Digital reconstruction of the Shrine at Canterbury Cathdral 1408 ©Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture

The Materiality of Saint Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket was a living and dying man. In his martyrdom he witnessed to the overwhelming corporeality and materiality of human beings. A fine collection of essays offered by the British Archaeological Association celebrates the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket by delving into the blood, the brain, the footsteps, the ripped remnants of cloth and the diffusion of light

The Cult of Saint Thomas Becket: Art, Relics, and Liturgy in Britain and Europe.
Ed. by Tom Nickson
Special Issue of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. (2020) Vol. 173


Mitre of Jacques de Vitry © collection of the Treasure of Oignies, Belgium. Source: Wikipedia
Mitre of Jacques de Vitry © collection of the Treasure of Oignies, Belgium. Source: Wikipedia

The latest volume of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association offers more than two handfuls of well-written and engaging articles on the materiality of the Cult of Saint Thomas. The publication celebrates the 850th anniversary of the murder of the Archbishop in Canterbury and the translation of his remains to t his shrine in 1220, nearly fifty years after his death. It gathers together a number of presentations given at a conference at The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2019.

The point of perspective of the articles is – as behoves any archaeological journal – the profound materiality of these events. We should remember that Thomas Becket was murdered and that the sword of the main culprit broke into splinters, when the brains and blood of the future Saint were spilt all over the floor. And that the main feature of the Saint afterwards was the thaumaturgical dilution of the said blood and brains as well as the stained pieces of cloth. Later, all became major religious export articles. Arguably, Canterbury Cathedral in itself became the shrine for the Saint, until the shrine proper, the body, the relics, the liturgies and all the other remembrances were destroyed by Henry VIII, who felt no affection towards “this meddlesome priest”. Probably reminding him of his own nemesis, Sir Thomas Moore, Henry decreed in 1538 that Thomas Becket should not “be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket”. At which point, Becket was cancelled (as the modern jargon has it) until 19th-century historians rediscovered the absolutely unfathomable amount of written biographies, letters, and chronicles, which focused on the man and his world. At this point, Becket was once more resurrected, now as a man of letters encircled by his betters, such as John of Salisbury and Herbert of Bosham. In his own time, though, Becket was par excellence “a material man”.

The essays in the publication explore the material matters of his afterlife in all their ramifications.

Anne J. Duggan introduces the volume with a careful reading of the artistic renditions of the murder with the written descriptions, which started to pour out of Canterbury in the days following the murder. By taking her departure in the preserved mitre of Jaques de Vitry, she traces the emergence of the significant details as the cut to the cap, the severance of the actual “crown”, the broken sword, and the spilling of the blood and brain. All four “elements” became key symbols and may be followed across the iconography from reliquaries in the north of Sweden to the murals  in Catalonia, Treviso and Spoleto in Italy. Not all of them figured everywhere. Nevertheless, they became the key symbols of the events in December 1170. Amy Jeffs proceeds to explore these early images as artistic comments on the vices of the assailants and the virtues of the victim in view of Prudentius’ psychomachia, a Late Antiquity text reflecting upon violence, anger, and humility.

Following this, Rachel Koopmans provides us with a close study of the gifts of Thomas Becket’s garments and textiles. At first, some were able to obtain whole pieces of clothing like the shirt gifted to Rome, and the chasuble, which ended up in Farno. Likewise, other church treasuries could soon boast of full ensembles like those in the Cathedral at Sens and the Chapel at Lisieaux. Most relics, however, were tiny bits and pieces parcelled out to the faithful pilgrims. Not all low-status individuals, though, were lucky. Most had to contend with the diluted water.

The seal of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom. Harley Charter 75 A 14 © British Library
The seal of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, depicting Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Harley Charter 75 A 14 © British Library

From here, Katherine Emery moves on to unpack the dramatic qualities of the newly created liturgies of the passion and the translation. Both sought to elevate the architectural space and the staging of the drama, which unfolded in the Cathedral in 1170, and reposition them in the new surroundings after 1220. Through these liturgical settings, Canterbury was designated to become not just home to the shrine of the Saint, but in itself the shrine par excellence. This leads effortlessly to the essay by Tom Nickson, who traces the way in which the custodians managed and enhanced both natural and artificial light as part of the settings of his tomb and shrine. Means to this end were the endless votive gifts of candles, trindles, and tapers. When lightened, they literally illuminated his memory. Part of this article presents a detailed customary from 1428 through which we learn on the size of the candles and the graduated use according to the feast. But Nickson also invites us to enter the Cathedral at dusk and try to imagine the darkened surroundings lit by a profusion of wax candles smelling of bees, honey and –perhaps – greasy animal fat.

But what did it feel like? To having walked on a pilgrimage – or even sailed from afar – to enter into the Cathedral to experience the gradual movement through the hallowed sanctuary? This is the question raised by John Jenkins, who writes about how to model the Cult of Thomas Becket. For obvious reasons, the team had to choose a specific date. 1408 was chosen as a date when pilgrimages were still undertaken, representing a steady flow of income to Canterbury. Also, a handful of important sources shed light on the organisation – the customary mentioned above, a narrative from 1420, the Pilgrim’s Progress and a number of chronicles, for instance, a newly discovered account of a Florentine merchant. It appears that as with any modern “heritage” site, visitors tended to go for the main attraction – the shrine. Only the more dedicated visitors entered the Corona Chapel, the Martyrdom Chapel and the Tomb. Proceeding from this information, Jenkins and his team at the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, University of York, began to digitally reconstruct the movements through the Cathedral. The article is a welcome introduction to the background of the inspiring digital reconstruction of the pilgrimage experience in 1408, which may be explored here.

Part of this experience was to acquire a souvenir, of which the most common was a badge of some sort. Relics, however, were also an option – and might be bought at Canterbury at a price; but also stolen, traded or just exchanged. Relics were big business. The essay by Julian Luxford sheds light on the types of available becket-relics by locating them in the written sources from the Later Middle Ages. It appears, most of these relics were corporeal. Blood, brain, heart, bone, flesh, skin, fat, hair or just plain dust was the mainstay. However, vestment relics continued to figure in the list, even though the monks at Canterbury had long since given up of pretending that anything worthwhile was left.

Another trace of the late medieval Becket was left in the books of hours (horae). Although Henry VIII did his best to erase the commemorations from books, which he or his sheriffs chanced upon, much has still been left for Richard Gameson to study. His study reveals that at the end of the Middle Ages lay devotion was an English speciality.  Becket had in the 14th and 15th centuries turned into a sombre saint, disengaged from the imagination of people. We might say that at this point, Becket had been obliged to take a backseat with the Holy Family at the driving wheel.

Fragment of the crown of Thomas Becket kept at Stonyhurst College since 1540 © Stonyhurst College
Fragment of the crown of Thomas Becket kept at Stonyhurst College since 1540 © Stonyhurst College

Finally, a number of articles touch upon the more distinct ways in which St. Thomas might be received and thought of in a non-English context. Thus, Jennifer Lee tells the story of a remarkable altarpiece painted by Meister Francke. Intended for a chapel of the Hanseatic Englandsfahrer in Hamburg, the altarpiece dramatised the chaotic situation experienced by the merchants in the 1420s. Carol M. Richardson tells the story of the role, which the exiled Archbishop came to play in the setup of the Roman Catholic Seminary in 16th-century Rome. Here, exiled and persecuted Catholics were able to find comfort in the resistance of Thomas against secular interference. Finally, Kathryn R. Barush touches upon the modern revival of Becket in songs, literature and devotional pilgrimages staged through singing, walking and touching. According to Barush, songs and singing are the “Becket Water” of the modern era.

This is a delightful collection of essays traversing the sacred landscape of Becket through 850 years. They follow in his footstep – outlined by the events, depicted in art, the emotional drama, the dispersal of relics, the liturgical and dramatic setting of space, the diffusion of light, and the people on the move. As always, some papers are more well-crafted than others. And yet, the overwhelming materiality of the man comes vividly across. The only thing, which is sorely lacking, is the reconstruction of the soundscape. What did Canterbury Cathedral sound like – in December 1170, in 1408, and again in 2020? We know what the clashing of swords sounded like. And may imagine the whispering of a dying man. But was it tempered by the sound or the newly installed organ? And how did the liturgists of the 13th century imagine the anger and clamour sprouting from the mouth of the vicious knights?

Perhaps not fair to ask this question in view of all the intriguing insights offered by the volume in front of us. But there it is…

Karen Schousboe


Digital reconstruction of the Shrine at Canterbury Cathdral 1408 © Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture


Get our Medieval News with links to our premium content

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.