December 29


December 21st, four days before Michelmas (Christmas in those days fell on January 6th), in the month then called Early Yule but now December, on Mumping Day, when everybody dressed down or even put on rags and went a-begging, though some called it Gooding Day, because the shopkeepers gave a morsel extra, or handed out free calendars; on December 21st anyway, the fifth of the eight days of Saturnalia that ended with the great turkey-feast of Brumalia on the 25th (New Year's Day in the Julian calendar), the shortest day in the solar year (Sol Invictus, "the Unconquerable Sun"), the right day to plant shallots and hang up wicken crosses in the stables and cowsheds according to mediaeval almanackers; on this date Thomas Becket was born in London, without an "à" let alone a sainthood, in 1118, and most likely he was given his name because this was also St Thomas the Doubter's Day. 

Fifty-two years and eight days later, on December 29th 1170, he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who had taken at face value the outburst of King Henry II, not aware that kings, like all frail human beings, do not always mean precisely what they say, or in this case mean precisely what they mean. Henry was so upset, he appointed Thomas' sister Mary as Abbess of Barking Abbey by way of compensation - an equivalent in "damages" to many millions today.

One of my very earliest sketchbooks includes a hasty charcoal drawing of the "is that meant to be some sort of Crucifixion?" that adorns Becket's tomb in Canterbury, and in front of me as I write this is my ridiculously over-notated A-level teaching copy of Graham Swift's novel "Last Orders", in which a pilgrimage to Canterbury, including a pause at Becket's tomb, beautifully merges Chaucer with William Faulkner (Swift "borrowed" his narrative technique from Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"), and then with Somerset Maugham, because after Canterbury the Swift tale continues on to Margate by way of Whitstable, where Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" found its final resting-place: what a splendid way of teaching literature as history and history as literature.

The names of the four calumnious horsemen of this particular apocalypse were Hugh de Merville, William de Tracey, Reginal Fitzurse and Richard le Breton, four names whose etymology would, I suspect, be worth the exploring, to see if this tale is genuine history or belongs, in fact, as the Christmas dates also suggest, to a messing about with mythology (cf Robin Hood, Guy Fawkes et al). The unprecedented speed - less than two years - of his canonisation adds to my suspicions, as does the huge convenience for Henry, who lived all his life in Poitiers, and had nothing but a dynastic interest in England, of having his own personal saint, his own personal guilt to expiate, as a pretext for a triumphal procession to the seat of genuine English power, just two more years after that.

As noted above Thomas was not "à" Becket at all; he would in fact have been as perplexed by it as you and I are; he didn't use it; he didn't even know it; he was just plain Becket. The "à" got added years later, by those who wished to make him a man of less humble background than he really was (I wonder, if we renamed him Guilliam de Shakspere, would the elitist snobs drop all their silly nonsense about Francis Bacon, or was it Lord Oxford, being the author of his plays).

The date on the sketch is 8/88, a decade before the invention of the Internet. Twenty years further on, even my limited skills are redundant, when people have selfie-machines and free-wifi upload. This is what it actually looks like.

Amber pages

Vera Brittain, feminist author (as opposed to authoress), and mother of Shirley Williams (Social Democrat politician), born today in 1893

The Battle of Wounded Knee, today in 1890, in which two hundred native tribesmen of Meso-America were killed.

Grigori Efimovich Rasputin (Novjkh), Russian mystic, shot today in 1916 - apparently it took multiple bullets, and still he refused to die.

And to end on a most positive note, today in 1989, Václav Havel became President of Czechoslovakia, a position he would only relinquish when Czechoslovakia was formally dissolved as a country, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia set up independently in its place. 

The first President of the new Czech Republic was sworn in on February 2nd, 1993 - an interesting choice, given that this was a man whose family property had been confiscated by the Communists, who had been denied access to formal education, whose plays had once been banned and his passport confiscated, who had been one of the senior troublemakers of the Prague Spring, who had served four years in prison for daring to challenge the legitimate government's record on human rights, and who had previously served as President of a country whose very existence had now been declared obsolete: the selfsame Václav Havel

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