Monday, 23 November 2009

After the murder

Murders always draw crowds. People hang around the site. These days little offerings of flowers in cellophane appear, sometimes with childish mementos - teddy bears and consciously cute toy animals.

The murder of an archbishop in his cathedral just after Christmas created a sensation. He was stabbed to death in a tussle for power between church and state. His death was a victory for the church over the English crown. Sometimes states and their rulers go to far and have to retreat.

The archbishop was Thomas Becket, Henry II's worldly chancellor who shifted his loyalty to the church when he was ordained priest and, the next day, created Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was murdered at the end of 1170. Two years later he was declared a saint. Four years after the murder, Henry II walked barefoot in penance through the streets of Canterbury while monks flogged him. I bet the tourists loved it.

They weren't tourists in the modern sense, of course. Mediaeval pilgrims got more than souvenirs, though there were plenty of those - every site of pilgrimage had special badges for sale. It's easier to understand that now than the religious impulse, especially since the religious element was so much taken for granted that it's hardly discussed, except by people who mock it or disapprove. I can just about understand the attraction of a partial or plenary indulgence, which offers time off Purgatory, although my protestant upbringing taught me that Purgatory was a fable. But the urge to go on pilgrimage seems more complex that the simple exchange of hardship now (with a bit of tourism thrown in) for the relief of suffering later.

These ideas have whirled round my mind since I visited Canterbury at the weekend. It was a brief trip to see my daughter but she needed to dye her hair and I liked the idea of a couple of hours of solitary tourism. I thought I'd go to Evensong in the cathedral. I like Evensong, especially when it's sung by a good choir, although I fear my motives were more secular than religious.

I didn't make it. Arriving at a quarter to four, I discovered that Evensong had begun half an hour earlier and, if I wanted to enter the cathedral, I would have to pay the £7.50 admission charge. I decided against it and wandered off, looking for somewhere else to visit.

I must have walked past the Eastbridge Pilgrims' Hospital on my last visit to Canterbury but this time I glanced inside, saw that the admission charge was a mere £1 and decided to look round. The man on the desk talked about the history of the hospital and then I was left to wander round the hospital itself - now below street level - and the refectory and chapel outside.

I was glad I went in. According to the notice, the building was for poor pilgrims - people whose pilgrimage involved sleeping in fields and under bushes on the way. At the hospital they would receive a place to sleep - not a bed but shelter and a shared rush-strewn alcove. Then there would be a meal upstairs and opportunities to pray.

It hadn't occurred to me that there were poor pilgrims. I've read Chaucer, writing a couple of centuries after Becket's murder. He left me with the impression that pilgrimage was an amusing Spring excursion for the rich. But this twelfth century foundation offered shelter to those who couldn't afford a night's bed and breakfast in one of Canterbury's expensive inns. I began to think about the nobleman who founded the hospital. All the notices gave was a name - and the suggestion that the money he gave ran out quite soon. I wondered what had prompted him to found the hospital and what he thought of the poor pilgrims who stayed there. I read that another early donor was Roesia, Becket's sister. I'd never thought about Becket having a sister or how his family might have felt about his murder.

The hospital seemed a warm, friendly place and I was sorry to leave. There was a chill in the dark street outside. On the bridge a young man was bedding down with his dog, wrapping a sleeping bag and blanket around them both. He drew an old black bottle from his backpack, removed the stopper and took a swig. I hurried on to the station.

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