Becket & St. Thomas Day & Wassailing December 29th –

Murder of Becket at Canterbury Cathedral 1170
Murder of Becket at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170 (Late 12th Century Manuscript from British Museum

On the fifth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
5 Golden Rings; 4 Calling Birds; 3 French Hens; 2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

The fifth day of Christmas is dedicated to Thomas Becket, our most famous Archbishop’s of Canterbury. He was martyred at Canterbury on this day in 1170 and made a Saint in 1173 in double-quick time, in order that the Pope could rub Henry II’s nose in his complicity with the murder. Becket was a Londoner from a well-known London family, who became a friend of Henry II. Henry was having trouble with the freedoms and fees owed to the Catholic Church. So he thought it would be a good idea to make his friend Archbishop. But as soon as Becket became Archbishop he went rogue, became a very stubborn and adamant defender of the Pope’s privileges in Britain. Henry is said to have said, in anger, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ And three knights took him at his word, and Becket was murdered in the Cathedral in Canterbury.

Next year I will add the story of Becket’s lousy habit.

Soon, a new magnificent bridge was built to replace the wooden London Bridge and in the centre of that Bridge was a grand Chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket. It was refurbished by the renowned architect Henry Yevele (c. 1320 – 1400). It was here that pilgrims began their pilgrimage to Canterbury, i.e. from where he was born, to where he was martryed.

Stained Glass window showing St Thomas's Chapel on London Bridge (Window is in St Magnus the Martyr's Church on the site of the approach to London Bridge
Stained Glass window showing St Thomas’s Chapel on London Bridge (Window is in St Magnus the Martyr’s Church on the site of the approach to London Bridge

In London, there was a legend that his mother, Matilda, was a Muslim who fell in love with Thomas’s dad, Gilbert, during the Crusades. She helped him escape captivity and then found her own way from Acre to London, knowing only the name ‘London’ in English and walking most of the way. It is said that on St Thomas Day, people used to walk around St Paul’s multiple times to remember her walk of love. The story was told as true from the 13th Century until the 19th Century found Matilda had more prosaic Norman origins. The story is told here:

Medieval St Thomas’s Pilgrim’s Badge showing the murder of Becket. The ampullae contained holy water.


Black and white drawing of a servant Bringing in the Wasaill Bowl (from Washington Irving's 'Old Christmas
Bringing in the Wassail Bowl (from Washington Irving’s ‘Old Christmas’)

The Twelve Days of Christmas are full of wassailing. This has at least two different facets. Firstly, it is a formal drinking tradition at the centre of Christmas hospitality. Secondly, it is part of the tradition of the Waits, the Mummers, and Carol Singers who go around the village singing or playing in exchange for a drink or some food, or money.

The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon version of ‘Cheers’ or good health, and its ceremonial use is described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135.

From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”

Geoffrey is explaining how Vortigern betrayed Britain for the love of Rowena, the Saxon Hengist’s daughter, and speculating on the origins of the tradition of wassail.

A Wassail bowl would be full of some form of mulled alcohol or hot punch. A couple of pints of ale or cider, a pint of wine/brandy/mead, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. You should have an apple or crab-apple floating in the bowl. To find out more, look at ‘British Food, a History’ here.

First Published on 29th December 2022, republished in December 2023

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