Thomas Becket: troublesome or over-promoted?

The British Museum is recovering from the covid lockdown in grand style, with two major exhibitions opening one after the other: the first on Thomas Beckett for the Medievalists and then for the Romanists — Nero (AD 54 – 68). In this opinion piece, Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk offers his perspective on the 'troublesome priest'.

Today (18th May 2021) was jolly nearly a disaster. It was the day after the first phase of ending Covid lockdown restrictions, and I had it down in my diary as being the press day for the opening of the Nero exhibition at the British Museum. So we decided to celebrate. I put on my best suit and bow tie for the first time in over a year, and ventured out into the big wide world and down to the British Museum.

But when we got there: disaster. We were a week too early. The Becket exhibition opened yesterday, but Nero does not open for another week. Nonetheless, the gatekeeper took pity on us and let us in: why not see the Becket exhibition instead? So we made our way in and investigated Thomas Becket.

The King arguing with his insolent archbishop. The King left is jabbing his fingers against his palm to emphasise his point. But the archbishop brushes his argument aside with his hand.

But, oh dear! They have got Thomas Becket all wrong. The real disaster of the Middle Ages was the constant battle between church and state. The church was far too powerful, and always undermining the kings; as a result, the Middle Ages are a terrible muddle (see Wars of the Roses). However, Henry II was a not-bad king, as kings go, and he found a bright young civil servant called Thomas Becket who he promoted at a young age to be Chancellor, what we would call Prime Minister. He then thought that Becket would be the ideal person to bring the church to heel, so he made him Archbishop of Canterbury, even though he wasn’t actually a priest at the time.

A casket showing the murder of Becket, who is standing before the altar and being assaulted by four armed men. These caskets produced to hold relics are among the finest masterpieces of Medieval art. They were mostly produced in France around Limoges. This one went to Southern Italy and was stuffed with lead pilgrims’ flasks and relics.

But then Becket ratted on him and began taking the side of the church and being generally obnoxious. Henry in a loose moment exclaimed, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’, and a couple of young hotheads took him literally and didn’t quite realise that this is the sort of thing that kings are apt to say in unguarded moments, and went off and topped Becket in his cathedral, which was a very silly thing to do.

For Henry, this was a disaster. If only he had been a little stronger, he might have ridden it out. After all, the Pope was not in a very strong position, having only just escaped from imprisonment under the King of France, but Henry copped out and had to admit that he, or his knights, were wrong so he had to do abasement. One thinks of the fall of the Roman Empire, when Honorius came under the power of Bishop Ambrose and was forced to persecute the Christians; twenty years later, Rome fell. However, Becket’s death was a wonderful PR opportunity for the church which they exploited in a brilliant campaign, and for the rest of the Middle Ages Becket was one of the best and most effective propaganda stories. And the church became even more powerful.

After the murder, Becket was hastily buried in case the knights were to return to steal the body. Here we see the sorrowing monks burying the archbishop still in his archbishop’s clothing.

The end of the story is Henry VIII. He was the first king powerful enough to overthrow the dominance of the church, though his dissolution of the monasteries was perhaps a little too over-the-top. But he realized that Becket was a dangerously powerful image, and the exhibition concludes with an account of how he set about debunking the Becket cult. In a way, I began to feel slightly more sympathetic to Henry VIII; the church was extremely powerful and if you are to oppose it, I suppose you must be ruthless.

This window from Canterbury Cathedral shows the miracle of Eilward of Westoning. It begins centre left where Eilward is accused of robbery – you can see his swag on his back – and is taken before the judge on the left. His punishment is seen centre right where he is held down by planks and on his left his eyes are gouged out, and on the right his testicles are being removed. However, top centre, Thomas Becket appears from a church in the sky and performs a miracle and restores both his eyes and his testicles. The final panel, bottom centre, shows him fully restored with one hand, pointing to his eyes while he is giving alms with his other hand and a bystander point to his nether regions. Behind is the tree of life, showing that his virility is fully restored despite his castration. The top centre panel had been misplaced in another window.

Mind you, despite its bias, it’s a pretty good exhibition. The highlights are four windows from Canterbury Cathedral, but they had me puzzled. The colours are so vibrant, particularly the blues and the greens. Can they really be genuine? New College Oxford, is sometimes considered to have some of the best medieval glass, though secretly I always thought it was a little dull. Surely they could not make such vibrant colours in the Middle Ages?  

The cathedral was rebuilt after a great fire in 1174, and at the far east end, beyond the altar, a grandiose tomb of the saint was erected, and around the tomb were 12 long narrow windows, each 6 m tall, each consisting of four roundels of glass. Seven of these windows have miraculously survived, and one of them, the fifth, has been dismantled and  brought to the museum, where each of the four roundels are displayed separately side by side where they can be viewed in detail.

Usually most Becket displays of the death and martyrdom of the saint, these windows show the miracles that were performed through his virtue. Many miracles were recorded after his death, the foremost chronicler being Benedict of Peterborough, who in the years from 1171 to 1173 recorded 275 miracles. This must be one of the most successful PR exercises ever.

Three ampulae, lead bottles to contain St Thomas’s holy water. The one to the left is in the form of a ship.

The most successful souvenir for the pilgrimage to Canterbury was St Thomas’s Water, which was holy water suffused with the blood of St Thomas. This was put in a lead container known as an ampulla. The monks were at first rather reluctant to drink blood, but when they saw how may miracles were performed by drinking the water, they forgot their scruples and dispensed it freely. Another popular souvenir to put in the caskets was a small fragment of St Thomas’s clothing, again suffused with traces of his blood.

The cult of the saints spread rapidly throughout Europe. Here in the bottom register we see the murder of the saint kneeling in front of the altar, while the top register shows the adoration of the Magi. Becket became particularly popular in Scandanavia, where this casket with its Scandanavian dragon handles is preserved in the Hedalen Stave Church.

And then there are the caskets, many of them coming from Limoges. They are all wonderfully bright – there must have been some very clever artisans in Limoges – and over 50 of them have survived.

The cult spread very rapidly. Becket was killed in 1170, and by 1173 he was canonised as a Saint – one of the most rapid canonizations ever. He was popular not only in Britain but throughout Europe.

All images: Andrew Selkirk.