Of Friendship by Francis Bacon

Bacon is a hugely enjoyable read and his pithy brevity is a welcome break from Cicero’s rambling verbosity.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 into an eminent family. His uncle was the Lord Cecil who became the first minister to Queen Elizabeth. Like Cicero he made a career at the bar and in politics, sitting as MP for various constituencies. He was helped up the ladder by the Earl of Essex so when the latter rebelled against Elizabeth in 1601, Bacon’s zealous prosecution of his former patron aroused much bad feeling.

When the old queen died and was replaced by James VI in 1603 Bacon’s ascent up what Disraeli called the slippery pole continued. He was knighted, became clerk of the Star Chamber, Attorney General, Privy Counsellor and Lord Keeper of the Seal, finally becoming Lord Chancellor.

It was at the height of his success, in 1621, that Bacon was charged in Parliament with receiving bribes in his various posts, was found guilty, fined, briefly imprisoned and barred from holding public office. The king let him hold on to his titles.

He had always been many-minded, interested in many aspects of the society of his day, and now was free to devote himself full time to writing. He had already written a number of long works, in the three areas of moral philosophy and theology; legal works; and proto-scientific works, and now he added to them.

In his ‘scientific’ works such as The Advancement and Proficience of Learning Divine and Human (1605) and the Novum Organum (1620) Bacon promoted a universal reform of knowledge by sweeping away the useless scholastic theology inherited from the Middle Ages and promoting forms of knowledge based on close examination of the real world using inductive reasoning.

Though he died in 1626 the influence of these calls for a comprehensive reform of human knowledge along experimental and scientific lines was highly influential for a century or more afterwards. Bacon was cited as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660.

Bacon’s Essays

In contrast to these weighty tomes, his brief essays on miscellaneous subjects were for a long time seen as incidental frivolities. However, as time passed and the scientific worldview became more solidly embedded in intellectual life, his big works came to feel more and more dated – whereas the essays, with their shrewd insights into the realities of daily life, became steadily more popular. To quote the blurb on the back of the 1972 Everyman edition:

The Essays consist of reflections and generalisations, together with extracts from ancient writers and examples drawn from the author’s own experience, woven into counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.

They are not intended to promote a rather abstruse philosophy (as Cicero’s essays are) but to be pithy and hard-headed, combining shrewd reflections with practical advice.

They are wonderfully short – many barely more than a page long – and contain entertaining and amusing formulations, some of which have gone on to become reasonably famous:

  • ‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. (Of Truth)
  • Revenge is a kind of wild justice. (Of Revenge)
  • He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. (Of Marriage and Single Life)
  • The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. (Of Love)

He added to the essays throughout his life: the first edition of 1597 had just 10 essays, the second edition of 1612 had 38 essays and the third and final edition of 1625 had no fewer than 58.

Of Friendship

This is one of the longer essays, at 8 pages (the five essays before it all barely stretch to a page and a half).

By this stage of the late Renaissance there had been a good deal of writing about friendship, going back, arguably, to the Italian poet Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345. The topic of friendship became of central importance to what became known as humanism, strongly influenced by the huge figure of Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus (1466 to 1536).

All these precedents and the centrality of the concept to humanist’s notion of their selves and their project help to explain why the friendship essay is one of Bacon’s longest, but even here he applies his style of being as focused and pithy as possible.

Summary

A natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.

A crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

In a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighbourhoods.

True friends; without which the world is but a wilderness.

Whosoever in the frame of his nature and affections, is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast, and not from humanity.

The essay is addresses three ‘fruits of friendship’.

1. The first or principal fruit of friendship is to bring ‘peace in the affections’. It is:

the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.

Friendship helps soften the violence of passions and emotions. It is psychologically beneficial:

No receipt [medicine] openeth the heart but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

That ‘kind of’ is very typical. Bacons finds thoughtful analogies, which shed interesting light on everyday topics.

He expands this thought by considering how great kings and princes have been so driven by the need for friendship that they have often raised ordinary people to be their companions or ‘favourites’ ‘which many times sorteth to inconvenience.’ I love Bacon’s Jacobean English.

There follows a long passage of examples from the ancient and modern world, namely:

  • Sulla’s promotion of the boy wonder general, Pompey
  • Julius Caesar’s friendship with Decimus Brutus, who went on to lure him to his death
  • Augustus’s promotion of his loyal lieutenant Agrippa
  • Tiberius’s promotion of Sejanus which led the Senate to devote a temple to Friendship
  • Septimius Severus and Plautianus

The point being that these rulers were among the most powerful the world has ever since but accounted their lives incomplete unless they had an intimate confidant to ‘supply the comfort of friendship’.

By contrast he briefly summarises the experiences of Commineus (Philippe de Commines, 1447 to 1511, writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France) under two rulers, Charles Duke of Burgundy and King Louis XIII, who did not confide their worries, were very secretive, thus impairing their judgement and giving themselves much torment. The gnawing worries which a man without friends subjects himself to can be summarised:

Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts.

2. The second fruit of friendship is ‘support of the judgment’; that it has a comparable effect on the rational faculties of the mind as on the emotional, namely helping to steady and clarify our thoughts. It:

maketh a fair day in the affections from storm and tempests…it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.

Sharing our thoughts with someone else helps us order and clarify them:

Whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another. He tosseth his thoughts more easily, he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words. Finally, he waxeth wiser than himself, and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.

An hour’s conversation with a friend helps us sort out our thoughts more effectively than a day’s agonising by ourselves. The best kind of friend is one who gives you feedback and advice, but even without bonus, just the act of saying your thoughts out loud forces you to marshall your thoughts and, often, realise what you’re trying to say:

man learneth of himself and bringeth his own thoughts to light and whetteth his wits as against a stone.

As to benefiting from a friend’s advice:

The light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment, which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs.

It’s a simple metaphor – dry good, wet bad – but unusual and memorable. Our own thoughts tend to flatter ourselves, be kind and compliant, in a way a good friend won’t.

Bacon then divides friendly advice into two types:

Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business.

Of the first kind:

Reading good books of morality is a little flat and dead. Observing our faults in others, is sometimes improper for our case. But the best receipt (best, I say, to work, and best to take) is the admonition of a friend.

‘Reading good books of morality being a little flat and dead’ certainly describes my experience of reading Cicero’s essays.

As for the second kind of friendly advice, concerning business:

the help of good counsel, is that which setteth business straight.

There is a risk here, of taking advice in fragments from different sources, in fact two risks: one, that it will be biased and reflect the counsellor’s concerns; the other that even if advice is well intentioned, if it doesn’t take into account the full situation of the advisee it might do more harm than good, like a doctor treating one symptom without knowing about the patent’s overall health.

Therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

3. The third fruit is more multifarious: it is to giving ‘aid and bearing a part, in all actions and occasions’. When you consider how many things you cannot do for yourself, you realise that a friend is kind of ‘another you’, a doubling of your resources and skills. If a man dies with many cares and responsibilities unfinished (such as the care of children) a true friend is like another you, who will complete them.

A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him, and his deputy. For he may exercise them by his friend.

A man cannot promote himself and extol his merits without appearing to brag, but a friend can.

More subtly, we are limited in many of our communications with significant others by our position or role in relationship to them, whereas a friend can speak more freely, communicate more freely with them what we want to convey, because he or she is not so constrained:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

At which point the essay abruptly ends. Compared with Cicero’s long essay on the same subject, it is short, practical, to the point, entirely lacking the elaborate scene-setting of Cicero’s debates, and unconstrained by Cicero’s tedious commitment to Stoic theology and his obsession with God, Morality, Reason, Wisdom and the rest of his junkyard of worthy but baseless abstractions.


Related link

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Theatre

Terence

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto*

Terence’s texts

Publius Terentius Afer, generally known as Terence (185 to 160 BC), died at the very young age of 25, having written just 6 plays which, however, are preserved in numerous manuscripts. So, unlike Plautus (who wrote 120 plays of which only 20 survive) a) his oeuvre is very small and b) we have it all.

Not only that but some of the manuscripts contain unprecedented detail for ancient texts – a prologue by the author plus notes giving the date of the play’s composition and notes on its first production. (These notes were written in the mid second century AD by Gaius Sulpicius Apollinaris of Carthage.)

We also have a short life of Terence by the noted historian Suetonius, written about 100 AD i.e. about 250 years after Terence died, with some later additions; plus a set of comprehensive notes on the plays by a later grammarian (the Commentum Terenti of Aelius Donatus). In other words, as ancient authors go, we have an unprecedented wealth of information about Terence and his work.

Biography

Publius Terentius Afer is said to have been born in 185 BC (or 195, accounts vary). He was born either in Carthage or south Italy to a slave woman from Carthage. Romans had three names. Terence’s last name or cognomen, Afer, in Latin meant ‘from Africa’, a term which Romans applied very broadly to all the lands on the south shore of the Mediterranean, generally meaning modern Tunisia and Libya.

Terentius was a slave belonging to the senator Publius Terentius Lucanus, who brought him to Rome, gave him his forenames, a good education and his freedom. Whatever his mother or family may have called him, Terence entered Roman society bearing the first two names of his owner and a cognomen denoting his origin.

The circle of Scipio Aemilius

As a young adult Terence is said to have been a member of ‘the Scipionic circle’, a group of intellectuals who met under the patronage of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who supervised the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

The existence of such a circle is attested solely by two works of Cicero written a hundred years later in the 50s BC, and is now questioned by some scholars. If it did exist, young Terence would have been mixing with leading Roman intellectuals and philhellenes of the day, including the noted historian of the Punic Wars, Polybius.

Cicero records the circulation of scurrilous rumours that Terence’s plays were far too good for an ex-slave to have written and so must have been written by others in Scipio circle, and we also know this from the remarkable prefaces to the plays which he himself appears to have written and which cite and refute this rumour. The modern scholarly view is that Terence did write all the plays attributed to him.

Terence compared with his predecessor, Plautus

Terence adapted Greek plays from the late phases of Attic comedy, also known as the New Comedy, written by Greek playwrights such as Menander and his contemporaries. This genre of adaptation had a name of its own, fabulae palliatae (‘adaptations of Hellenistic comedies played in Greek dress’).

In this Terence was much like his famous forebear, the comic playwright Plautus (254 to 184) but with importance differences. Plautus’s plays are characterised by:

  • extensive use of complex verse forms, often intended to be sung, a little like operetta (‘the high spots of his plays are often his musical cantica‘)
  • dancing to music
  • clever comic wordplay
  • fast-moving, often slapstick plots

Plautus’s plays are loosely comparable to modern pantomime, in their zany slapdash humour and frequent speeches directly to the audience. By contrast, Terence’s six plays:

  • use simple, conversational Latin rather than elaborate wordplay for its own sake
  • have more plausible plots i.e. the characters aren’t made to do improbable things just for the momentary lols
  • place more emphasis on consistency of character, less on zany slapstick moments

More sophisticated, more philhellenic

In her introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of Terence’s complete plays, the translator Betty Radice points out that the shift from Plautus to Terence was not just a generational one (if Terence was born in 185 that was more or less the same year that Plautus died). It was a cultural shift away from the broad farce which had its roots in Italian peasant life (lots of farms are referred to in Plautus) to a much more refined and intellectual and consciously philhellene culture shared by an urban, cultural elite.

Radice emphasises the sophistication and attention which Terence plays demand of their audience. They tread a line between, on the one hand, the lowbrow, rustic humour of Italian peasant life and, on the other, the deeply conservative, puritanical values based on a reverence for family tradition exemplified by a conservative spokesman like Cato the Censor.

Terence was equidistant from both, promoting the values of an aesthetic circle which valued the merits of the Greek originals but wanted them combined with a more sophisticated reading of character and more believable plots, all conveyed in a refined and purified Latin style.

The double plot and other characteristics

Radice says that Terence’s main contribution to drama was the double plot, and that this allowed him to pursue his chief interest, which was the impact of plot on character. By having a double plot he could experiment with the contrasting impact on differing characters of the same situation. On this reading, plot isn’t something cobbled together to create as many farcical situations and lols as possible, as per Plautus; but a device to explore different types of character through a new kind of clear, expressive Latin verse. Terence:

  • created a simpler, purer Latin style than anything written before
  • made his plays more ‘realistic’ by removing the discursive explanatory prologues of Plautus – instead you have to infer the backstory from the characters’ dialogue alone
  • dispensed with divine intervention, setting his plays entirely in the human world
  • moved away from caricaturing minor characters (think of all those grumpy cooks in Plautus)
  • gave more respect to the older generation who are no longer just fuddy-duddies standing in the way of young lovers
  • was more respectful of women – for example, The Mother in Law is almost entirely a woman’s play

Stage conventions

As with Plautus, Terence’s stage sets showed the front doors of two (occasionally three) buildings. It was the convention of the day that characters exiting left were heading to the countryside or the city harbour, while exiting right was to go to the town centre or forum.

The acting style was declamatory i.e. loud and formalised, as were gestures and movements. It’s probable that, as in Greek comedy, the actors wore masks to indicate typical characters. These included the character types Terence himself mentions in a throwaway remark in his prologue to Heauton Timorumenos:

  • the running slave
  • the angry old man
  • the greedy sponger
  • the shameless imposter
  • the rapacious slave trader

Although Terence didn’t use the sung aria which was one of Plautus’s most notable features, nonetheless his spoken dialogue was entirely in verse which was rhythmically recited to the music of a pipe player. (Because of the survival of the production notes we even know the names of the composers: for example, the pipe music for Andria was composed by one ‘Flaccus, slave of Claudius.’)

The occasional aria is thought to have been mimed by the actor and performed by a professional singer who stood to one side of the stage next to the pipe player. Possibly this was the same person as the cantor who ended every play by inviting the audience to applaud.

It’s hard to think of an approach to theatre more different from our modern style of microscopic realism, where exposure to countless movies and TV dramas has taught us to look for the slightest frown or smile or movement to convey meaning. These guys wore heavy masks, stood still and bellowed at the audience, or broke into song or dance.

Terence’s huge legacy

Terence has a claim to have created ‘problem’ comedy i.e. light-hearted plays which address fairly serious issues. He is routinely described as ‘a major influence on European drama’.

The purity of his Latin quite quickly made him a model for students learning the language, in the ancient world and beyond, which helps to explain the survival of all his texts through the long Middle Ages in numerous copies. Radice gives a long, detailed and fascinating summary of the afterlife of Terence’s plays, through Late Antiquity and into the Middle Ages when they were valued enough to be extensively copied – the scholar Claudia Villa estimated that 650 manuscripts containing Terence’s work date from after AD 800.

Due to his clear and entertaining language, Terence’s works were heavily used by monasteries and convents during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Scribes often learned Latin through the meticulous copying of Terence’s texts. Priests and nuns often learned to speak Latin through re-enactment of Terence’s plays. (Wikipedia)

The dawn of the Renaissance in Italy saw the extensive revival, translation and new performances of his plays. The Renaissance humanist Erasmus included no fewer than 250 references to and quotes from Terence in his Adages, which were designed to prove that the best values of Antiquity were perfectly aligned with Christian morality. The German church reformer Martin Luther not only quoted Terence frequently but recommended his comedies for the instruction of children in school. Terence was translated by numerous eminent Renaissance authors, including Machiavelli.

* Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto

This is Terence’s most famous quote, from the play Heauton Timorumenos. It means literally:

  • I am a human being; of that which is human, I think nothing estranged from me.

More smoothly as:

  • I am human, and think nothing human is alien to me.

I prefer the implications of the latter because it reinforces one of my core principles, which is a frank acceptance of human nature in all its gruesomeness. We are, after all, only animals which, through a quirk of evolution, happen to be able to ‘think’, sort of, sometimes.

Most history is horrific, most humans are disappointing, many are terrifying. We must make the best of life based on a realistic assessment of human history and behaviour. Denying these realities distorts our understanding of human nature, human history and human society, and undermines assessments of what realistic change and reform we can hope to effect.

Therefore I accept it, accept it all, all human behaviour, the killers and rapists, the paedophiles and génocidaires, the greedy billionaires and the drug addict muggers, alongside the sugar and spice and all things nice which the sentimental, naive and wilfully blind want human nature to consist of – and the huge territory between these extremes, where people are confused, uncertain, generally nice, sometimes stressed, angry or inexplicable and unpredictable. And that is what this quote means to me. It signifies a complete, Nietzschean acceptance of the gritty reality.

Radice, on the other hand, translates it as:

  • I am human myself, so I think every human affair is my concern.

Which may be a true translation but whose last few words seems to me to drastically expand the thought, making it far more pro-active and empathetic than my preferred version. Radice’s translation implies that all human affairs are my concern i.e. that I ought to be actively involved in them. Turns it from the detached and rather analytical acceptance of my version into a motto for Amnesty International.

I prefer the second translation, which implies that I should take note of and take account of all human affairs – but not be so foolish as to get caught up in them.


Credit

All page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies.

Roman reviews

  • Terence
  • Andria (The Girl from Andros) by Terence (166 BC)
  • Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (165 BC)
  • Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by Terence (163 BC)
  • Phormio by Terence (161 BC)
  • Eunuchus by Terence (161 BC)
  • Adelphoe (The Brothers) by Terence (160 BC)

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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