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Exhibition review: Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint at the British Museum

11 June 2021

Nicholas Cranfield sees the new exhibition on St Thomas Becket

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, c.1425-50. It was made for an altarpiece, and was probably part of a series depicting his life

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, c.1425-50. It was made for an altarpiece, and was probably part of a series depicting hi...

LAST year marked the 500th anniversary of the last Canterbury Jubilee celebration held in honour of St Thomas Becket. After negotiations with Archbishop Stephen Langton, Pope Honorius III declared 1220 as a year of Jubilee, to commemorate the murder of Becket in his cathedral 50 years earlier, on 29 December 1170. The saint’s body was removed from its temporary tomb in the crypt to be reinterred in the east end of the cathedral, recently rebuilt after a disastrous fire (1194).

Held every 50 years, the Jubilee attracted numerous pilgrims, although by the time Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536) joined the sixth Jubilee, the cult of the uncanonised Henry VI was more popular.

Henry VIII had been on pilgrimage to the shrine before, in 1513 and 1514, and returned in 1522 and in 1537. In May 1520, he was not only accompanied by his wife, but also by her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, who was on his way to the Low Countries and a meeting, as it transpired, with the German artist Albrecht Dürer. But that is subject of another exhibition, for another review.

This extraordinarily rich exhibition (News, 21 May) gives the history of Plantagenet England in testimony to the cult of the martyred Archbishop, canonised on Ash Wednesday, 21 February 1173. It demonstrates the generosity of pilgrims down the ages, including two commemorative pieces that Henry VIII had made in silver and gold for the Barber Surgeons.

Born in Cheapside, the son of migrant merchants in London, Becket had a very public career at Court as the young king’s boon companion before his somewhat surprising ordination and consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161, remaining as Chancellor to King Henry II.

© The Chapter, Canterbury CathedralDetail showing the castration and blinding of Eilward of Westoning, who was later miraculously restored by the intercession of the saint, from the Miracle Window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s

Once in Holy Orders, Becket forswore his raddled past and censoriously criticised the king for encroachments made on church land and on the authority of the Church. This led to his exile in France and his return to his death. Pages of illuminated manuscripts; stained glass; alabaster bas-reliefs, produced in Nottingham for an international market for altar retables across Europe; and even a font from Norway depict scenes of his life and death.

The head-on clash between King and Archbishop, a model of Church and State in conflict, brought about what might seem inevitable. Fearful of precedent, which might bring about religious opposition to the reforming of the Church, Henry VIII later suppressed the cultus, proclaiming on 16 November 1538 that Becket’s feast days be torn out of prayer books and missals, and that images of the saint be destroyed — a cultural parallel to a wish to pull down monuments in our own day. The scarred pages, inked over in red or scratched clean, amply testify to religious bigotry in action.

On 29 December 1170, four zealous knights had entered the palace at Canterbury, and after a violent row with the Archbishop, in which they were worsted, had left, only to regroup, and break into the cathedral, calling upon the citizenry to witness the intended arrest of the Archbishop. Instead, the altercation had led to the martyrdom of Becket, the second Archbishop of Canterbury to be put to death: Alfege had been killed by the Danes at Greenwich in 1012.

Eyewitnesses had claimed that Becket had been heard to invoke St Alfege’s intercession, and it is suggested that the much treasured and richly bejewelled psalter in Becket’s possession, which often features in early iconography of him, is one that Alfege had owned (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 411 (Features, 14 August 2020)), although not all scholars agree.

© The Trustees of the British MuseumAlabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, c.1425-50. It was made for an altarpiece, and was probably part of a series depicting his life

That remarkable survival is one of the many books appropriated from Canterbury by Elizabeth’s first Archbishop, Matthew Parker, and bequeathed to his Cambridge college. Corpus Christi College has never agreed to return any of these pilfered manuscripts, and so Alfege’s Psalter, alongside the Augustine Gospel Book on which successive archbishops are sworn into office, are kept in a muniment room in Cambridge. Here, at least, it is displayed in all its glory, open at Psalm 1, opposite a page drawing of a barefoot penitent.

Noteworthy among other manuscripts on display is a copy of Benedict of Peterborough’s Miracles of St Thomas of Canterbury from St Augustine’s, Canterbury (now Trinity College, Cambridge, MS B.14.37), written at the end of the 12th century. Benedict (c.1135-93) was a Canterbury monk who was appointed custodian of Becket’s tomb from mid-April 1171, when the influx of pilgrims and curious sightseers demanded some control and order. He began to record the miraculous claims made by those pilgrims who visited and wrote the Office and Passio of the new martyr for use in the Latin Church.

Not all the miracles that he reported might today pass the Vatican scrutineers; the East Suffolk priest at Ramsholt recorded that a young girl misplaced a cheese. In a dream, Thomas revealed that the girl had left it on top of the butter churn. When the mother learned of the tale, she told her priest. In stained glass, we see the glazed story of a man being healed who had been castrated for misdemeanour.

Nine authors wrote Lives of the Archbishop, but Benedict was one of only four eyewitnesses alongside William of Canterbury, who had been ordained deacon a few weeks before at Becket’s own hands. William appended a list of more than 400 reported miracles. The only known full version of this Life is at Winchester College (Winchester College, MS 4), the gift of the founder, William of Wykeham.

By kind permission of Hedalen Stave ChurchReliquary casket, c.1220-50, from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway

Sadly, that volume, with an illumination depicting Becket in the act of blessing, is not among the myriad of treasures shown here. Absent, too, are the Archbishop’s own vestments and other relics probably offered by Becket’s successor, Richard of Dover, to the Pope at Anagni, south-east of Rome, where he went to receive the pallium at his consecration (1174). The north wall of a chapel in a former mithraeum there has one of the earliest fresco cycles of Becket’s life.

Nor do we see the relics from the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Four hundred years after Becket’s death, the émigré Gregory Martin (?1542-82), best known as the English translator of the Reims New Testament (1582), visited Rome shortly after the 1575 Holy Year. As a Roman Catholic exile from Elizabethan England, Martin recorded “the Dalmatic that S. Thomas of Canterbury wore, when he was martyred. Of his arm, his blood, his brain, his haircloth, and other Relics; that our countrymen may be ashamed to their condemnation, if Rome honour and esteem this English Saint and glorious Martyr more than they”.

Most of the reliquary caskets (some fifty survive) and pendants are void of their original relics and are shown here as so many objets d’art of spectacular early-13th- century Limoges enamel work and of gold craftsmanship. The very first is the largest, and a side view shows the careful construction of the intricate gable and the wealth of detail in the enamelled scenes.

We also see an imprint of Becket’s own personal seal as Archbishop, and any number of the metal souvenir pilgrim badges and ampullae for water mixed with the saint’s lifeblood.

© The Trustees of the British Museum Ampulla showing Becket between two knights, England, 13th century: it would have contained St Thomas’ Water, a concoction sold to pilgrims

To recreate the experience of visiting the cathedral itself, one of the stained-glass windows from the early 13th century, its lively scenes reassembled, is set out for us. Twelve windows in the ambulatory around Becket’s tomb depicted his life and miracles. Seven survived the worst of the depredations of the Reformation and the later damage inflicted on them by a local Puritan vicar, Richard Culmer, who ransacked the cathedral in December 1643. From the top of a ladder, “neer 60 steps high”, he admitted “rattling down proud Becket’s glassy bones”.

By then William Laud, Becket’s hapless successor, was already imprisoned in the Tower. Archbishop Laud never once mentioned Becket in his own extensive diary or correspondence.

He cannot, however, have been unaware of the martyr’s anniversary when he recorded in his diary for Thursday 30 December 1641, “the Archbishop of York, and 11 bishops more, sent to the Tower for high treason, for delivering a petition and a protestation into the House, that this was not a free parliament, since they could not come to Vote there, as they are bound, without danger of their lives.” O tempora, o mores.

The exhibition concludes with the cult of another statesman who fell out with his sovereign. A double-sided 17th-century silver portrait medal depicts St Thomas More on one side and Thomas Becket on the obverse.

© The Trustees of the British Museum Reliquary pendant showing Becket as archbishop, on the reverse of an image of St John the Baptist (England, 15th century)

I was sorry only that the exhibition does not to continue to include the revived cult after T. S. Eliot’s 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral, which inspired the 14-year-old schoolboy John Craxton to design a mural for his school chapel at Betteshanger in Kent. That work is highlighted by Ian Collins in his comprehensive biography of the artist, but the authorship of the paintings seems unknown to the Pevsner Buildings of England guide. Unhappily, Collins’s sub-editor at Yale did not preserve him from appearing to think that Becket met his fate at the hands of Henry III. The exhibition, however, makes clear that Church and State are often at odds, no matter who exercises sovereign power or sits in the throne of St Augustine.


“Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 22 August. Phone 020 7323 8000.

Pre-booking of a timed slot required, at: www.britishmuseum.org

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