Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Unsainting St Thomas

Whilst I was preparing my last post I came across a blog post about the actions taken in the 1530s to ‘desanctify’ St Thomas of Canterbury and to turn him into the false traitor ‘Bishop Becket’. This can be read at 

It makes for very interesting reading, and with an extremely useful bibliography, which includes such details as where Pope Paul III instructed his ensuing Bull of excommunication should be published on the French and Scottish borders of English territory.

The way in which the received story of St Thomas’ death was turned, to present him as being really most unreasonable in resisting his would-be murderers, is a good insight into the Cromwellian pop equivalent of the “Ministry of Truth”. The fact that the more than three and a half centuries dead Archbishop was summoned to answer the charges against him indicates the very strange world of 1530s England.

There is, alas, a topicality to this story. In 1538 St Thomas, and what he represented, was no longer politically correct, and must needs be denounced. His story is turned upside down and he is vilified. In 2020 the actions of past public figures whose actions - be they good or bad in absolute terms, and whether or not they showed contrition for them - are subjected to passing scrutiny and receive instant condemnation. The chattering classes jump on the bandwagon and off it goes, careering through our history and traditions. For those who are being proscribed their cult, their image must be not just denounced, it must be physically overthrown. 

King Henry VIII got his way but in 2020, Coronavirus not entirely withstanding, Archbishop Cranmer’s cathedral church in Canterbury is celebrating the life and death of St Thomas. In 2020 we see the 1538 Proclamation as risible. Those who today are so sure of their moral rectitude and ideological integrity might pause and reflect on that. The trouble is that too many are blinded by the luminosity of their own enlightenment that they see nothing beyond the particular “Holy Grail” of their own making. The clear light of History is undifferentiated sunshine, illuminating the whole, not a laser concentrated on one point to the exclusion of all others.

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