Becket and civic ceremonies

Mayoral seal showing Becket (left) as patron saint of London alonside St Paul (right).
© Dean & Chapter Westminster, Westminster Abbey Muniments. 41, sup.2
Origin/Date: London || 1358

Many of the sites associated with Thomas Becket’s cult in London, such as his birthplace, Cheapside, and London Bridge were also important routes and places for ceremonies and rituals in the Middle Ages. When the king entered the city he often did so by processing down Cheapside to St Paul’s Cathedral, and on triumphant occasions the Great Conduit was made to flow with wine instead of water.

Red wine may have been a symbol of Becket’s own blood, as the Conduit was sited outside his birthplace and had strong associations with the saint.

Thomas Becket’s importance to the ceremonies and rituals of later medieval London is made clear in a book known as the Liber Albus (‘The White Book’), written by the chief clerk of the City John Carpenter in 1420.

According to this, every year on 29th October the newly-elected mayor would hold a feast at his house for his supporters and the aldermen (chief citizens). They would then gather at the Hospital of St Thomas of Acre, Becket’s birthplace, and process to St Paul’s Cathedral.

After prayers in the church, they moved to the churchyard where Becket’s parents were believed to be buried and prayed. This was particularly symbolic as Gilbert Becket had been sheriff of London, a forerunner of the position of mayor. Then returning up Cheapside, by torchlight if it was dark, they each made an offering of a penny at the Hospital of St Thomas.

Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
From Francis Bond, Early Christian Architecture (1913)
Origin/Date: England || 1875

Similar processions were held on All Saints (1st November), St Stephen’s (26th December), and St John the Evangelist (27th December), when they gathered at the Hospital after a feast, heard Vespers at St Paul’s, and returned to the Hospital. On the Feasts of Holy Innocents (28th December, the day before the Martyrdom of St Thomas), the Circumcision (1st January), Epiphany (6th January), and Purification (2nd February) the mayor and aldermen celebrated Vespers in the Hospital.

The concentration of activity at the Hospital of St Thomas after Christmas is notable as a time when the mayor and aldermen, in their finery, visited the birthplace of the city’s patron saint five times. It looks as though there were links being made between the birth of Christ and that of the city’s own saint, at the place of his birth, and in the season of his own birth and martyrdom.  This reflects the the London-centred character of the cult as home to the saint’s ‘rising’, as William FitzStephen had written two and a half centuries before.


From the Greek ‘martus’ meaning ‘witness'. One who suffers death on account of faith.

All Saints

Feast of November 1 (in West from 8th century AD). Celebration of all Christian saints. known and unknown


A feast on 1 January celebrating the presentation at the Temple, circumcision, and naming of Christ at eight days old. In the Bible it was the occasion for prophetic statements about his life and death (Luke 2: 21-40).


A feast on 6 January commemorating the visit of the Three Kings (the Magi) to the infant Christ and the presentation of their gifts.


Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, celebrated on February 2nd. The Gospel of Luke records that the Virgin and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple 40 days after his birth in order to make the sacrifices required in the Law (Luke 2:22-39). This event was celebrated as a local feast in Jerusalem from 350. The feast falls on February 2, 40 days after Christmas Day. It is commonly known as Candlemas and celebrated with offerings and processions of candles which recall how the priest Simeon hailed Jesus as the light of the world.  

St John the Evangelist

Apostle. Son of Zebedee and brother of St James the Great. One of the three disciples closest to Christ. Tradition states that he wrote the Fourth Gospel, the three Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. In medieval iconography often stands with the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross. Symbol an eagle.  

St Stephen

One of the seven deacons who served the first Christian community and the first Christian martyr. His feast day on 26 December is now commonly known in the UK as Boxing Day.

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.


One of the hours of prayer in monastic liturgy, usually sung or chanted in late afternoon or early evening.


a senior civic officer or member of the city council 


The chief official of a city or town, usually elected or appointed on a yearly basis.


 The chief royal official in a county or region, with particular responsibility for law enforcement

[On 29th October] after dinner, it was the custom for the new Mayor to proceed from his house to the Church of Saint Thomas de Acon, those of his livery preceding him; and after the Aldermen had there assembled, they then proceeded together to the Church of Saint Paul. Upon arriving there, at a spot, namely, in the middle of the nave of the Church, between the two small doors, it was the custom to pray for the soul of Bishop William, who, by his entreaties, it is said, obtained from his lordship, William the Conqueror, great liberties for the City of London; the priest repeating the De Profundis. They then moved on to the churchyard, where lie the bodies of the parents of Thomas, late Archbishop of Canterbury; and there they also repeated the De Profundis, etc., in behalf of all the faithful of God departed, near the grave of his parents before mentioned. After this, they returned through the market of Chepe (sometimes with lighted torches, if it was late) to the said Church of Saint Thomas, and there the Mayor and Aldermen made an offering of one penny each; which done, every one returned to his home, and the morning and the evening were one day.

John Carpenter, Liber albus (The White Book of the City of London), 1419