Friday, 4 October 2013

Henry VIII's Proclamation, 1538: The Unsainting of Thomas Becket

In 1534 Parliament issued the first Act of Supremacy declaring that Henry VIII, the king,  "was the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England". From England's point of view Becket came to symbolize papal authority in England, which was highly distasteful to them. Becket and his Cult, in this sense, was the "Devil Incarnate".

Wikipedia Acts of Supremacy

In 1538 Henry VIII issued a proclamation that Thomas Becket was to be unsainted, and his shrine in Canterbury cathedral was to be torn down, broken up and his bones burnt, as he had been a traitor to his king, and had defied his honour. For hundreds of years Thomas' tomb had been the third most important site for pilgrimage in Europe, after Rome and Santiago de la Compostella, in Galicia.

Extract from

In Henry the Eighth’s proclamation, dated Westminster, 16th November [1538], in the thirtieth year of his reign, printed by Bertholet, is the following very curious passage:—­

“ITEM, for as moche as it appereth now clerely, that Thomas Becket, sometyme Archbyshop of Canterburie, stubburnly to withstand the holsome lawes establyshed agaynste the enormities of the clergie, by the kynges highness mooste noble progenitour, kynge HENRY the Seconde, for the common welthe, reste, and tranquillitie of this realme, of his frowarde mynde fledde the realme into Fraunce, and to the bishop of Rome, mayntenour of those enormities, to procure the abrogation of the sayd lawes, whereby arose moch trouble in this said realme, and that his dethe, which they untruely called martyrdome, happened upon a reskewe by him made, and that, as it is written, he gave opprobrious wordes to the gentyllmen, whiche than counsayled hym to leave his stubbernesse, and to avoyde the commocion of the people, rysen up for that rescue.  And he not only callyd the one of them bawde, but also toke Tracy by the bosome, and violently shoke and plucked hym in suche maner, that he had almoste overthrowen hym to the pavement of the Churche; so that upon this fray one of their company, perceivynge the same, strake hym, and so in the thronge Becket was slayne.  And further that his canonization was made onely by the bysshop of Rome, bycause he had ben a champion of maynteyne his usurped auctoritie, and a bearer of the iniquitie of the clergie, for these and for other great and urgent causes, longe to recyte, the Kynge’s {228} Maiestie, by the advyse of his counsayle, hath thought expedient to declare to his lovynge subjectes, that notwithstandynge the sayde canonization, there appereth nothynge in his lyfe and exteriour conversation, wherby he shuld be callyd a sainct, but rather estemed to have ben a rebell and traytour to his prynce.  Therefore his Grace strayghtly chargeth and commandeth that from henseforth the sayde Thomas Becket shall not be estemed, named, reputed, nor called a sayncte, but bysshop Becket; and that his ymages and pictures, through the hole realme, shall be putte downe, and avoyded out of all churches, chapelles, and other places; and that from henseforthe, the dayes used to be festivall in his name shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphoners, colletes, and prayers, in his name redde, but rased and put out of all the bokes.”

The Pope in Rome was horrified when they heard the news that Henry had destroyed St. Thomas Becket's Shrine. On 17 December 1538, the Pope excommunicated Henry VIII from the Catholic church.

In 1539 the Corporation of the City of London changed its Common Seal. It used to bear on its reverse side an image of Thomas Becket. This was removed: from then on this became a shield of the City Arms.

It has been estimated that bullion, plate and other treasures worth over £1 million, including spoils from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, were sent to the Mint [Tower of London] between 1536 and 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, to be melted down.


David Wilkins (1737). Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, a synodo Verolamiensi, a. D. CCCCXLVI, ad Londinensem, a. D. MDCCXVII, accedunt constitutiones et alia ad historiam ecclesiae anglicanae spectantia. A Davide Wilkins,... collecta. Process against Thomas Becket, and Order to Demolish his Shrine at Canterbury: sumptibus R. Gosling. pp. 835–.

John Foxe; George Townsend (1837). The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe: With a Preliminary Dissertation by the Rev. George Townsend. R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, sold by L. & G. Seeley. pp. 196–264.

AD. 1538: Citation of St. Thomas
It had been suggested that, as long as the name of St. Thomas of Canterbury should remain in the calendar, men would be stimulated by his example to brave the ecclesiastical authority of their sovereign. The king's attorney was therefore instructed to exhibit an information against him; and "Thomas Becket, some time archbishop of Canterbury," was formally cited to appear in court and answer to the charge.

The Nineteenth Century and After. Volume 60. Henricus R versus Thomas Becket by E. Taunton: Leonard Scott Publishing Company. 1906. p. 1003.
Marc'Hadour Germain. La confrontation Becket-Henri II comme paradigme historique. 
In: Cahiers de civilisation médiévale. 37e année (n°145-146), Janvier-juin 1994. Henri II Plantagenêt et son temps. Actes du Colloque de Fontevraud. 29 septembre – 1er octobre 1990. pp. 101-110.
doi : 10.3406/ccmed.1994.2583
url : /web/revues/home/prescript/article/ccmed_0007-9731_1994_num_37_145_2583

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1855). Historical Memorials of Canterbury. John Murray. pp. 146–.

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1883)
Historical memorials of Canterbury. ... Becket's shrine
Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1883)
Historical memorials of Canterbury. ... The Pilgrim's Way 

The Unmaking of a Saint: Thomas Becket and the English Reformation
Robert E. Scully
The Catholic Historical Review 86.4 (2000) 579-602

John Philipot; Thomas Philipot (1776). Villare Cantianum: Or, Kent Surveyed and Illustrated. Dover Castle W. Whittingham;. pp. 390–.

Medieval English Roodscreens, with special reference to Devon.

Ethelred Luke Taunton (1906). Henricus R. Versus Thomas Becket. Periodical: The Nineteenth Century and After (Volume 60). pp. 1003–.

Christopher Morgan and Andrew Alderson wrote an article published in the Sunday Times (UK) on June 22nd 1997 entitled "Becket's bones kept secretly at Canterbury for 450 years".


Benedictine martyrs of Reformation (d. 1539)  (blessed)
This is a group of three English Benedictine abbots with several other monks who were executed for resisting Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. They were Richard Whiting, abbot of Glastonbury, Hugh Faringdon of Reading, and John Beche of Colchester. Among the 'incriminating' documents Whiting possessed was a life of Thomas Becket; he was hanged, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor, along with his treasurer and sacristan. The other two were also executed. They were beatified as martyrs in 1895.  It is interesting, though, to note that none of them rejected the Oath of Supremacy; they seem to have been fighting to keep their monasteries rather than out of opposition to Henry's rejection of papal supremacy. 


Conjectured pictures of Becket's Shrine

By J. Cole

Dudley (?) - Watercolour - "Reconstruction of the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral", 10ins x 7.75ins, indistinct signed and dated 1969, with inscription to reverse indicating "The Original Drawing for Christian Canterbury City of Pilgrims", in gilt moulded frame and glazed

John Strype (1848). Memorials of Archbishop Cranmer. Ecclesiastical History Society. pp. 208–.

John Dart (1726). The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Canterbury, Shrine of Thomas Becket: Printed, and sold by J. Cole. pp. 17–.

What Became of The Bones of St Thomas?

John Hungerford Pollen (1921). King Henry VIII. and St. Thomas Becket: Being a Histoy of the Burning of the Saint's Bones, and of the Reports Thereon by Thomas Derby, William Thomas and P. Crisostomo Henriquez. Manresa Press.

Arthur James Mason. What Became of the Bones of St Thomas?: A Contribution to His Fifteenth Jubilee. Cambridge University Press. pp. 9–. ISBN 978-1-107-60047-8.

William Pugin Thornton; Thomas Becket (st., abp. of Canterbury.) (1901). Becket's Bones. [With plates.]. Cross & Jackman.

Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe (2003). The World's Most Mysterious Murders. Chapter 5: The Mystery of Thomas Becket: Dundurn. pp. 41–. ISBN 978-1-77070-143-4.

St Thomas of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church - Some relics of the Saint

David Sox (1985). Relics and Shrines. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-0-04-200045-9.

Papal Bull excommunicating Henry VIII
17th Dec 1538
Vatican Manuscripts Cesare Baronius
Annales Ecclesiastici Volume 32, p. 464- 

Bull against Hen. VIII., renewing the execution of the bull of 30 Aug. 1535, which had been suspended in hope of his amendment, as he has since gone to still further excesses, having dug up and burned the bones of St, Thomas of Canterbury and scattered the ashes to the winds, (after calling the saint to judgment, condemning him as contumacious, and proclaiming him a traitor), and spoiled his shrine. He has also spoiled St. Augustine's monastery in the same city, driven out the monks and put in deer in their place. Publication of this bull may be made in Dieppe or Boulogne in Fiance, or in St. Andrew's or Coldstream (? "in oppido Calistrensi"), St. Andrew's dioc., in Scotland, or in Tuam or Ardfert in Ireland, if preferred, instead of the places named in the former bull Rome, xvi. kal. Jan. 1538,5 Paul III.

William Tyndale; John Frith; Robert Barnes (1573). The Whole Workes of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith, and Doct. Barnes, Three Worthy Martyrs: And Principall Teachers of this Churche of England. Popyshe Prelates: Saint Thomas of Canterbury: Iohn Daye. pp. 361–.

St Thomas Becket in the propaganda of the English Counter-Reformation
Victor Houliston
Renaissance Studies
Volume 7, Issue 1, pages 43–70, March 1993
DOI: 10.1111/j.1477-4658.1993.tb00267.x
Margaret Aston (2015). Broken Idols of the English Reformation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-316-06047-6.

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