Last year saw the 850th anniversary of a bloody crime in an English cathedral that would feature in art throughout medieval Europe and transform the city of Canterbury into a centre of pilgrimage: the murder of Thomas Becket. In May 2021, after delays due to the pandemic, the British Museum will open the first major exhibition on the life, death, and legacy of this figure, Archbishop of Canterbury and thorn in the side of King Henry II of England. Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint explores more than 400 years of history, drawing together objects from the British Museum’s extraordinary collection and 22 lenders from the UK and Europe. The exhibition charts Becket’s stratospheric rise to become one of the most powerful people in 12th-century England, first appointed royal chancellor to the young King Henry II and then, in 1162, Archbishop of Canterbury.
During his eight years as chancellor, Becket was a close friend of the king, part of his inner circle, but once he became archbishop his loyalties shifted and he began to oppose Henry’s authority. It led to their dramatic falling out, with dire consequences. Finally, in a shocking event no one could have predicted, Becket was murdered on 29 December 1170 by four knights from Henry’s entourage. Their violent altercation was depicted countless times over the following centuries in manuscripts, wall-paintings, stained glass, and sculpture. In recognition of his martyrdom, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III in February 1173 and was henceforth known as St Thomas of Canterbury.
We open Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint with a single object, a jewel-like casket enamelled in brilliant shades of blue, red, and green, made in Limoges, France, to contain a relic of St Thomas. It is the earliest, largest, and most magnificent of the early Becket reliquary caskets. On loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was probably made around a decade after Becket’s death and shows the archbishop attacked from behind as he faces the altar. Two monks witness the scene and throw their arms up in horror. This dramatic moment sits at the heart of the exhibition, which examines the impact of Becket’s murder, from the establishment of Canterbury as a major pilgrimage centre to the destruction of St Thomas’s shrine and near total obliteration of his cult in the 16th century.
Moving back in time, Becket’s life story is revealed, beginning with his humble origins in London, his early career, and, finally, ending with his dispute with King Henry. Few surviving objects can be directly connected to Becket, apart from a number of manuscripts he collected and left to Canterbury Cathedral, which were later dispersed during the English Reformation in the 16th century. These include classical books such as Livy’s History of Rome, contemporary works such as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (on loan from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), and biblical texts such as an illuminated and glossed copy of the Gospels containing what is possibly the only known image of Becket made during his lifetime.
A tantalising link to the man himself comes from a single surviving wax impression made from his personal seal matrix. Becket probably carried the device from which the impression was made throughout his life, and would have used it to seal private letters and authorise legal documents. Measuring just a few centimetres in diameter the impression reveals aspects of Becket’s character. The legend SIGILLVM TOME LUND says that this is the ‘seal of Thomas of London’, as he was commonly known. He probably had the matrix made before he was appointed either chancellor or archbishop, when his title was formally changed to reflect his new status. For the centre of the matrix, Becket selected a beautiful Roman gem engraved with a standing figure, possibly Apollo. It reveals his interest the classical world and his choice of a fine ancient intaglio communicated to his peers, many of whom also had seals with reused Roman gems, that he was a learned man of the moment. Below the impression are traces of fingerprints. While we cannot be certain to whom these prints belong, they were made at the time of the document’s creation and are probably those of a clerk from Becket’s household staff, one trusted enough to handle his personal seal.
Becket’s consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury was a moment when, as one of his contemporary biographers records, ‘he immediately put off the old man, and put on the hairshirt and the monk’. It was a transformation that needed some stage management: Becket was not a priest and had shown little inclination for church life. During his time as chancellor, he had donned armour and fought overseas on the king’s behalf. He also had a taste for luxury and enjoyed secular pursuits such as hunting and chess. When he was informed of the king’s plans to install him as archbishop, Becket was more than a little wary of accepting. He tried to convince Henry to nominate another candidate, but the king would not be dissuaded.
On 2 June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest and, the very next day, consecrated in a grand ceremony led by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Glastonbury. Henry, a power broker and brother to Stephen, the previous king, is shown on a 12th-century enamelled plaque in the exhibition, kneeling, holding an altar frontal and a crozier. An alabaster sculpture, made in the 15th century for an altarpiece, shows Becket during the ceremony in full archiepiscopal garb. He is seated between two officiating bishops and holds a cross-shaped crozier in one hand. Above him God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit preside, indicating that as archbishop his new role came with the highest possible endorsement.
King Henry wanted Becket to remain chancellor as well as archbishop, 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 the king. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel for what would be a prolonged exile.
After six years away, Becket returned to Canterbury in December 1170. He remained a pariah in the eyes of many. Just weeks after the archbishop’s arrival, four knights from the king’s entourage took it upon themselves to arrest him. Their plot was hatched after they witnessed Henry raging about Becket’s latest act of disregard for royal authority. On 29 December, the knights entered Canterbury. After squaring up to the archbishop in his palace, their plan quickly went awry. Becket refused to comply with the knights’ demands and made his way into the Cathedral, where it was presumed he would be safe. But they followed close behind and struck him down.
The murder took place around 4pm, when the monks were performing Vespers, the early evening prayer. The nave of the Cathedral was busy with townspeople who had gathered to hear the monks sing. It must have been a terrifying sight when the armed knights entered the church, followed by a motley entourage. Five eye-witnesses wrote down what they saw, the earliest of which was a letter composed by Becket’s clerk John of Salisbury and sent to the Bishop of Poitiers. Copies of this letter circulated throughout Europe, and John later expanded it into a life of St Thomas. One of the earliest-known images of the martyrdom, from the mid-1180s, precedes a copy of the letter in a collection of Becket’s correspondence compiled by Alan of Tewkesbury, Prior of Canterbury Cathedral. Above, Becket’s dinner is interrupted by the arrival of the knights. Below, now in the Cathedral, he is struck in the head by two of the four knights, fully armed and wielding swords. The first is Reginald FitzUrse, identified by his shield, emblazoned with the head of a bear. A small fragment of Becket’s bloody crown and a broken swordpoint fall to the ground between the archbishop and his attackers. Behind is Edward Grim, a clerk who stayed with the archbishop during the fracas and was wounded in the arm by one of the sword blows. To the right, pilgrims lie prostrate beneath Becket’s tomb and pray to the martyr for his blessing.
In the aftermath of the crime, Henry II initially showed little remorse for the knights’ actions. However, behind the scenes he took steps to prevent their male heirs from inheriting property. The king also escaped any serious punishment, except for two papal penances performed in Normandy in 1172. He visited Canterbury two years later and, in an astonishing public humiliation, walked barefoot through the city and knelt before Becket’s tomb. The king acknowledged his involvement in the crime and was punished by monks. From then on, Henry adopted St Thomas as his protector.
In some quarters, however, the king was still implicated in the archbishop’s murder. A font, made around 1191 for the parish church of Lyngsjö, in modern-day Sweden, shows an unusual depiction of Henry ordering the knights to go to Canterbury. He is shown enthroned and named by a scroll bearing the words REX HRICVS (King Henry). He points towards a knight who turns to join the other three who have already begun their attack. Becket falls down beneath their sword blows and Edward Grim remains standing at the archbishop’s side. Produced just over 20 years after Becket’s death, this sculpture demonstrates the speed with which Becket’s cult spread beyond England.
Caskets, like those made in Limoges, were taken to churches across Europe, from Sweden to Italy. A golden reliquary from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway, was made in Bergen around 1220 to hold a Becket relic. The scene of the murder, on the lower plaque, is similar to several of the earliest-known images from England, with the archbishop kneeling to face the knights and that portion of his skull and the swordpoint falling to the floor.
Meanwhile, in England, scores of miraculous cures were being attributed to Becket, and pilgrims from all over Europe visited his tomb at Canterbury. A monk named Benedict began listening to their stories and, by the end of 1173, had collected hundreds of astonishing miracles. Benedict’s text was the basis for an extraordinary image cycle of 12 stained-glass windows (known as the Miracle Windows) that decorated a purpose-built chapel, the centrepiece of which was Becket’s golden jewel-encrusted shrine. By 1220, the building was completed and, in a lavish ceremony held on 7 July, St Thomas’s relics were translated into his new shrine.
The stained-glass cycle depicted the life, death, and posthumous miracles of St Thomas of Canterbury. Seven of these windows survive in situ in Canterbury Cathedral. They are the only known representations of Becket’s miracles in any media, and reveal the myriad ways he intervened in the lives of everyday people. Folk from all walks of life suffering with a variety of illnesses are shown being cured by the saint. Many of these miracles take place away from Canterbury and, after they occur, a pilgrimage is undertaken to St Thomas’s tomb in thanksgiving. The fifth window from the series will be on loan to the exhibition, and close study as it was being prepared found that two of the panels were not in the right place, probably having been swapped during a hasty reinstalment after vandalism in the 17th century.
Among the more sensational stories depicted in the window is that of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of minor theft who was sentenced to castration and blinding. Following his severe punishment, St Thomas appears to Eilward in a vision and heals him. The next morning Eilward wakes to find that his eyes and testicles have grown back. He makes a pilgrimage to Canterbury to give thanks, telling all along the way of his miraculous restoration.
When arriving at the Cathedral, pilgrims like Eilward drank St Thomas’s Water, a mixture of Becket’s heavily diluted blood. It was prepared by the monks and was also used to bathe afflicted body parts. Many pilgrims consumed St Thomas’s Water there and then, but others took it home to give to sick relatives. Ampullae, small tin-alloy flasks, were made to hold this precious liquid and were worn around the neck as a sign of a completed pilgrimage. Large numbers survive, many discovered in the River Thames, but others have been found as far afield as Norway, the Netherlands, and France. As complex works of miniature sculpture, they reveal fascinating aspects of St Thomas’s early cult. One, dating from around 1200, shows Becket standing between two knights. On the reverse is his martyrdom, with the Latin inscription: ‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick.’
For centuries, St Thomas’s popularity remained undiminished. The journey to his shrine from London was made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century. Chaucer describes a group of bawdy pilgrims who meet at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, where they spend the night before making their way to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. To pass the time on the road, they tell a series of tales, in a contest set by the innkeeper. One of the earliest collections of Chaucer’s work is on loan from Cambridge University Library. A number of the pilgrims are illustrated in the manuscript, including the Wife of Bath, who also travelled to shrines in Jerusalem, Spain, and Germany. Chaucer’s text remained unfinished and thus his characters never arrived at the Cathedral, but for real pilgrims the experience must have been otherworldly: the church filled with the sound of singing, the smell of incense, and breathtaking works of art, from stained glass to sculpture.
After visiting St Thomas’s shrine, pilgrims purchased a souvenir to take home in the form of small lead-alloy badges that were pinned to their clothing. Thousands of badges from Canterbury survive, from miniature versions of the murder weapon to copies of the shrine itself.
In the 16th century, St Thomas’s fortunes changed dramatically. For hundreds of years, English royalty had been devoted to him, from Henry II to Henry VIII. His status was that of one of England’s most important saints. But everything changed in 1538 when, in a shock move, St Thomas’s shrine was destroyed, possibly in the presence of Henry VIII. The order probably came from Henry’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell, a religious reformer who condemned pilgrimages and the veneration of saints’ relics. The gold, silver, and gems decorating the shrine were stripped away and taken back to London. A rumour also spread that Becket’s relics were burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.
The marble base of the shrine was smashed into pieces, but traces of it can still be found. In 1984, three architectural capitals were discovered on the bank of the River Stour in Canterbury. How they got there remains a mystery, but they are made from a rare pink marble, which was exclusively used in the area around Becket’s shrine. These fragments are some of the last remnants of what was once among the most sumptuously decorated structures in England, and the destination of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Europe.
Just months after the shrine’s destruction, a royal proclamation declared that St Thomas was no longer a saint and ordered that his name and image be erased across the country. Sculptures of Becket were taken down and destroyed, his name was crossed out of manuscripts and illuminations cut out from books. Some, however, defied these instructions. For example, an alabaster sculpture of Becket’s martyrdom, made between 1350 and 1375, was removed from a church, possibly Beauchief Abbey, and protected. Despite the rulings made under Henry VIII, and subsequent attacks on the cult during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, Becket’s murder continued to resonate in the 1500s, as those who opposed the Crown were executed and proclaimed martyrs. Becket’s memory was kept alive through the devotion of Catholics and those seeking a model of opposition to unbridled power.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is due to open at the British Museum in May. It runs until 22 August 2021. Visit www.britishmuseum.org/becket for updates and 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).