England: Murder in the cathedral

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid witnesses history brought to life in Canterbury Cathedral

Royal French and English histories collide at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England. Photo / Supplied
Royal French and English histories collide at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England. Photo / Supplied

So the murder was good for business then, Mike?

"It was the biggest cash cow the cathedral had known," laughs Mike Evans, one of the guides at Canterbury Cathedral, the spiritual home of the Anglican Church and where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170.

Evans, who retired from a sales career in London and returned to his childhood home of Canterbury some years ago, mixes serious and arcane history with useful trivia ("Richard the Lionheart didn't speak English") and a common touch. He quips about "the holy stitchers" and "holy dusters" (volunteers who repair prayer cushions and dust the statuary) and discusses the death of the Black Prince (Edward, who died in 1376) as if it happened last month.

He notes how nobles from Europe had attended Edward's funeral and how, like today, they came to curry favour with the church - big business, if you will - through donations.

"Which explains these," he says, gesturing towards dozens of replicas of shields and escutcheons in the roof of the cloisters outside the Chapter Room.

The centuries get misty at Canterbury Cathedral but bleed into the present. The Chapter Room - where for centuries monks and the abbot would discuss the doings of the day - is where Britain's Margaret Thatcher and France's Francois Mitterrand signed the agreement for the Channel Tunnel just down the road.

When it comes to royal lineages, French and English history collide here through bewildering political machinations - and don't even think about untangling the Catholic/Protestant, divorce/marriage-to-cousins caboodle.

Canterbury Cathedral is a living church and - despite a noisy group of French students posing for phone photos - many visitors stop for prayers which, on this day, include the plight of refugees and those suffering under the yoke of occupation and war.

The church, says Evans, is as alive today as it ever was. Perhaps even more so.

That murder, martyrdom if you will, of the popular Becket ("who was fluent in Latin, French and English") pulled in pilgrims immediately - the secular curious haven't stopped coming since - and Evans unwraps the tale like a mystery of politics and intrigue.

He tells how Becket rose from an ordinary middle-class family to positions of power and influence with King Henry II, was made archbishop of Canterbury and, to Henry's dismay, took it seriously.

They fell out; Becket fled England for six years before it was safe to return.

Then Henry, in France, was outraged again when Becket asked the pope to excommunicate the Archbishop of York because he'd sided with Henry over the matter of legal jurisdiction. Furious, Henry uttered that famous line: "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Or maybe he didn't - reports vary.

But four loyal barons, hearing his rage, travelled to Canterbury to persuade Becket to change his mind "but Becket resisted, over there," says Evans, pointing to the courtyard.

"Then they followed him in here and a struggle ensued."

As he speaks, the awful scene in this northwest cloister seems to become real at the spot where Becket was hacked down. Today a chilling sculpture of brutal swords - evoking a cross and a killing simultaneously - stands near where Becket was murdered. Later, Evans points out the solitary candle above the spot where the martyr's bones once lay until removed and destroyed on the order of King Henry VIII.

For us it has been a day of death and conniving, of towering faith and magnificent architecture, of old murals only discovered recently when a wall in the crypt was removed, and of beautiful stained glass.

And, most of all, of events set in motion about 1500 years ago - when St Augustine came from Rome and was given land for a cathedral and abbey - and brought to life by a former salesman turned master storyteller.

Mike Evans shakes hands and walks away, disappearing into the vastness under the towering nave - with its tourists, worshippers and, doubtless, a few holy dusters - leaving a trail of history in his wake.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific operates up to two flights a day from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong.

Details: Canterbury Cathedral is open daily, although access is restricted during services. Audio and guided tours are available. For further information and hours see canterbury-cathedral.org

It is possible to stay in the cathedral precinct at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. Guests are entitled to discounts on meals in selected local restaurants and at the cathedral shop.

Online: visitengland.org

* Graham Reid travelled to England with assistance from Cathay Pacific and VisitEngland.

- NZ Herald

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