When leaders misjudge the mood of the public, repentance can help, and so can pilgrimage.
July 12th, 1174, and the crowds have gathered to watch a spectacle. The King is dressed in sackcloth and is making his barefooted way from St Dunstan’s Church through Canterbury, to the crypt of St Thomas Becket. Here he is to be whipped by the bishops, abbots and 80 monks present as he lies prostrate and naked by the Martyr’s tomb. Henry II has long been held responsible for the murder of Becket; the Archbishop of Canterbury hacked to death as he knelt in prayer in the Cathedral. Almost immediately after the deed was done, ripples of revulsion and devotion spun out across Christendom and within weeks of the murder, miracles of healing are reported. Now almost four years later, vials of the Martyr’s blood are still proving popular amongst pilgrims who continue to arrive in their thousands; some travelling on foot from across England, others braving the Channel in small boats.
In the immediate aftermath of the crime, Henry protested his innocence, but the controversy refused to disappear. Rather than resolving the power struggle between Crown and Mitre in Henry’s favour, the martyrdom of Thomas Becket has further amplified the influence of the Church. Fearing the ultimate sanction of excommunication by the Pope, this public act of penance is the King’s final desperate bid for political survival. To make matters worse, his eldest son, Henry the ‘Young King,’ along with brothers Richard and Geoffrey and their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, have risen up against old King Henry.
(It is all sounding a bit familiar…)
The Young King has promised his neighbouring allies land and revenues and thus suitably motivated, they begin to attack from the north and the south. In this Great Revolt, William the Lion, King of the Scots stands to get Northumberland. But it is not to be. The day after Henry II’s pilgrimage of penance in Canterbury, word reaches him that William has been defeated and captured. Some take it as a sign of Divine intervention and the tide begins to turn once again in favour of England’s King Henry II.
On July 7th, 1220, 50 years after his death, Becket’s remains were translated to a specially built shrine. The event was marked by a huge public celebration which was two years in the planning. The Church authorities made a proclamation throughout Europe, adding by way of incentive, that hay and provender was to be provided along all the routes to Canterbury on the day of the festivities for those who wanted it, and that wine was to be distributed gratis from barrels placed at each of the four entrances to the city. It was a masterful act of promotion for the Church and the festival provoked an outpouring of generosity from the rich and powerful across Europe who gave jewels and valuable reliquaries and signed up to pay annual fees to the Cathedral in Canterbury.
Here then is the prize of repentance: redemption and a new beginning for those in power and full coffers for the injured party. Then as now, compromise pays.