Two Canterbury Martyrs — St. Thomas Becket and St. John Stone

King Henry VIII executed St. John Stone and tried to eradicate devotion to St. Thomas Becket, yet people still go on pilgrimage (or as tourists) to Canterbury. What would Henry think about that?

Tommaso Dolabella, “Martyrdom of Thomas Becket”, 1627
Tommaso Dolabella, “Martyrdom of Thomas Becket”, 1627 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Thomas of Canterbury’s memorial is on December 29 within the Octave of Christmas, and his story may be familiar to many Catholics because we’ve read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in school or have seen the movie Becket with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. There is another Canterbury martyr we should remember during this Christmastide, however, that most have probably never heard of: St. John Stone.

St. Thomas of Canterbury

St. Thomas of Canterbury was proclaimed a martyr and canonized a saint less than two years after King Henry II’s knights assassinated him during Vespers on December 29, 1170. Thomas and Henry had been in conflict over the authority of Canon Law and Church Courts. King Henry asked—perhaps without realizing the consequences—“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”—and four knights viewed that question as a command and obeyed.

The four knights were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III, the same pope who canonized St. Thomas; Henry II did public penance; and Canterbury became one of the great shrines of Christendom, with pilgrims coming from throughout England and the Continent the “holy, blissful martyr for to see”. That shrine, the monastery, and the relics of St. Thomas of Canterbury would last until 1538 when Henry VIII ordered the shrine destroyed, the monastery suppressed, and the relics scattered. More about that below.

Another Henry; Another Martyr

When Henry VIII finally decided to take matters into his own hands to solve his marital problems, he had himself declared the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England in 1534. His new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon null and void and Henry celebrated his marriage to Anne Boleyn, who was pregnant, surely, with the male heir he desperately needed.

Henry wanted to make sure everyone of importance accepted his actions, so his agents, including Thomas Cromwell, presented a series of oaths to Henry’s subjects. Of course, most swore the oaths (of Succession and of Supremacy), but some famously did not. Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher refused; many of the Carthusians refused, a few others refused, and they became the first martyrs of the English Reformation. St. John Stone, an Augustinian canon in Canterbury, also refused.

Richard Ingworth, formerly the prior of the Dominican house in Hertfordshire, had been appointed the Bishop of Dover after the priory had been suppressed in 1535. He went to Canterbury on December 13, 1538 to help arrange the dissolution of the friaries there and to make sure that all the friars swore the required oaths before their religious vows were abrogated by the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church. Ingworth sent a report to Cromwell the next day to report that among the Augustine Friars, “‘one friar very rudely and traitorously used himself’ and declared that he was ready to die for it that the king might not be the head of the Church, but it must be a spiritual father appointed by God.”

This friar was John Stone. The Royal response to Friar Stone’s treason was swift as he was taken to London for questioning by Cromwell and imprisonment in the Tower of London. When he could not be persuaded to change his mind he was sent back to Canterbury for trial and execution.

We have the details of what his execution — which certainly took place during the Christmas Octave and probably on December 27, 1539 — cost the city of Canterbury. He was taken to the hill above the city, the Dane John, and therefore, special arrangements had to be made:

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon (i.e. Dane John), 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.

Friar Stone could have seen his suppressed Friary and the great Cathedral of Canterbury from the top of Dane John. The Sheriff of Kent, who coordinated Stone’s hanging, drawing, and quartering, took control of the Augustinian Priory.

That Meddlesome Priest Again

St. John Stone had been readily dealt with. Henry VIII had also dealt with St. Thomas of Canterbury. As the British Library notes on its website: “As Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket fiercely espoused the independence of the Church from royal authority, and his murder in 1170 by soldiers of Henry II made him a martyr and a popular hero.  For Henry VIII the lesson was clear — a religious leader who had defied the king and been canonized for it was a dangerous precedent during a time of great religious change.”

Therefore, in April of 1538 Henry VIII set about eradicating the legacy of St. Thomas of Canterbury in England. His shrine at the Cathedral and images of him throughout the land were to be destroyed. According to Henry, St. Thomas of Canterbury was neither a saint nor a martyr and his feasts (December 29, the date of his martyrdom and July 7, the date his relics were placed in the shrine at Canterbury in 1220) were to be removed from the liturgical calendar.

This attack on a saint proclaimed by the Church was the final blow for Pope Paul III, who issued a decree of excommunication against Henry on December 17, 1538. With these actions against St. Thomas of Canterbury, and against other saints’ shrines, including the Marian shrines throughout England, it was clear that, as far as Henry VIII was concerned, the Church had reached the point of no return.

The hanging, drawing, and quartering of St. John Stone on December 27, 1539, a year after Henry VIII’s excommunication, demonstrated that sadly, Pope Paul III was right. Friar John Stone was canonized among the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

St. Thomas of Canterbury is celebrated on the liturgical calendar of the Church of the England, honored as a martyr, on either July 7 or December 29, and people still go on pilgrimage (or as tourists) to Canterbury. What would Henry VIII think about that?