To commemorate the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket in 1170, a Mass will be celebrated at 4.30pm on 29th December 2020 on the site of the Chapter House of Merton Priory, where Thomas was a student.
On Tuesday 29th December 2020 at 4.30pm Mass will be celebrated by Monsignor Rod Strange (Rector of Mater Ecclesiae College, the Pontifical Institute, attached to St Mary's University, Twickenham) on the site of the chapter house to mark 850 years since the murder of St Thomas Becket, a former student at Merton Priory. It is believed it will be the first time that Mass has been said in the former site of the priory since the reformation.
The Mass will be conducted in compliance with COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship and special religious services and gatherings during the pandemic. Because of the restrictions, attendance will be limited to 50 persons and wearing masks will be required. Please note that the venue is unheated so wrap up for warmth.
If you wish to attend, it is essential that you inform Andrew Judge at firstname.lastname@example.org, mobile: 07967 706681.
The Chapter House is at Chapter Way, SW19 2RX, situated under the A24 Merantun Way, between the Merton Abbey Mills and a Sainsbury’s/M&S hypermarket (which provides conveniently adjacent free parking). Access is from the pedestrian underpass connecting the car parks for Pizza Hut and Sainsbury’s beneath the road. There is also parking in Chapter Way and Merton Abbey Mills. Nearest Tube stations: Colliers Wood, South Wimbledon (Northern Line). Nearest National Rail Train stations: Wimbledon, Haydons Road. Nearest Tram Stops: Phipps Bridge, Morden Road. Bus Routes: 57, 470, 200, 219, 131.
There are no toilets available on the site, but toilets are available about 3 minutes’ walk away in Merton Abbey Mills: located in the passage by the side of the Colour House Theatre.
As daylight was fading at half past four in the late afternoon of 29th December 1170, the clergy had begun monastic vespers in the choir of Canterbury cathedral when they were halted by mounting noise of shouting, heavy footsteps and commotion outside. Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, entered the north transept of the church. As the monks tried to shut the door behind him, Thomas insisted that the door remained open. Then, as Thomas made his way to the choir, four armoured barons entered the north transept behind him. Their heads were covered: each right hand carried a sword and each left hand an axe. They shouted “Where is the traitor? Where is the archbishop?” And “where is Thomas Becketh, a traitor to the king and kingdom?” Thomas turned back down the steps to meet them and called out: “Here I am. No traitor to the king, but a priest of God. What do you want?” Beside Thomas was his chaplain and constant companion, Robert a canon of Merton. Thomas refused deliberately to flee. The barons tried to arrest Thomas by physically restraining him, but he resisted fiercely. They threatened him with death and he replied that he was ready to die. He would not be moved. The barons had lost control and could not arrest him. They began striking Thomas, who adopted a submissive pose, his head bent forward, his arms stretched out and his hands joined in prayer: “I commend myself to God, the Blessed Mary, St Denis and the patron saints of this church.” Reginald FitzUrse struck the fatal blow slicing off the top of the archbishop’s head and almost severing the arm of a clerk. Thomas subsided to his knees, then his hands and finished flat on his face. His brains were scattered by sword point onto the floor.
So ended the life of a man who had been the closest friend and ablest advisor of Henry II, king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou and Maine. Thomas was a worldly and wealthy man as chancellor, who upon being ordained and invested as archbishop, became overnight the fearless and indomitable servant of God. Henry sought to assert the traditional ecclesiastical patronage of the crown over the church and found that the agent he appointed refused to do his bidding. Thomas instead resisted, not humbly, but with all the confidence of an equal. No king faced a more capable champion of the church.
Thomas went into exile and upon his return suspended all the bishops appointed by the king. Probably on Christmas Day, with all the bitterness of a benefactor treated to arrogant ingratitude, Henry railed at the cowardice of his court, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” This put in train the martyr’s death. The shock and repercussions of the murder were to reverberate for centuries. The result was a significant strengthening of papal authority vis-à-vis secular power. Thomas’s killers and those who gave them support were excommunicated and obliged to go on crusade for an extended period. An interdict was placed on Henry’s continental lands and the sentences of excommunication and suspension passed by Thomas were confirmed. Henry was placed under a personal interdict not to enter any church. In 1174 he did penance by walking barefoot 3 miles to the martyr’s tomb where he was whipped by monks with nearly 300 lashes. Henry was unable to appoint any bishops for ten years after Thomas’s death. Thomas’s interpretation of canon law became the new standard. Miracle cures of the poor and sick were soon associated with rags soaked in Thomas’s blood. He was canonised and the cult of his martyrdom became famous throughout Christendom: his tomb a celebrated focus of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages and the destination of the travellers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
It is singular that Thomas’s companion and confessor was Robert, canon of Merton. Merton Priory was established in 1114 and consisted of wooden houses, church and cloister situated in attractive surroundings with running water, a mill and vineyard when Thomas first went there in 1130 at the age of 10. In 1125 it numbered thirty-six canons. This was Thomas’s first educational experience.
Merton Priory was one of the most influential Augustinian monastic foundations. It was situated on the River Wandle, until its dissolution in 1538, when it was dismantled and the dressed stone carted to the king’s new palace at Nonsuch. The foundations of the priory church are now situated under a Sainsbury’s car park in Colliers Wood. The remains of the chapter house are now open to the public and part of a new visitor centre.
Copyright 2020 Merton Deanery