grew plans were drawn up to move the shrine of Becket to a bigger and more accessible place in the Cathedral. By happy coincidence, a fire meant that a reconstruction of the entire east end of the Cathedral created a spectacular new shrine. Eventually, on 7 July 1220, Thomas Becket’s remains were translated from the crypt.

We celebrate, then, the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of Saint Thomas Becket on 7 July. The Becket Festival begins with a solemn Mass of the Feast at 11 am on Saturday 6 July in our Cathedral in the presence of the relics of Saint Thomas. The relic is a piece of the cranium given to the Cathedral by a secretary of Pope Pius IX in 1852. Throughout the weekend there will be an opportunity for veneration of the relic and to participate in many times of prayers and other activities.

The Becket lecture will take place at 3 pm on Sunday 7 July. This year the lecture will be given by Fr Gerard Skinner. Fr Gerard is a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster and an author of many books including an excellent biography of the Venerable Ignatius Spencer. Fr Ignatius is another holy man with links to Northampton. A relative of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill, he was bought up at Althorp House on the edge of Northampton. The lecture will conclude with Solemn Vespers of St Thomas and Benediction at 4 pm.

I look forward to seeing many of you at our Cathedral for the Festival of St Thomas Becket over the weekend of the 6-7th July.

Sincerely,

Bishop David Oakley

Bishop of Northampton