Interview: how the British Museum brought Becket back to life

On a recent edition of our podcast, the curators of the British Museum's new show shared some of the excitement behind the scenes as they prepared for its opening.

Delayed from last year by the pandemic, the British Museum’s major new exhibition marking the 850th anniversary of the assassination of Thomas Becket has finally opened (on 20 May) to rave reviews from critics and members of the public alike.

Bringing together more than 100 objects from museums, churches, and private collections across Europe, ‘Thomas Becket: Murder and the making of a saint’ powerfully evokes the medieval era as it explores the life, death, and legacy of Henry II’s ‘turbulent priest’.

On a recent edition of the PastCast, the unmissable new podcast from The Past, the show’s curators Lloyd De Beer and Naomi Speakman shared some of the excitement behind the scenes as they prepared for its opening.

Here, they explain how the accounts of contemporary eyewitnesses helped historians develop a unique insight into Britain’s most notorious political assassination, and how the grisly events of 20 December 1170 led to the creation of Canterbury Cathedral’s spectacular Miracle Windows, one of which is now an undoubted highlight of the British Museum show.

On how a plethora of contemporary eyewitness accounts allowed us to build up such a vivid picture of Becket’s brutal murder:

Naomi Speakman: ‘It’s quite incredible for an event that took place 850 years ago that we can recount what happened in such detail – even to the extent of putting words into the mouths of Becket’s four killers. Becket was killed in the late afternoon as Vespers took place, so Canterbury Cathedral was full of monks and townspeople – and though many fled when the knights arrived, we do have five eyewitness accounts – including that of Edward Grim, a clerk who came to Becket’s defence and who nearly had his arm severed by a sword blow.

‘There are some discrepancies between the accounts – it’s important to remember it was the middle of winter and it was dark by this point, so identifying exactly what happened is potentially quite tricky if you were kneeling behind a tomb looking on. But they all agree on a core set of facts – particularly in terms of how gruesome and how bloody Becket’s death was and also how he stood up to the knights.

Illumination showing Becket’s martyrdom from a manuscript containing Alan of Tewkesbury’s Collection of St Thomas Becket’s Letters and John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket, mid-1180s. Size (closed): 32.5 x 22cm

‘We can even put words into the mouths of the killers, and that is one of the things that makes this story so evocative today. This is not just a historical event but almost like a true-crime drama. We know, for example, that when the knights ran away, they pushed people out of their way with the flats of their swords, shouting “King’s knights! King’s men!”

‘One of the most chilling quotes we have is from a clerk who accompanied the knights on the day, and who became known as “Mauclerk” or “evil clerk” because of his involvement. Following the attack, during which the back of Becket’s head was cut away from his body, this Mauclerk flicked some of the archbishop’s brains out on to the flagstones, which were covered with blood, and said to the knights: “Let us go. This fellow will not get up again.” It’s quite a chilling thing to say, as the most senior churchman in the country is lying dead on the flagstones.’

On one of the highlights of the new exhibition, the loan of one of Canterbury Cathedral’s famous Miracle Windows, the stained-glass cycle depicting the life, death, and posthumous miracles of St Thomas of Canterbury:

Lloyd de Beer: ‘We are really excited about sharing this particular loan with the public – of an entire 6-metre-tall stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral. The windows were created after a tragic fire in 1174 – when the plan was to rebuild the east end of the cathedral on an even greater scale, and to centre the scheme around the burgeoning cult of Thomas Becket, who was made a saint in 1173.

‘The window we have in the exhibition is one of 12 6-metre windows made to surround the new shrine. What the windows show is the story of the life and death of Thomas Becket and also the miracle stories collected at Canterbury after his death by two monks, Benedict of Peterborough and William. These include accounts of all manner of healings for whatever ailed people, from swollen stomachs and loss of eyesight to more extraordinary illnesses that people were dying from.

The Miracle Windows in the southern side of Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral. PHOTO: David Iliff [CC BY-SA 3.0].

‘The windows are very beautiful, made by some of the greatest glaziers in 12th-century Europe, with intensely rich blues and reds and greens and whites, and when they are backlit, as at the exhibition, you can really admire the beauty of the glass as well as the stories that they show.

‘The section of the window on loan to the British Museum which tells the story of a peasant who had been blinded and castrated is one of the most popular and one of my all-time favourites. It tells the story of a man who was involved in a drunken brawl with his neighbour and was accused of stealing some very low-value items. He is sentenced at a trial by ordeal, which he fails, and then to blinding and castration – and you see all this in the glass, so you really sympathise with the poor man!

‘In the next scene, we see Becket appearing to him in a vision and making the sign of the cross – and when the man awakes, his lost testicles have grown back and his eyesight has returned too. In one of the later scenes, we see the man proselytising on behalf of the miracle that had happened to him, and between his legs a tall tree has grown up to symbolise his restored fertility. It’s a sensational story but it also makes an overarching political point – that secular justice may let you down, but you can always put your trust in Becket…’

Listen to the full episode of the PastCast on Thomas Becket, with Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, here. You can also read an article on the exhibition in a recent issue of Minerva magazine here.
Further information
Thomas Becket: Murder and the making of a saint runs at the British Museum until 22 August 2021. Visit their website for more information. An abundantly illustrated book accompanying the exhibition, written by Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, is available from British Museum Press (ISBN 978-0714128382, price £35).