Some years ago, I was in Bodley leisurely following one of my heroes, the magnificent John Grandisson, Bishop (1328-1369) of Exeter. I had in my hands a Vita by him about S Thomas Becket, which I found quite a revelation. King Henry, I discovered, imposed the most horrific penalties ... deaths, blindings and maimings ... upon anybody doing such a thing as conveying a papal bull into this kingdom. King Henry (II) was set upon sundering the Unity of Christendom by dealing with imperially-nominated antipopes.
Not being a historian, I had had some vague idea that Becket stood up to Henry II in defense of the principles surrounding investiture ... and such stuff. That half hour in Bodley deciphering (I am not a historian!!) C14 script helped me to understand still better the degree to which I and my generation were fed a diet of The History of England Rendered Gentlemanly. But another surprise lay before me.
For no particular reason, before strolling off for a wee break, I turned to the beginning of the book. In doing so, I found I had moved from the Mediaeval world, its crabbed script and its distant preoccupations, into the purest Renaissance. A previous owner had written his name, in elegant Italian script:
Click click click ... you can imagine the connections which instantly formed in my mind. The parallels between the two iniquitous Kings Henry. Pole's own martyred Mother, Blessed Margaret. The courage of the Cornish and Devonish peasantry in 1549, demanding that the Lord Cardinal Pole be brought back to England and made the First in the Council of little Edward IV "because he is of the King's Blood" ... how the 'Uncles', the seedy and murderous Lords of the Council must have trembled at that idea!
I gather that today is the 850th anniversary of the death of the blissful Martyr of Canterbury. And that Archbishop Welby and Cardinal Nichols will be commemorating this event together. Or has the Plague put paid to that plan?
In the months after the erection of the Ordinariate, I recall a dear friend, Mgr Andrew Wadsworth, saying to me how privileged we were going to be to enter into the inheritance of the Martyres Duacenses. How right he was; and his words were among the very few uttered in my hearing during that period which are worth remembering. The names of the English Martyrs are of the essence of the English Catholic Church ... their names as English as their blood.
When the Holy See granted Arms to the See of Westminster, it granted exactly the arms born by the mediaeval Archbishops of Canterbury, except that the background colour (the field) was changed from blue to the red of the Martyrs. Martyrdom also links English Catholicism with Byzantine Christianity: look at any Byzantine Calendar and see how, day after day, one celebrates, not (as in the West) yet another Confessor Bishop, but a Martyr or a group of Martyrs, from the earliest days down through the Turkish oppression to the time of Stalin and beyond.
S John Henry Newman saw this truth: in his great encomium on the English Martyrs (in The Second Spring) he even concluded by wondering if Martyrdom might still await the English Catholic clergy. " ... calmy, gracefully, sweetly, joyously, you would mount up and ride forth to the battle, as on the rush of Angels' wings, as your fathers did before you, and gained the prize. You, who day by day offer up the Immaculate Lamb of God, you who hold in your hands the Incarnate Word under the visible tokens which He has ordained, you who again and again drain the chalice of the Great Victim; who is to make you fear?"
I do not quite see how poor Welby, in whose veins flows the purest liquor of the Zeitgeist, is an appropriate man to commemorate as great a Martyr as S Thomas Becket. I have nothing ill to say about Cardinal Nichols, who was so shabbily treated by IICSA. But when the See of Westminster does receive a successor, I hope it will be a Pontiff who authentically and vibrantly represents the Holy Spirit of martyrion against this Age.
Spero fore ut nuntius apostolicus saepe itinera salopiam fecerit.