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THE WORSHIP OF ST. THOMAS BECKET.
The modern capital of a kingdom is not always the spot from whence its earliest civilization has emanated. Either two cities have, from their origin, contended for supremacy, as was the case with Rome and Alba Longa, or, more frequently, one has been thrown into the shade by the other, after having for ages maintained an undisputed ascendancy. Toledo existed long before Madrid; Brandenburg long before Berlin. Even London, which Nature seems to have destined to be the metropolis of the empire, the chief port of the country, and the commercial emporium of the whole world, has not always been without a rival in regard to every province of material power. The Romans, when they opened Britain to the knowledge of the rest of the world and brought it within the pale of communion with other nations, found this spot conspicuous in the fresh beauty of its noble site; and this pre-eminence it maintained throughout the wild and gloomy storms that swept over the nation during the next few centuries. In
regard to one point, however—and that a point of paramount importance-London was compelled to yield to a neighbouring spot, to which appertains a higher honour, and to which the civilization of England, and we may almost say of the entire world, will ever owe a large debt of gratitude. The ancient Durovernum, which was in existence when the Romans began to organize their conquests, was even then an important intermediate station on the great road which led from the sea-coast to the city on the Thames; but it was not until a people of different race had changed its name to Canterbury, and established at once a kingdom and a royal residence on the banks of the Stour, that its fortunes experienced any essential alteration. We have no intention to enter into a dissertation, however brief, on the history of the ancient city of Canterbury, for our purpose is merely to speak of two events, and of two historical characters, intimately connected with the celebrity and interest which this spot has claimed from the earliest ages in the pages of history. .
The stranger, who in the present day is borne rapidly along the railway through the slopes and luxuriant hopgardens of Kent, cannot fail to be struck by the air of antiquity that meets him as he draws near to the ancient city. A low and heavy gateway, which seems to belong to the fifteenth century, leads him into the streets of Canterbury. Below the ramparts, which have been converted into public walks, the foundation-stones of the old fortifications may still be traced ; and at one spot, at least, we meet with the remains of an ancient royal residence. We next come to extensive ecclesiastical buildings, which are here and there in ruins, but which more generally retain their original form, fulfilling, even at the present day, the object for which they were designed. High above gate and tower, and walls and gabled roofs, rises the carefully-preserved mother-church of England—the stately Cathedral-conspicuous for its pointed and crenellated towers and its far-stretching nave, with its double choir, elevated above the rest of the building, and extending far eastward. Like the cathedral at Cologne, the Canterbury Minster is visible from a considerable distance before any of the rest of the town can be seen; and the fantastic outlines of its white stone walls stand forth from the clear sky with an almost unnatural brightness. It is, moreover, the principal object of attraction in the district—the spot to which, even in ages long passed, there resorted from every part crowds of eager spectators. Canterbury, which is still the chief archiepiscopal see of the island, is also the most ancient site of Catholic Christianity in England—the mother-seat of her Church and her civilization.
It is well known that the Britons, after they had become Roman subjects, received, at one time, a form of Christianity, which was probably brought to them direct from the East, since at that period, no primate had as yet been settled at Rome as the head of the Western Church. It is equally familiar to all that the British island was, in turn, conquered by pagan Jutes, Saxons, and Angles — tribes belonging to vigorous Germanic races—that the bonds with which Rome had once bound the island to the Continent were thus rent asunder, and that the knowledge of Christianity was almost entirely eradicated from the land, except in a few places,
where a feeble spark of the true faith was still kept alive among the Celtic inhabitants. Alike well known is the tale that, a hundred and fifty years afterwards, Gregory the Great, having been moved by the sight of some fair curly-headed English youths in the slave-market at Rome, and touched by their beauty, had formed the wish of converting their countrymen—the insular Saxons
to the true faith ; and that when he soon afterwards ascended the papal throne, he sent forth a faithful and trustworthy delegate to perform this holy labour in his place. His envoy, together with those who accompanied and succeeded him in this great work, was rewarded by the noblest success; and it was by means of converted Anglo-Saxons, among whom stand conspicuous such names as Wilfrid, Willibrord, Winfrid, and Willehead, that Germany was subsequently brought within the pale of Roman Catholic Christianity, and a portion of the debt of gratitude thus nobly paid, which the converted nations owed to their kindred tribes on the Continent. It is, however, more especially to Augustine, the apostle of Gregory, that the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury owes the indelible character which has clung to it to the present day.
This Augustine, who was probably named after the great father of the Church-St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo-Regius—was a monk of the monastery of St. Andrew, on the Colian Mount, to which Gregory had also belonged. From the cell, in which his hours were spent in the study of the Bible and in the devotional exercises prescribed by the rules of his house, he must often have looked down upon the still magnificent ruins of imperial Rome. The destructive 'barbarism of her
Germanic assailants had not been able utterly to annihilate the glorious creations of the noblest arts of antiquity; and pagan temples were now being converted into Christian churches, while the intellectual products of the genius of the nobly-gifted heathens of old were being collected, preserved, and adapted to the use of these Christian fanes. In the midst of a world full of vigorous rudeness, filled with marvellous ruins and permeated by contending elements, within which, however, there slumbered the most marvellous germs of vitality, the Romish hierarchy in those days slowly, but steadily, acquired a solid and compact form. The minds of Gregory and of his delegate must have been nurtured and ennobled by the thoughts and memories that clung to this varied and almost chaotic state of existence, and it was reserved for the latter to transfer them to the remote shores of Britain.
It was in the year 596 that Augustine, a man of noble and almost athletic figure, issued forth from the gates of his monastery, accompanied by forty monks. The terror of the long journey, and the discouragement produced by reports of the horrible barbarism of the savages to · whom they had been sent, had well-nigh made the travellers turn back when they reached the mouth of the Rhone, had not the Pope, who remained firm to his purpose, encouraged them to persevere. After they had traversed the whole of Gaul, and reached the sea-coast, they crossed from the territories of the Morini to the shores of Kent, and landed on the Isle of Thanet, which was, at that time, entirely surrounded by water, at a place named then, as it still is, Ebbe's Fleet, and not far from those memorable spots, which have been so intimately associated with the history and destiny of