Becket reliquary © The Dean and Chapter at Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket’s Shirt Returns to Canterbury Cathedral

A garment traditionally thought to have been worn by Saint Thomas Becket at the time of his brutal murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 is to return to the UK as part of this year’s commemorations to mark 850 years since his death

Sculpture by Giles Blomfield of Truro from 1986 in the North West Transept, depicting the four swords of the four knights that killed Becket © Canterbury Cathedral
Sculpture by Giles Blomfield of Truro from 1986 in the North West Transept, depicting the four swords of the four knights that killed Becket © Canterbury Cathedral

This year, Canterbury Cathedral together with a number of other cultural and historical institutions and associations commemorates the murder of St. Thomas Becket in the Cathedral in 1170. As part of the planned events, Canterbury has been able to borrow the shirt, which the saint probably wore during his martydom.

The relic consists of a 12th century garment referred to as a tunicella, camisia or alb – shirt. The vestment is housed inside an exquisite 17th century glass reliquary. Venerated by pilgrims for hundreds of years, the artefact will be a focus for prayer for the thousands of pilgrims expected to come to Canterbury this summer, and will give historical perspective to the Bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion attending the 2020 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury during this time.

An artefact of huge historical interest – and one that demonstrates Canterbury Cathedral’s long and eventful story – the shirt will also provide visitors with the opportunity to get a rare close-up glimpse of an item from a key event in English history, the murder of Thomas Becket.

The Murder

An early reliquary depicting the murder of St Thomas Becket © Metropolitan
An early reliquary depicting the murder of St Thomas Becket © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral on the 29th of December 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights, who believed that the King wanted Becket assassinated. Formerly chancellor and a close friend of the King, Thomas became embroiled in a bitter and protracted dispute with Henry over which institution – Church or State – had the legal authority to try clergy for criminal offences. An account of Becket’s death by Edward Grim, a monk who was by Becket’s side, when he was killed, describes how one of the sword strokes was so violent that it sliced the crown off Becket’s skull and shattered the blade’s tip on the pavement. When shortly after Becket’s death miracles were attributed to him – many of which are depicted in the Cathedral’s 12th century stained glass windows – Canterbury Cathedral became one of medieval Europe’s most important pilgrimage destinations.

The Shirt

The Shirt of St Thomas Becket photographed in 1992. Source: Pinterest
The Shirt of St Thomas Becket photographed in 1992. Source: Pinterest

The shirt or undergarment (alba) has since the late 14th century been identified as that of Thomas Becket. At this time pilgrims’ guides mention the relic. A study by Ursula Nilgens and carried out in 1992indicates that the garment does indeed date to the late 12th century. Her careful inspection of the sources also led to the discovery of the close connections between Canterbury and Rome between 1171 and 1220. The alb may have reached Rome at this early date, a fact which supports its authenticity.

Studies carried out on the actual garment show that it is a white shirt of fine quality linen, ca. 35 -40 threads pr. cm, probably of either French or English origin. The quality of the sewing is also remarkable.

The alb is constructed of a single piece measuring approximately 322 cm in length with a width of ca. 245 cm. Folded over, the garment lacks shoulder seams. The sleeves, fitted with gussets under the arms, continue unbroken to the very narrow wrist. The neck opening, measuring ca. 12 x 15 cm is trimmed with a piece of linen, of which one end has been folded into a button with the other end a loop. Gores have been inserted into the sides of the garment, measuring 52 cm at the bottom. At the upper end, the gore is finely pleated and secured with a smock seam called “Italian Shirring” or “Shirred Italian Smocking”. The same feature may be found on the albs of St Hug and St. Bernard of Utrecht. Another comparable relic is the preserved shirt of St. Louis, traditionally kept at Notre Dame in Paris. This shirt, however, is made of slightly coarser linen and with gores fitted at the centre and back. It is believed, this type of construction was more amenable to riding!

The vestment appears to have been repeatedly washed and slightly repaired during its use. After its final use, it seems to have been kept in a soiled condition, adding to its credibility as a relic.

Remarkable Loan

Shirred Italian Smocking on the shirt of ST Thomas Becket
Shirred Italian Smocking on the shirt of ST Thomas Becket

The Becket relic is on loan to the Cathedral from the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, with the kind permission of the Vatican. The Cathedral would like to note special thanks to: Cardinal Ryłko, the Cardinal Archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore; Sally Axworthy MBE, British Ambassador to the Holy See; Father Robert McCulloch, Procurator General of the Missionary Society of St Columban; and Archbishop Ian Ernest, Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, for their support.

The Precentor of Canterbury Cathedral, the Reverend Max Kramer, said “the relic reminds us of the cost of bearing faithful witness to Christ. Many of the Bishops who will be attending the Lambeth Conference lead Christian communities suffering violent persecution and oppression for their faith. We hope that seeing the garment associated with Becket’s death, and being reminded of his extraordinary legacy will help them to find the strength and encouragement of God as they continue to witness to our shared faith with great courage in difficult times.”

Visitors can view the Becket tunicle at Canterbury Cathedral from 4 July to 3 August 2020. The Cathedral’s normal precinct charges apply.

The loan is part of Becket2020, a programme of services, events and exhibitions in Canterbury, London and elsewhere in the UK to commemorate Becket’s remarkable life, death and legacy.

FEATURED PHOTO:

Becket Reliquary © The Dean and Chapter at Canterbury Cathedral

PRESS RELEASE:

Rare Becket Relic Returns to Canterbury Cathedral

READ ALSO:

La “Tunicella” di Tommasso Becket in S. Maria Maggiore a Roma,
By Ursula Nilgens
In: Arte Medievale (1995) 2. Series, Vol 9, No 1., pp. 105 – 20

Descrizione e dati technici della tunicella di San Tommaso Becket”
By Leonie von Wilckens
In: Arte Medievale (1995) 2. Series, Vol 9, No 1., pp. 117-18

Shaping a Saint’s Identity: The Imagery of Thomas Becket in Medieval Italy.
By Costanza Cipollaro and Veronika Decker
In: BBA Transactions (2013), Vol XXXV, p. 116-138

SEE:

Liturgical Vestments said to have been worn by Thomas Becket while resident in Sens, 1164-65, 1166-70. Embroidery in silk and gold. Sens, Cathedral Treasury, C.107-111. Photos by Genevra Kornbluth

Textiles said to have been worn by Thomas Becket at Sens. Photos by © Genevra Kornbluth
Textiles said to have been worn by Thomas Becket at Sens. Photos by © Genevra Kornbluth

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