Working at the Wren Library we are sometimes fortunate enough to catch sight of a kingfisher on the banks of the Cam. This is good news at a time when we learn that the numbers of breeding pairs in the UK are in decline.
Around the time of the winter solstice the halcyon, a mythical bird identified with the kingfisher, was believed to lay eggs in a nest floating on the sea. For the seven days of incubation and a further seven days after the eggs had hatched, the halcyon charmed the sea which remained unnaturally calm.
This 14 day period of calm was known to sailors as ‘halycon days’ when there was little threat of a storm.
The myth is referred to, for example, by Isidore in his Etymologies and in Bartholomew de Glanville’s, De Proprietatibus Rerum. Halcyon comes from the Latin word – alcyon – for kingfisher and the term ‘halcyon days’ has come to denote peaceful, happy days from the past.
This time of year is also closely associated with Thomas Becket. He was born on 21st December probably in 1120. As a clerk, archdeacon and later royal chancellor, he was a wealthy, trusted and prominent member of the court of Henry II and in 1162 was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.
Very soon controversy arose over conflicts between Church and State which resulted in Becket’s disgrace and exile to France in 1164. Complicated controversies continued, but Becket took the decision to return to England after 8 years. His murder in Canterbury Cathedral took place on 29th December 1170.
Almost immediately a cult associated with the curative powers of his blood arose in Canterbury. A number of miracles were described and Becket was made a saint in 1173. His shrine and cult were both extremely popular and lucrative throughout the medieval period.
As a symbol of the conflict between the relative powers of Church and State, the cult became an especial focus during the English Reformation. The shrine was destroyed in 1538 and then, in November of the same year, a Royal proclamation demanded that Thomas Becket should no longer be considered a saint, images should be destroyed, his festival should not be observed and his name should be “erased and put out of all the books”.
There were varying degrees of compliance with this decree: his festival remains documented in the Liber Eliensis (O.2.1) but has clearly been erased from another of our liturgical manuscripts – B.11.4.
Frank Barlow, ‘Becket, Thomas (1120?–1170)’, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (first published 2004)