Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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