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Faversham and St Thomas Becket


While the great Abbey of St Saviour Faversham and the parish church of St Mary would have celebrated events connected with St Thomas we have in Faversham a particular event that involved the grammar schoolmaster, Lawrence Barry, of the town of Faversham in 1420.


On the 7th July 1220 the body of St Thomas was translated from the tomb in the crypt at Christ Church Canterbury, where it had rested since his murder in 1170, to the new shrine in the Trinity Chapel amid great pomp and splendour. Every fifty years the jubilee celebration of his death was attended by an immense concourse of pilgrims some moved by religious fervour, others by promises of indulgences for sin and the hope of a cure of their ailments.


With such large crowds, the Jubilee year of 1370 had been a disaster with extortionate food prices, due to a local famine. Campbell says that 1368-70 was the only instance of a triple harvest failure and the single longest run of below average harvests was from 1364 to 1372.[i] So that at the end of 1420, having secured a successful conclusion to the jubilee, we find a variety of accounts of what transpired.


The papal bull granting the dispensation to hold the jubilee commemorating the death of Thomas Becket in 1170 was not to be found. Apparently, it had been stolen in 1370, so that there was disagreement about exactly what it conferred. Rumours spread among the pilgrims that 1420 was not a proper jubilee year and that it was really due in the next year 1421. Some started to say that the indulgence only applied to the fortnight following the translation, and not the whole twelve-month; and some said that since the papal bull had been lost, no benefits could be obtained at all. Barry set about elucidating the matter and fixed a notice, presumably in English, to the door of the chapel of the Maison Dieu at Ospringe so that the passing pilgrims would know his findings, although one wonders how many would have been able to read it.


At The National Archives, there is a cartulary (mostly concerning indulgences) but also a chronicle concerning the jubilee of the translation of the body of St Thomas the Martyr[ii]. Raymonde Foreville has transcribed, amongst others, pages 45 to 47 of this document, which provides the account of Barry’s actions.[iii] On the notice, he describes himself as ‘Master Lawrence Barry, headmaster of the Grammar School in the town of Fawerscham’. He points out that he had a singular affection to the blessed martyr and having inspected the books in the monastery, wished to contradict the objections of ‘least truth’ that the jubilee was not in that present year. He confirms the indulgence, for those that have truly confessed and are sorry for their sins, is for the whole of the Jubilee year and that the loss of the Papal Bull did not inhibit the indulgence. For a fuller account of the celebrations, which lasted fifteen days from 6 July, see William Somner and by Dr William Urry.[iv]

Duncan Harrington FSA, FSG, LHG.

[i] Bruce M. S. Campbell ‘Agriculture in Kent in the High Middle Ages’ in Later Medieval Kent 1220-1540 edited by Sheila Sweetinburgh (2010) p. 46.

[ii] TNA: E 36/196 pp. 49-50.

[iii] Le Jubilé de Saint Thomas Becket (Paris, 1958) pp. 135-137.

[iv] William Somner, The Antiquities of Canterbury, reprint 1977 appendix p. 51, number XLII; William Urry, Cantium April 1970 pp. 27-29, gives the Somner reference as Corporation of Canterbury MSS Register A. folio 34v. (now CC/O/A/1) and Faversham Grammar School Magazine, July 1948 pp.14-15. (CCA: Pamph/8/34).

January 19, 2018

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