Town mouse at Canterbury Cathedral

The naughty Victorians sneaked an à into Thomas Becket’s name to make him seem more Norman and romantic. It’s difficult to imagine a present-day churchman wanting to make a show of social privilege, even if, like the new Archbishop of Canterbury, he went to Eton. Becket was a Londoner, if not quite a cockney, born in Cheapside. His feast day falls on December 29 and Canterbury Cathedral does it well. During a service that combined plainsong in Latin with readings from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, we processed with lighted candles. Henry VIII may have ended the cult established after Becket’s death in 1170, destroying the jewel-encrusted shrine, but the cathedral still bears physical traces of it. Twilight, incense, the immensity of the Gothic arcades, the immanence of history-it was a thrilling experience.

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Then, down, into the Norman crypt, the only surviving part of the building that Becket himself would have known: it was his cult that generated the money for it to be rebuilt. There, the retiring Archbishop waited for us, a figure of such evident saintliness that one kept an eye open for swordwielding knights. We were accompanied by the children. Next to the cathedral is a fudge shop.

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