A 15th century tunnel in Canterbury Cathedral has been cleared and reopened after being used for storage for over 40 years. The tunnel was originally built to lead to the site where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, so that pilgrims could visit the site over the centuries without walking through the cathedral and disturbing the monks. Extract from the BBC website article:

The Very Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury, said the tunnel would give proper access to people in wheelchairs to the Martyrdom – one of the most important parts of the Cathedral.
“The Cathedral has hundreds of steps which can make life difficult for anyone who finds it hard to climb up and down steps,” he said.
“Now it has been cleared and reopened, it also gives tantalising new vistas of two central areas of the Cathedral.”

Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket was first Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry II and the two became good personal friends, which made their dispute, eventually ending in Becket’s murder, even worse. The King expected Becket to be adaptable to his demands, however once made Archbishop, Becket turned more towards the church and was prepared to stand up to the king. Henry wanted to increase the power of the crown by removing the special ecclesiastical courts that existed to give churchmen more lenient sentences when convicted of crimes. Thomas Becket protested and the relationship between the two deteriorated, causing Beckett to flee to France for 6 years. Becket went one step too far when he excommunicated the bishops that had supported the King and this sent Henry into a rage. Some of the King’s knights chased Becket into Canterbury Cathedral and, during a service, hacked him to death with swords, splitting his skull on the steps of the altar.

This primary source text is part of the account of the murder by Edward Grim, a monk who was at the scene.

Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.
Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’
Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

The death of Thomas Becket from the Luttrell Psalter. Courtesy of The British Library.

The death of Thomas Becket has been seen by Christians ever since as a martyrdom and the King has always received the blame, although it is unclear exactly what was said between Becket and the King and the orders that were given to Beckett’s murderers. Nevertheless, pilgrims ever since have flocked to the famous cathedral to pay their respects to the martyr, eventually causing the construction of the tunnel in the 15th century.

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