Thomas Becket: Troublesome priest or people’s martyr?

Images above (1): An early 15th century alabaster panel showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Images above (2): Silver statue with sword in head. Saints were often portrayed with the manner of their martyrdom, which made it easier for the largely illiterate populace to recognise them. For St Thomas Becket, it is the fatal sword in his skull. This 17th century silver statue once carried a smaller reliquary with, it was believed, a fragment of skull. Photograph: Henri de Flemalle, © The British Jesuit Province.

Caitlin McCall has been to see the Becket exhibition at the British Museum

The British Museum is easily in my top five places in London, a hop and a skip from Chiswick by Tube. At the end of May, they reopened their doors after the interminable lockdown to a fabulous exhibition, Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint that is well worth the trip.

Postponed from the end of last year, it was originally timed to mark the 850th anniversary of his shocking murder on 29 December 1170, and charts his extraordinary journey from secular obscurity to the upper echelons in the pantheon of Christian saints.

In life, Thomas Becket was not a man to shy away from conflict. In death, this commoner who dared challenge a king became a symbol of the struggle between Church and State.

Cut down in front of the altar at Canterbury Cathedral by four knights eager to impress their king, the repercussions of his violent death reverberated down the centuries and well beyond the shores of this kingdom, generating shock and outrage in equal measure.

Almost immediately, fantastic tales of his miraculous interventions spread like wildfire through the land. His swift canonization was assured, following just two years later.

Images above (1): A window into Becket’s world as a child: these cattle shin bones, from the 12th century, were strapped to shoes as makeshift skates, and show wear from use on the ice. 

Images above (2): Thomas Becket’s seal, when he was Thomas of London. Close up examination reveals a fingerprint, which may well be Becket’s own.

Who was Thomas Becket, and why has he remained one of the Church’s most popular saints?

Little is known of his early years other than that he was born in about 1120, into a French merchant family living in Cheapside, London. His childhood would have been a comfortable one, and a section of the exhibition that gives us a tantalizing glimpse into his 12th century world includes a pair of cattle shin bones, adapted as skates and worn smooth on the frozen waters of nearby Moorefield marshes.

We know he spent a few years in Paris as a teenager, and the exhibition picks up his story when he becomes a clerk to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1154. At the time, Canterbury was a vibrant centre for the arts and learning, and Becket took advantage of his position to gain valuable legal and diplomatic training.

One of my favourite artefacts on display here is his counterseal, inscribed SIGILLVM TOME LUNDI – “seal of Thomas of London”`. But note the impression in the middle, which is made by a Roman gem carved with the figure of Apollo – I wonder if he knew the gem’s ancestry. Then, look closely: to the left at the bottom, you can just make out fingerprints. Becket’s own?

He spent nine years here, and clearly created a strong impression, because when the newly crowned Henry II was looking to appoint a royal chancellor, Theobald recommended Becket for the role. A friendship blossomed swiftly between the young king and Becket. But, while his elevated position brought him wealth and status, it also brought him enemies amongst the nobility, who resented the rapid rise of this low-born nobody.

Image above: Was Becket carrying this recently rediscovered 10th century book of psalms when he was killed? Now in the Parker Library in Cambridge, we know it was kept in the Cathedral following his death, and a 15th century inscription cites it as belonging to Thomas Becket.

State or Church?

The King, meanwhile, had still greater ambitions for his new friend. When Archbishop Theobald died in 1162, Henry decided Becket would take his place. It must have caused a few scratched heads, as hitherto, Becket had shown little inclination for religious matters and was certainly not a member of the clergy – the most basic prerequisite for the role.

But to Henry it made perfect sense: by conferring the roles of both Chancellor and Archbishop on his man, he would ensure royal control over the considerable influence – and wealth – of the Church in England. So, Becket was promptly ordained as a priest and the following day consecrated as the highest-ranking member of the Church in England.

A beautiful painted alabaster altarpiece commemorates the occasion. Dated to about 1425-1450 and on loan from a private collection, the central figure of Becket in a red robe is flanked by two bishops and watched over from above by the Holy Trinity, and a couple of angels.

Longstanding members of the clergy were unimpressed. They would have spent many years studying the scriptures, and were scornful of their new Archbishop’s superficial grasp of theological works along with his lack of fluency in spoken Latin.

However, let me direct you to a very different book in the exhibition, a charming little Psalter recently identified as not only belonging to Thomas Becket but quite possibly on his person when he was cut down in the cathedral. Overlooked for centuries, it was rediscovered by an academic who matched the detailed description of a psalter from the Sacrists’ Roll of Canterbury Cathedral, dating to 1321, with a manuscript stored in the Parker Library in Cambridge.

Though not as knowledgeable in the scriptures as his fellow clergy, we know Becket put together a considerable library and was well-versed in Church law. It was this that led to his fatal falling-out with the King.

Under Church law, errant clergy accused of a crime, however heinous, were tried by the Church, rather than in a secular court; and if punishments were handed out, they tended to be either token or certainly much lighter than any a layman might expect.

Henry wanted to end this practice but the Church resisted. With his own man in place, he was confident of success. But in a shock move, Becket did an about-face. Embracing his new role as Archbishop, he renounced the chancellorship. Henry saw this as a betrayal of their friendship, and for two years there was any uneasy stand-off before Becket tipped the balance by excommunicating a clutch of bishops who had sided with the King.

Images above (1): An alabaster scene, made for an altarpiece and dating the early 15th century, was one of a series telling the story of Becket’s life and death. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Images above (2): Bone fragment said to be of Thomas Becket’s skull, set in a 12th century ornate reliquary. Such items were believed capable of miraculous interventions on behalf of the deserving. Photograph: British Museum, © British Jesuit Province

Gruesome murder

Already unpopular amongst the nobility, Becket’s fate was sealed when Henry decried the actions of “this low-born clerk”, and four over-excited knights grabbed their swords and set off for Canterbury.

There was nothing clandestine or subtle about the four men. The belligerent knights rowdily announced their arrival as they burst into the Cathedral where Becket had sought sanctuary. Five eye-witnesses recorded in graphic detail what happened next: the first sword blow sliced off a fragment of Becket’s skull, almost certainly killing him outright, before the rest piled in. The force of the attack was enough to shatter one of the sword blades, and by the time the four had finished, their victim lay in a pool of blood, bone and brains.

The attack sent shockwaves across the country: Thomas Becket was one of the most famous people in the country at the time, and his murder, gruesome and violent, had taken place in the holiest place in England.

Moreover, his attackers, careless of witnesses, were brazen, clearly assuming they would go unsanctioned. News spread fast, and as Becket’s body was being placed on the altar, people flocked in to salvage pieces of his blood-soaked clothing, belongings, even pieces of bone.

You have to remember the beliefs of the times: superstition was rife, and such relics were supposed to possess holy powers. Thanks to the large number of people in and around the Cathedral on the day, wondrous tales of their miraculous powers of healing were soon circulating broadly, and within just two years, Thomas Becket was canonised.

Some of these cures are commemorated on the stunning stained glass window on loan from Canterbury Cathedral, which rightly takes pride of place in the exhibition. It is the fifth in a series of 12 six-metre high windows of which only seven now survive. Called the Miracle Windows, they once surrounded the Becket’s shrine before it was destroyed by fire in 1174, and depict miracles performed on ordinary citizens by the saint shortly after his murder.

Not only are they glorious examples of the highest quality medieval art, but some of the stories they tell are simply terrific. Take Eilward of Westoning, for example: accused of theft, he is punished by being blinded and castrated – harsh by anyone’s standards. But St Thomas appears to him in a dream, and on the final panel of his tale, we see both his sight and his testicles have been miraculously restored.

Image above: Castration panel; detail showing the terrible punishment endured by Eilward of Westoning, dressed in yellow as he is blinded and castrated. A following panel shows him fully restored, thanks to St Thomas’s intervention.

Saintly legacy

Becket was very much ‘the people’s saint’, interceding on behalf of the common person. His shrine remained a popular pilgrimage destination for centuries, as witnessed by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – look out for the beautifully illustrated 15th century edition of Chaucer’s work, along with intriguing examples of pilgrim memorabilia. And, as one of Europe’s top pilgrimage destinations, Canterbury became a money-spinner for the Church.

The wave of anger through the country forced Henry II into public displays of sorrow and repentance. Though enduringly popular with the people, future kings continued to view St Thomas as a subversive figurehead because of his reputation for defending the Church against the State.

Centuries later, in 1538, Henry VIII, denounced him as a traitor and ordered his shrine be destroyed. Laws were passed forbidding veneration of him as a saint, and references to him were removed or obliterated in theological texts. You can see the defaced books covering sections of text devoted to St Thomas. A chunk of rose-pink marble that probably belonged to the base of the shrine, is one of three recovered from the River Stour, Canterbury, in 1984, and all that has been found of his once magnificent shrine.

And perhaps Henry VIII was right to worry about this “troublesome priest”; his own chancellor, Sir Thomas More, likewise refused to put the State before the Church, choosing death before compromise. Parallels were drawn between the two St Thomases, as illustrated by the 17th century silver pendant showing Becket on one side, and More on the other.

It may be his defiance of authority, it may be the dramatic manner of his death, but whatever the reason, St Thomas Becket has captured the public’s imagination throughout the ages. Now, thanks to the splendid exhibition at the British Museum, we can get to know the man who became one of the country’s most famous and most popular saints.

Image above: Entire miracle window. The fifth window from the series of the Miracle windows at Canterbury Cathedral, created in the 1200s at the east end of Canterbury Cathedral where Becket’s shrine was placed. They tell the story of his life, death and miracles. This window, the fifth in the series, shows the many ways St Thomas intervened in the lives of ordinary people. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral.

Text by Caitlin McCall. Images: author’s own unless stated

Caitlin McCall is a freelance writer for all things archaeological, the reviews editor for the online magazine and former editor of the international world archaeology magazine Current World Archaeology

Book tickets

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint

British Museum

Until 22 October 2021

Daily: 10.00 am –5.00 pm (Fridays 8.30 pm)

Booking is essential

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