Date Thesis Awarded
Honors Thesis -- Open Access
Bachelors of Arts (BA)
Thomas Becket of Canterbury (1118 – 1170), an English financial clerk turned Archbishop of Canterbury, is considered one of the most significant figures in the conflict between clerical and secular powers during the Middle Ages. The archbishop was brutally killed in his own cathedral at the hands of four knights of King Henry II (r. 1154-1189). Thomas was quickly sanctified as a martyr and his cult and veneration commenced immediately following his death. The local veneration and esteem for Thomas was so strong in fact that the monks at Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, closed the cathedral immediately following his death, between January 1171 and Easter 1171, out of fear that someone would come and steal the body of the martyr away. Many people in Canterbury and throughout southern England were healed by the remains of Thomas’s body, with many miracles occurring through interaction with water and his blood. So many miracles took place that pilgrims began to flock to Canterbury Cathedral to experience the healing power bestowed by Thomas’s body. Two monks at Canterbury Cathedral were assigned to guard the tomb and make account of the miracles attributed to Thomas in the years following his martyrdom. Benedict of Peterborough was one of the monks. In the years following his death, Benedict wrote an entire office to Thomas suitable for a monastic institution, an effort that is hypothesized to have been composed either in the years 1173 or 1174 immediately after his canonization.. Thomas’s office, however, was later adopted by secular uses for application in secular institutions–that is, cathedral environments where the clerics do not take holy orders and are not cloistered. One such institution is Salisbury Cathedral.
The secular use for southern England in the middle ages was the Sarum Use. Liturgical books for both Sarum and Roman Use included Thomas’s feast day in the Proper of the Time, and within the octave of Christmas. The placement of this celebration, among feasts otherwise devoted exclusively to the life of Christ and a few of his contemporaries, speaks of the impact that Thomas’s martyrdom had upon western Christendom.
This thesis seeks to investigate the content and significance of the liturgy devoted to Thomas within the Sarum Use and its potential importance to the laity through their access to the procession preceding First Vespers. However, a reconstruction of the liturgical content of the entire feast day devoted to Saint Thomas Becket is outside the scope of this particular project, due to the necessity of having to consult all of the extant copies of liturgical books of the Sarum Use, such as Breviaries, Processionals, and Antiphoners. Therefore, a smaller scope seems feasible to attempt here. Thanks to the inclusion of a procession at First Vespers, the very first office for Thomas’s feast day of December 29th is an ideal starting place to begin to study the details of the Sarum use as it pertains to Thomas Becket.
One great difficulty in studying Thomas’s First Vespers arises in the search for sources which include the feast. Because of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation in England, Thomas’s name and much of the material pertaining to his veneration were scratched out from medieval manuscripts of liturgical office books, as mandated by King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547). This severs a direct connection for consulting sources between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. The fact that this happened in England also abruptly ended my original desire to reconstruct First Vespers in as original context as was possible. Since very few original manuscripts of the office exist on the Island, I looked to the earliest versions that could be found. These turn out to be liturgical books of secular use printed on the continent in the early sixteenth century, in Paris. Since books with the secular use seem to survive in the most complete form and are themselves based on the original monastic use in which the texts and music for Thomas’s feast were composed by Benedict in the twelfth century, the secular use has been chosen as the most desirable aspect for investigation. One other reason to use the secular use was the opportunity it provides to collate and contextualize the procession for First Vespers, the music it used, and the rubrics particular to Salisbury Cathedral, where two important parts are at play. At Salisbury there is an altar dedicated to Thomas Becket, and in medieval times the cathedral was home to secular clerics. For First Vespers, two antiphons–text and music–are apparently missing from Thomas’s feast in the 1531 Sarum Breviary. My attempt to rectify this omission necessitated consulting continental monastic manuscripts. Other considerations for this study in terms of reconstruction included the investigation of how the different feasts were ranked within the Breviary. Initially, of course, Thomas’s specific entry in the Breviary, within the Proper of the Time, was used to make a general outline of the feast. Sometimes the parts of the office within the Proper of the Time were difficult to fit in to the basic Vespers layout, because the office omits some of the expected parts of the service. If something was missing, the feasts for the common of the saints was usually able to supply the missing information. This piecing together proved much more difficult than was anticipated.
This reconstruction served multiple purposes: to understand the difference of the Sarum use in medieval England in relation to the larger Roman Rite and to shed light on the importance of localized liturgical practices. As one of the most influential figures in medieval England, Thomas is a dynamic character who was not only venerated after death through the office written for his feast day–which was a mark of high regard–but also led an interesting life while he was on earth.
Tilley, Virginia Elizabeth Martin, "The Feast of Saint Thomas Becket at Salisbury Cathedral: Ad Vesperas" (2019). Undergraduate Honors Theses. William & Mary. Paper 1385.