Parallels have been drawn between the Brexit debate and the arguments that raged in the 12th century over sovereignty, with Pope Gregory VII (also known as Hildebrand) seeking to assert the authority of the Church over all the secular rulers of Christendom. Fortunately, even in the most fraught discussions about whether national or EU courts should have supremacy in any post-Brexit trade deal, no politician has inflicted a fatal sword blow on an opponent. It was different in December 1170, when Henry II is said to have lost his temper on learning that Becket had excommunicated the Archbishop of York and three other bishops because they had supported the king in an escalating row over whether monks and priests should be subject to secular or ecclesiastical courts.
The king is said to have described the members of his household as ‘miserable drones and traitors’ for allowing ‘their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low- born cleric’. Later historians polished the phrase to give it greater rhetorical force. The claim that the king asked ‘Who will deliver me from this turbulent priest?’ first appears in the History of the Life of King Henry the Second (1772) by George Lyttleton, and the phrase has been associated with Becket’s murder ever since.
From martyrdom to miracles
Whatever words the king actually used, and whether he meant them rhetorically (as he subsequently claimed) or as a subtly veiled command, Henry II was realistic enough to understand that he had lost the argument by resorting to violence, and he accepted the blame for the assassination. The Church regarded Becket’s murder as all the more heinous because it took place in the house of God. That was probably not an accident. According to the account written by Edward Grim, who witnessed the murder and published his version as Vita Sancti Thomae (Life of St Thomas, c.1180), Becket fled to the safety of the cathedral once he was aware that an attempt would be made on his life. Perhaps the Archbishop calculated that if he could not avoid martyrdom, he could at least maximise the shock value by forcing the assassins to kill him in a place of holiness and sanctuary.
One wonders too about the degree of calculation that went into the response of Becket’s fellow clerics to the murder. It is impossible to disentangle truth from propaganda at this distance in time, but Becket’s biographers and chroniclers (including William FitzStephen, d. c.1191, and Benedict of Peterborough, d. 1193) tell us that the murdered Becket’s clothes were removed and distributed to the poor with the result that the first posthumous miracle occurred within 24 hours of his martyrdom. To us, the events sound macabre: a strip of blood-stained cloth was soaked in water that was given to a paralysed woman to drink, resulting in an instant cure. We are also told that, when the monks removed Becket’s outer garments, they found he was wearing a lice-infested hair shirt – clear evidence of self-imposed penance to set against those who accused him of enjoying an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle.
Because of the sacrilegious act that had been committed within the cathedral, the Church dictated that the building be closed for a year while it underwent ritual cleansing. John of Salisbury, one of the monks who was with Becket when he was killed, nevertheless claimed to have witnessed a series of miracles in the cathedral that same year. Early in 1171, he wrote a letter to his friend, the Bishop of Poitiers, in which he said: ‘in the place where Thomas suffered, and where he lay the night through before the high altar awaiting burial and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, those possessed of a devil are freed, and the sick are made whole from all manner of disease’. Was John lying, or did the monks allow people access to the cathedral despite the suspension of services? Without doubt, the contents of the letter, widely circulated, formed part of a dedicated campaign by Canterbury clerics to establish Becket as a miracle-worker and secure his earliest possible canonisation.
The campaign succeeded in stirring up even greater popular demand for access to Becket’s tomb, so the crypt in which he had been buried below the Trinity Chapel at the extreme eastern end of the cathedral was reopened. The Canterbury monks then heard rumours of a royal plot to suppress the cult by capturing Becket’s body, so they barred the doors to the crypt for a short while and built a more secure solid marble casing.
Benedict of Peterborough was appointed as custodian, with responsibility for recording every miracle claimed by visiting pilgrims. The monks freely distributed a mixture of holy water and the saint’s diluted blood to the crowds who flocked to the site, and tin ampullae and phials could also be bought to carry the liquid to those too infirm to visit Canterbury themselves – several examples are displayed in the exhibition. Many of the miracles attributed to Becket occurred as a result of consuming St Thomas’ Water, as it was known – a risky new direction for a cult to take, because it echoed the consumption of Christ’s blood at Communion and could easily have been seen as blasphemous, though it seems to have worked.
In 1538, Thomas Cranmer ordered an investigation into a phial of Becket’s blood and concluded that ‘it is but a feigned thing and made of some red ochre or of such like matter’, but the people of the 12th century were more willing to believe, and some 700 miracle stories had been gathered by 1173 – an unprecedented number. John of Salisbury was sent to Rome to present the miracle dossier to Pope Alexander III, who officially recognised Becket as a saint on 21 February 1173, in one of the fastest canonisations in Church history.
Henry II meanwhile sought to distance himself from the murder, which his enemies at home and abroad were seeking to exploit. Among the objects on display in the British Museum exhibition are ten reliquary caskets made within the first few decades of Becket’s death, depicting scenes from his martyrdom and burial. More than 50 such caskets survive in museums and private collections across Europe, from Sweden to Sicily, and there were probably many more, all demonstrating how quickly and widely the cult of Becket spread. From Scotland to Spain, European monarchs supported the French King Louis VII’s call for ‘the sword of St Peter to be unleashed to avenge the martyr of Canterbury’. In fact, Henry was officially exonerated after a carefully stage-managed public performance on 21 May 1172, in which he swore on the Gospels that he had not sought Becket’s death. Perhaps more persuasively, as far as the pope was concerned, he promised to rescind any measures that had been passed during his reign that the Church deemed to be harmful to its interests.
In theological terms, Henry got off lightly, but he still faced war and rebellion at home and abroad from those who sought to further their own ambitions by claiming to have the martyr on their side in seeking vengeance for the spilling of sacred blood. On 12 July 1174, Henry visited Canterbury as a penitential pilgrim wanting, in the words of one of Becket’s biographers, to ‘make his peace with the martyr’. In another well-planned performance, he walked barefoot from St Dunstan’s church to the cathedral, stripped of his royal accoutrements and wearing only his undergarments. At Becket’s tomb, he invited the monks to scourge him with reeds – inflicting symbolic humiliation rather than physical pain. He spent the night in prayer at the tomb. The next day Henry learned that his forces had captured William the Lion, King of Scots, and defeated his army after they had invaded Northumberland. Within weeks the rebellion at home had also collapsed. It was widely perceived that St Thomas had accepted the king’s repentance and had intervened on his behalf.
By undergoing ritual humiliation and visiting Becket’s shrine, Henry successfully aligned himself with Thomas and his cult, and he followed this up with lavish gifts to Canterbury, an annual grant of £40 a year, and the founding of monasteries dedicated to St Thomas at Waltham Abbey, Amesbury, and Newstead. He made nine further visits to Becket’s tomb between 1174 and his death in 1189, the most remarkable of which was the occasion in the summer of 1179 when Henry played host to his former enemy, King Louis VII of France, at Dover Castle, and accompanied ‘his most dear brother’ on a pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine where the kings prayed together.
Becket had sought refuge at the court of Louis VII in 1164 when he escaped to France to avoid being put on trial by Henry. Now Louis VII’s son and heir, the 14-year-old Philip, was gravely ill and the French king decided to travel to Canterbury to pray at Becket’s shrine. No king of France had ever visited England before – indeed, this has been claimed as the first official visit by a foreign head of state in English history – and no king had ever before visited a ‘foreign’ shrine other than Rome and Jerusalem. Becket’s shrine was now unquestionably one of the foremost pilgrimage destinations in the Christian world.
From devotion to destruction
The cathedral and shrine that Louis VII visited must have resembled a building site, because on 5 September 1174, eight weeks after Henry II’s first pilgrimage and vigil, the cathedral caught fire and the interior was gutted. Rather than regard this as a portent and a warning against idolatry, the cathedral authorities saw this as an opportunity to celebrate Canterbury’s ancient status as England’s primary church and promote the Becket cult by constructing a colossal new building with a purpose-built shrine, employing Europe’s finest masons, glaziers, sculptors, and painters. It took ten years just to construct the new shell of the building, and 50 years to complete the entire project, but this did not deter pilgrims from visiting and many of them made generous donations to the cost of the new construction.
Twelve magnificent stained-glass windows were commissioned for the new shine. Five were later destroyed – the ones depicting Becket’s life and martyrdom – but parts of seven have survived, showing the miracles attributed to Thomas. One of these – measuring 20 feet (6m) tall and more than 7 feet (2m) wide – forms a highlight of the British Museum exhibition. Begun in the 1180s and finished in 1220, these Miracle Windows were based on Benedict of Peterborough’s dossier compiled between 1171 and 1173, and therefore record the earliest of the miracles, the ones that contributed to Becket’s canonisation. They include vivid scenes of lepers being cured after being bathed in St Thomas’ Water, as well as the longest and most popular of the stories collected in the early years of the cult, the dramatic story of Eilward of Westoning (a royal manor near Bedford).
The unfortunate Eilward was falsely accused of stealing various items from a neighbour, and having failed an ordeal by water (he floated rather than sinking, a sure sign of demonic aid) he was sentenced to be blinded and castrated. One of the panels shows the grisly punishment being carried out. Another shows Becket appearing to Eilward in a dream, at which point his eyes and testicles were restored. A final panel shows Eilward walking to Canterbury to give thanks to the saint, pointing to his restored eyes with one hand when he meets a group of fellow pilgrims, and placing a coin in a beggar’s bowl with the other; a suggestively shaped tree between his legs symbolises his restored fertility.
That these windows have survived at all is itself a miracle, given the thoroughness with which Henry VIII sought to eradicate all evidence of Thomas’ cult, branding him ‘a traitor to the Crown’. The king personally supervised the destruction of Becket’s shrine between 5 and 7 September 1538, as workmen stripped it of its gold casing and jewellery. The bones from Becket’s shrine disappeared and were never seen again. It was rumoured that the remains were burned on a pyre and the ashes scattered to the wind. Pope Paul III certainly believed this to be true, as he made specific reference to it in the papal bull published on 17 December that same year by means of which Henry was excommunicated.
Not that Henry cared: on 16 November, he had issued an uncompromising proclamation: ‘from henceforth’, he decreed, ‘Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and that his images and pictures throughout the realm shall be put down’. His name was erased from books, statues were broken up, stained glass smashed, and paintings were whitewashed or scored with sharp tools to scratch away Becket’s face. Thomas Cranmer’s copy of the Life of Becket, displayed in the exhibition, has the words ‘saint’ and ‘martyr’ scored out. Cranmer ordered a new seal matrix depicting the Crucifixion in place of Becket’s martyrdom, an image that had featured on the seal of every archbishop of Canterbury since 1193. Dark ink was smeared over prayer books to render the Mass for St Thomas unreadable.
The fate meted out to the veneration of Becket was later visited on many more cults that the king raided for his treasury – all with the sanction of Protestant reformers who saw them as the means by which the Church enriched itself at the expense of the credulous and needy – but Becket was one of the first to suffer this form of damnation. The destruction of the shrine and of Becket’s remains has been described as a second martyrdom, and it is true that the battle for supremacy between pope and king in which Becket was caught up was as ferocious in the mid-16th century as it had been in Becket’s day. The truth of that is evidenced in the last words of St Thomas More on the scaffold. When condemned to death for refusing to acknowledge royal supremacy over Church affairs, he quoted Becket’s words to the effect that he was a loyal servant to the king but above that he was a servant of God. Becket was widely seen as a defender of church freedoms, and Henry destroyed the shrine to prevent it developing into a rallying point for those opposed to the king’s religious agenda.
The success of this damnatio memoriae is clear from the exhibition in the fact that many of the objects on display come from overseas collections, beyond the reach of Henry’s destructive proclamation, or – like the many pilgrim badges and ampullae on display – they represent more recent archaeological finds. Other relics were hidden or smuggled to the Continent – like the fragment of Becket’s cranium that forms the final exhibit, smuggled for safekeeping to the English Jesuit College in St-Omer, France, in the late 16th century.
Another consequence is that we do not know what Becket’s shrine looked like. In the Miracle Windows, the shrine is depicted in conventional terms as a plain marble oblong with holes in the sides to enable pilgrims to touch the coffin within. Written descriptions tell us that it was far more elaborate, though, with a base of rose-pink marble and an upper tier consisting of a gilded jewel-encrusted casket containing the saint’s remains. An idea of the richness of the casket can be judged by the fact that Henry VIII’s workmen filled two large chests during its dismantling, and six to eight men were required to lift each chest and carry it from the cathedral to the carts that conveyed the treasure to London. One of the gems – the Regale of France, given by Louis VII in 1179 and described as a ruby ‘half the size of a hen’s egg’ – was made into a ring that Henry VIII can be seen wearing in some portraits.
Eleven fragments of the shrine base have survived, including four that were recovered from the River Stour as recently as 1984. The rose-pink marble used for the columns and capitals of the base is unique to the shrine – it was chosen to symbolise Becket’s miracle-working blood, but the source of the stone has never been identified. What remains is the site of Becket’s shrine, marked by a single candle and a sumptuously decorated floor of precious stones, rivalled only by the Cosmatesque mosaic pavements at Westminster Abbey made for the shrine of Edward the Confessor (see CA 359).
It is to this site that modern pilgrims continue to come in numbers at least as great as in the Middle Ages, following routes such as the 153-mile Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury, or setting out on the much more ambitious 1,000-mile Via Francigena, linking Canterbury to Rome. The fact that they continue to come is testament to the power of Becket’s story, which has inspired numerous literary works, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (represented in the exhibition by a manuscript copy open at the page that illustrates the Wife of Bath) to T S Eliot’s dramatic play Murder in the Cathedral, based on Edward Grim’s eye-witness account of the event, and not forgetting Jean Anouilh’s play Becket (1959), which was turned into a film in 1964 with a stellar cast, including Richard Burton as Becket, Peter O’Toole as Henry II, and John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France.
Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint, The British Museum, £35, ISBN 978-0714128382.
The exhibition of the same name runs at the British Museum until 22 August 2021; see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/thomas-becket-murder-and-making-saint for more details. You can hear the curators in conversation with Calum Henderson of The Past in a previous episode of The PastCast podcast.
ALL images: Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise stated.