Eight-hundred and fifty years ago, on the 29th of December, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered at the altar in his Cathedral on King Henry II’s instigation. A major exhibition in the British Museum promises to guide us through his history.
Thomas Becket is a fascinating historical person. As the son of a mediocre London merchant, he made an astounding career as a secretary and legal advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. From this position, he was headhunted as chancellor to Henry II. A few years later, the latter – believing he would acquire a faithful ally – chose him to be the future Archbishop of Canterbury. As such, Becket, unfortunately for Henry II, turned into a troublesome priest whose loyalty shifted away from the crown and towards the church. After years in exile, Becket ended his life as a murdered victim of the King’s wrath to rise from his death as a venerated saint. The story is known from numerous chronicles, letters, biographies as well as iconography. Also, we are somewhat well informed about his lifestyle and the material objects with which he surrounded himself. And yet, we don’t know him well. Even to some of his closest friends and collaborators, he was an enigmatic person – adored, vilified and criticised by friend and foe – he continues to set his mark upon our understanding of the high middle ages.
Last year, in 2020, a panoply of conferences, pilgrimages, and exhibitions were planned to celebrate the man, his life and his martyrdom. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a spoke in this wheel. However, the planned exhibition at the British Museum has only been postponed and will open in April.
Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside in 1120 as the son of a London merchant, Gilbert Beket and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and came from Thierville. At the age of ten, he was sent as a student to Merton Priory in Surrey, from where he returned to enter a Grammar school in London. During his youth, his father came into hard times. Becket had to take up a position as a clerk in the business of a relative, Osbert Huitdeniers. From here, he entered the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Later, he was sent to Auxerre, Bologna, and Rome to study canon law leading to his appointment as Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. Finally, in 1155, Thomas was recommended for the Lord Chancellor’s vacant post at the court of Henry II. Apparently, he fulfilled this job to the utmost satisfaction of the King. Also, a friendship grew up between the two men. Both appear to have loved the free life of the mighty and plentiful –hunting, gaming and travelling through Europe.
In 1162, Becket was chosen by the King to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury.Come June, he was ordained priest. Probably, the King expected Becket to accommodate his policies and place the continued development of the centralised royal government first. Soon after, however, the new Archbishop resigned his chancellorship. Instead, Becket sought to serve the church and not the King, who wished to expand secular jurisdiction at the expense of the clerical courts.
In January 1164, the matter turned into a full-blown conflict, when Thomas Becket declined to support the King in the matter of the”criminous clerks” and whether they (after having been defrocked) could be liable to harsher sentencing in the secular system. In the end, Becket agreed to accept the so-called Constitutions of Clarendon, but he refused to sign the parchment. Henry II now summoned Becket to Northampton Castle, where he was accused of contempt of the royal authority and malfeasance. Convicted – and perhaps denied free pass – Becket fled to the continent, where he was offered protection by Henry’s arch-enemy, Louis VII of France. During his sojourn in France, Becket became part of a network of like-minded clerics, monks and scholars circling the Cistercians, the exiled Pope, and the Gregorian idealists, who worked to “free the Church from the vile bondage into which princes of this world had forced her”. Nevertheless, Becket appeared to be caught between a hard rock – Henry II – and a stone, the Curia and Pope Alexander III struggling with the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
Finally, a sort of compromise was reached, paving the way for Becket to return to England in 1170. Following renewed hostilities, Henry II finally had enough, exclaiming something like “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”? Whatever words he used, the outburst had momentous results. Four knights set out to bring the Archbishop to heel, ending in the murder in front of the Altar of St. Benedict inside the Cathedral. During the actual killing, one Knight ended up shattering his sword while cutting off the crown of Thomas’ head.
The next morning, the monks discovered that Thomas Becket had worn a hair-shirt beneath his episcopal attire. Also, miracles were soon attested as part of what was later to became a major industry. People were simply healed by imbibing some of his water-diluted blood and brain, which had been scraped from the floor and collected in a chalice; or bits and pieces of his blood-stained clothes became widely dispersed.
At what point and to what extent the pleasure-loving son of a textile merchant turned into a religious ascetic has been furiously debated. Even today, it is unknown to what extent the monks at Canterbury “invented” his saintliness. However, the public uproar was such that sanctification was carried forth by popular sentiment. Becket’s reputation quickly spread. People soon flocked to Canterbury, visiting the shrine and purchasing the mixture of his blood and water, called St. Thomas’ Water. Less than two years after his murder – and after heavy lobbying of John of Salisbury and others – Becket was formally canonised by Alexander III. Finally, in July 1174, Henry II was absolved from his participation in the crime following a public chastise at the tomb of the saint in Canterbury. However, it was not until 1220 that Becket’s body was translated to the Cathedral altar. In the autumn of 1174, the church had burnt, and a substantial reconstruction took place before the man could be laid to his rest in the Trinity Chapel, where his blood and brain had been splattered across the tiles that fateful evening.
Such was the international uproar that the veneration of Thomas Becket rapidly spread across Europe from Nidaros in Norway to Soria in Spain. On the one hand, Thomas became one of the great thaumaturgical saints of the later Middle Ages. However, the saint also continued to play a special role in the continued challenge of how to balance the interests of the secular and the sacred spheres in the Middle Ages.
No wonder Henry VIIII later forcefully destroyed Becket’s shrine, while private prayer-books in the post-reformation period were heavily censored for remembrances of his particular remembrances. Thomas Becket was, in the eyes of Henry VIII and Cromwell, the ultimate rebel and traitor against the idea that a king might be the inviolate head of the church of his nation.
Even today, the vignette of the murder of Thomas Becket may resurface in politics. Thus, the former director of FBI, James Comey, who in 2016 was fired summarily by yet another red-haired despot, Donald Trump, explained the “indirect order” to drop the Michael Flynn investigation as a firm directive. “Did you take Trump’s question as a directive?” Angus King asked Comey at the hearings. “Yes, yes,” Comey replied. “It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'”
Spring 2021, British Museum will (hopefully) open its doors to a large exhibition on the man, the murder and the legends. Exhibits will range from sacred relics and reliquaries over the jewellery to illuminated manuscripts, some of which include eyewitness accounts of the murder as well as biographies. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum collection, including important loans from significant collections across the UK and Europe. The showstopper will be an entire medieval stained glass window on loan for the first time from Canterbury Cathedral.
Reliquary casket showing the murder of Thomas Becket. Limoges, France, about 1180-1190. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint
British Museum, London
End of April. Dates will be announced.
Thomas Becket – Life, Death, and Legacy
Conference organised in Canterbury, Spring 2021
The Becket Story
The life, death and influence of St. Thomas Becket
The literature about Thomas Becket is vast. Apart from modern scholarly books, the main edition of the sources concerning his life and martyrdom fills 7 volumes in an edition from the 19th century. Modern editions of his letters are available. However, the ten vita and biographies preserved have never been translated in full, but exists purely in a selection published
Nobles and nobility in medieval Europe. Concepts, origins, transformations
Duggan, Anne J. [Publ.]. – Woodbridge (2000)