Radio:Don't worry, he's armless

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LAST Sunday a young priest told me that he had once venerated the arm of Thomas Becket, displayed in a kind of jewel-box in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. So I told him I'd seen the preserved tongue of Anthony of Padua. Now, I'd never hear aword against St Anthony - his way of finding lost property is indispensable in our house - but I felt no better for seeing that peculiar little framed tongue. The whole business of holy relics is uncomfortable to 20th-century minds. Why should old body-parts be precious? But perhaps saints are different.

Becket was murdered on 29 December 1170 by four exhausted knights. They had left Henry II at Bayeux on Christmas Day and travelled in the dead of winter to Canterbury. They broke into the Archbishop's quarters in the darkening afternoon by means of a ladder discarded by a workman, followed their victim into the Cathedral and cut him down during Vespers. Almost immediately, the townspeople came, drawn by the enormous political significance of the event, and the miracles started. On 4 January, a blind woman recovered her sight after the application of a rag dipped in Becket's blood, and a cult began. Soon the Cathedral became a kind of field-dressing station as the lame and the dumb, the sick and the dying came for healing. By Whitsun , 10 cures had beenreported on a single day: within three years Becket was canonised.

What followed was the development of the most thaumaturgically effective, richly endowed shrine in Christendom. Chau-cer's pilgrims, in the 1380s, took it for granted that they should visit "the hooly blisful martyr . . . that hem had holpen whan that they were seeke". Inevitably, it was a major target of Henry VIII's destructive troops. In 1583, contemporary documents record, it was completely destroyed and the saint's bones dug up and burnt. But were they? Professor John Butler has written a book, to be published in March, that suggests they were not. On Wednesday he advertised his book in a teasing trailer called The Mystery of Becket's Bones (R4).

In 1990, he began, two young men were arrested breaking into the Cathedral. They said they were looking for the saint's bones in the tomb of a French Cardinal, but why they should claim that was not explained. Next we heard that some medieval bones, prettily arranged, had been discovered in the 1880s, re-buried and dug up again in the 1940s. These were examined by a pathologist called Cave and dismissed by the Cath- edral Chapter as bogus. Butler hunted out Cave's report and declared it "interesting" - but we didn't hear why.

Attention, along with Butler, his interviewer Ted Harrison and their microphone, moved to the echoing crypt, where a couple of medieval chapels had been refurbished by members of the Chapter, with suspicious speed, immediately after the Cave report. Werethe unmarked tombs in those chapels dug up then? (It sounded as if they were being dug up during the broadcast, but perhaps the crypt always sounds like that.) Might one of them have contained the blessed bones? We didn't find out.

Finally, we heard a man coyly hiding behind the pseudonym Thomas Chough - a chough was Becket's heraldic device (as we were not told in the broadcast). He is one of a small group of pilgrims who gather every year on 29 December in the crypt where, it wassuggested, long oral tradition decrees that the bones were buried. Word of mouth, says Chough, is more reliable than documents - adding, as if in proof, that he'd shaken the hand of a descendant of the doctor who delivered Queen Anne's last child. But nobody, it seems, has yet managed to collar any other pilgrims to ask what word they'd heard. And a red light burns in the crypt: nobody knows why.

Some of the questions raised here will doubtless be answered in Butler's book, so the radio audience just has to wait. Meanwhile, the authorities at the Cathedral are bracing themselves. There is a nervous feeling that somehow, if the bones are found, Canterbury may become vulgar and commercialised: "another Lourdes". But there are no relics at Lourdes: something altogether different happened there. So why should it make such a difference? Excavation and subsequent DNA testing might prove something, buteveryone concerned seemed reluctant to try that. The one thing they agree on is that they all enjoy the mystery.

As for that arm in Rome, it appears that fingers and a toe were sent abroad for veneration soon after Becket's death, so perhaps it was only a digit in a very large box. We can't be sure; it's just another mystery.