St Thomas of Acon – The Revival
St Thomas of Acon is a very English Order of Chivalry. Its revival was due to the untiring efforts of the first Grand Master, Sir John of Dorking. John Walker spent more than twenty years searching for information about the Order of St Thomas of Acon in the archives of the Guildhall Library, intending initially to write its history.
Happily, he discovered the report of the Installation of the Master in 1510. An account so unusual and so typically English, that he felt compelled to revive the Order, albeit Masonically. He became its first Grand Master embracing the twin principles of Humility and Kindness.
In former times, few people could read or write so that memories were better developed than ours. Pythagoras forbade all writing, considering it “the destroyer of all memory”. Fortunately at that time, most people were more tolerant. It was not necessary to record what was to be spoken, nor to give more than headings of the order of events; such clues as have survived require imaginative interpretation. Good stories, on the other hand, (such as those of Becket, father and son), were written down for use as homilies by priests.
The History of the Order of St Thomas of Acon
The Third Crusade began in 1189, on the 8th June 1191, King Richard I (Richard Coeur de Lion) arrived with his forces, before the seaport of Acre, and captured the city in five weeks. Amongst the English force was one, William, the Chaplain to the Dean of St. Pauls. When he viewed the corpses of the Christians about the walls of Acre, he had compassion on them. With the aid of a few helpers he buried a large number of the dead, and tended the wounded. Seeing that his actions were being appreciated, William formed an Order for the express purpose of burying Christian Knights who fell in battle in the Holy Land. To this first purpose he added a second, the raising of monies to redeem ransomed captives captured by the Saracens.
The Order being formed at Acre its name was incorporated in the title (the Anglicised version of Acre being Acon). The Order was so successful that William was able to build a church and churchyard which he dedicated to St. Thomas `a Becket. Thus the Order became entitled the Commemorative Order of St. Thomas of Acon.
Through disease and death of the other knights fighting in the Holy Land, this Order of English monks was pressed into service as replacements. It became an Order of military monks, (it was also at this time circa 1279 that the Prior lost his pre-eminent position, this being accorded to the Master), fighting alongside the Knights of the Temple,the Knights of the Hospital of St. John the Almsgiver, the Knights of the Hospital of Lazarus and the Teutonic Knights of the Hospital of St Mary. King Richard I rewarded their valour by according them the status of an Order of Chivalry. Of all the five noble Orders of knights in the Holy Land at this time, only this Order had a purely English foundation, a fact that members of the Order are justly proud.
In England the Order acquired the property of the Becket family in Cheapside, where they built a Chapel and a headquarters. Following the battle of Acre (anglicised to Acon), the Order of St. Thomas of Acon merged temporarily with the Order of the Temple. When the knights were subsequently driven out of Cyprus, the Chapel of the Order of St. Thomas was the only church on the island permitted to ring its bells. The remains of this church can still be visited today.
Old records are sparse, the last admission into the Order being recorded on the 2nd February 1367. However there is no doubt that the order continued. Records exist of the Installation of a Master in 1510, as mentioned earlier, and it was listed as one of the Orders dissolved by Henry VIII.
At the dissolution of the monastries in 1538, he offered the Chapel of the Order for sale and, in memory of St Thomas (Thomas `a Becket being canonised barely two years after his death during the Lentern period in 1173). In view of the association of his father, Gilbert, with their trade, the Worshipful Company of Mercers purchased it.
The Chapel in Cheapside was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and the present Mercers Hall and Chapel were built on the site. This is a matter of historical record, lengthy articles have been published in the “Historical Review”, which is available in most public libraries and in several books. All that remains today to remind us of that building is the recumbent statue of Christ which lies at the entrance of the new Mercers’ Chapel.
Additionally, the Church of St. Thomas, in the City of London, was built in honour of St. Thomas `a Becket, and the Mayor, on the day of his Installation, always attended Mass in that church, before proceeding to St. Pauls.
St Thomas of Acon – The Present Day
With the revival of St Thomas of Acon as a Masonic Order, it expanded rapidly. In 1998 there was only one Chapel in the United Kingdom, located at Blackheath. By 2007 this had increased to 68, with Chapels in the UK, Spain, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Order continues to expand.
Membership is open to any Master Mason, being a Royal Arch Companion and a member of Knights Templar. The regalia is very similar to that of a Knight Templar and Knights are admitted into the order in the regalia of a Knight Templar.
In November the Order makes an Annual Pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. A service is held in the Crypt at 2pm and over 100 members attend. The designated charity of the Order is Canterbury Cathedral to which the Order makes substantial annual donations.
There are two Chapels that meet within the area of the Masonic Province of East Kent.
The nearest for members of Loyal and True is the Geoffrey Chaucer Chapel No 63, at the Franklin Rd, Gillingham Centre. Meetings are held in the evening, on the second Friday in January and the third Thursday in July.
Name: Reginald A Heathcote-Smith
Position: Provincial Grand Secretary of the South Eastern Counties
Telephone: 01227 794704
Email: Reginald A Heathcote-Smith Via Grand Secretary Sir Michael of Accrington