St Thomas of Canterbury
Where is he now?
The magnificent shrine was destroyed in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII; cartloads of jewels and precious metal set off for London. But what happened to the relics?
  The traditional story is that they were burnt and the ashes cast into the wind, but there is no written evidence that this actually happened.  Did the commissioners agree to a quiet reinterment, as long as a new shrine was not created? Did the monks, aware of what was about to happen, hide them, and slip some other bones in the shrine when no-one was looking?
  These ideas and many more are explored in The Quest for Becket's Bones, by John Butler; a detective story that cannot, sadly, come to a firm conclusion. It is, however, an engrossing read. A set of bones were discovered in 1888, buried in the crypt very close to the original shrine. This caused much excitement at the time, and many were convinced that they were those of Becket, but later analysis has largely disproved this. A theory - almost a conspiracy theory - says that an inner circle in the cathedral hierarchy know where they are. The favourite location is shown below. It lies before the Chapel of the Magdalene, where a red light is continuously lit.

  What happened to the Canterbury relics may be a mystery, but other relics claiming a Becket connection are widespread. The removal of the bones to the new shrine in 1220 was supervised by Archbishop Stephen Langton, and he passed on some items to some Italian cardinals who were in attendance. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome has a reliquary containing part of his shoulder, a piece of brain-case, some brain tissue and a long white shirt. The shirt is on the left below; perhaps mercifully, I do not have a photograph of the brain tissue. The church claims that the shirt has been 'scientifically proved' to have been that of Becket, though how that was done is not revealed. On the right below is a chasuble, said to have been Becket's, now in Sens Cathedral in France.

Perhaps the most important relic is in Canterbury, but not in the Cathedral. A short distance away from the cathedral gate is the Catholic church of St Thomas of Canterbury. A hundred years ago a wealthy parishioner presented the church with a bone of St Thomas, previously in Gubbio, Umbria. Its Italian origin gives a great deal of credence to its authenticity. It is kept in the martyrs' chapel.

Final thoughts
  Many years ago, my wife and I lived in Canterbury. We were greatly privileged to be able to visit the cathedral on the 29th of December, the anniversary of the martyrdom and Thomas's feast day.   There were no grand ceremonies, and the cathedral was quiet. Around the site of the martyrdom there was an almost palpable sense of . .  what? It is impossible to put into words, but we were made aware - somehow - that this was one of England's most sacred places.

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