Thomas Becket's assassination (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

He being dead yet speaketh 

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint

On a wet day in early June, my fellow visitors to the British Museum’s Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint looked like pilgrims shuffling their way towards some distant shrine. The show should have been staged last year, to coincide with the 850th  anniversary of Becket’s demise; as with the rest of life, Covid-19 intervened. Nevertheless, the BM has returned to semi-normality with this reflection on the life, death, and afterlife of an enduring character who still claims our attention, eight and a half centuries later. 

Over the whole a recording of plainchant imparted a presumably intentional ecclesiastical aura; it turned out to be a re-creation of Vespers on the fateful day in December 1170 when the Primate of All England, the King’s former friend and Chancellor, was removed from the See of Canterbury by way of the sword. Things might have been different, had Becket not suddenly caught religion after his surprising elevation to the archiepiscopal office, and if he had been more flexible in his ecclesiastical polity thereafter.

Dead, Becket became a holy martyr who had shed his saintly blood for Christ and his Church

850 years later, much of Becket’s position grates with present sensibilities; none more so, after the recent abuse scandals that have rocked the churches, than that of his insistence upon the exemption of the clergy from the authority of the secular courts. Had he found some compromise he might have lived on peacefully, and then been quietly forgotten; no more than a name carved above an altar at Canterbury, or the subject of some optimistic medievalist’s doctorate.  

He would certainly not have been played by Richard Burton, opposite Peter O’Toole as Henry II, had the Church not been able to capitalise on his murder to the full. Swiftly canonised by Alexander III in 1173, it was not long, as is easily discerned in the artefacts on display, before he became depicted as having been struck down when about to celebrate mass. The contemporary accounts are clear that he was not, and yet there he is: either way about to enter the presence of God. After the documented shouting, shoving, and trading of insults, this was some canny manoeuvring.

It paid considerable dividends. Alive, Becket was a competent and latterly combative administrator; dead, he became a holy martyr who had shed his saintly blood for Christ and his Church. His shrine at Canterbury soon drew pilgrims from far beyond the ken of Chaucer’s merry band in the Canterbury Tales; they came in their droves, seeking healing and forgiveness for themselves and for their loved ones. With their offerings and local spending they also made Becket’s monastery-cathedral, and the town which surrounded it, very rich indeed. 

A reliable intercessor was a medieval guarantee of economic prosperity, and Becket delivered the goods in spades. The stories of some of the miracles attributed to him are the subject of three great windows on loan from Canterbury, complete with surviving medieval glass, which form the metaphorical backdrop to the whole show. His hopeful neophytes find their sight restored, and their crooked limbs healed; others have more intricate issues solved. One — castrated as a punishment for theft — receives a vision of Becket in a dream, and awakes to find himself once again whole. 

Such pieties may be strange to modern minds, but all of Christendom wanted to claim a spot in Becket’s prayers; in death he became an international celebrity. Churches dedicated to him sprang up all over Europe; at the BM richly-adorned reliquary caskets from France jostle for attention with a magnificent Norwegian cousin, wrought in gold. A hefty carved font from Sweden, dating from as early as the 1190s, stands out; the narrative told in bold carvings around its bowl. The story of a buxom woman at its base, suckling two small flying dragons, remains a mystery — at least to me. 

Perhaps appropriately for a humble clerk who had worked his way up to the highest offices in the land, the dead Becket also transcended class differences. The souvenirs of pilgrimage to Canterbury on display range from endearing leaden favours, meant to carry holy water from the shrine to poor families far and wide, to engraved gold-and-diamond rings intended for noble — or at least rich — fingers. They range from the restrained to the kitsch; approaching perhaps the medieval equivalents of a blue-glitter statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, or a bobble-headed pontiff.

It struck me that in the context of the present cancel-culture Becket might make a fitting patron

Everyone wanted to be on the right side of Becket in the years after his brains were trodden underfoot at Canterbury; he was worth more to the Church dead than alive. The “turbulent priest” motif is best left well alone, but Henry II shouted something at Rouen which set in train the events that followed, and he bore the responsibility to the full. Three years later his barefoot walk through the streets of Canterbury, followed by his penance and scourging at Becket’s tomb, spoke louder than words of the contemporary limitations of the relationship between King and Pope, Church and State, crown and mitre. 

Yet it is a human story, too; one of the most evocative exhibits is a document bearing the imprint of Becket’s seal, and his accidental fingerprint in the wax. Thomas Becket and Henry II’s early friendship echoes that of their namesakes, Thomas More and Henry VIII, 350 years later; More, too, was Chancellor of England, and after a controversial career also died for conscience’s sake under the wrath of his former friend and master. 

The latter Henry was too intelligent not to draw the same connection; in 1538 Becket’s shrine was dismantled, and his cult suppressed. A waterworn piece of carved pink Belgian marble, of which the capitals of the shrine are known to have been fashioned, was fished out of the Stour in 1984; it sits in lonely and eloquent silence next to a digital recreation of what the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury might have looked like in its bustling heyday. 

Colourful missals with the appointed prayers for the feast of St Thomas of Canterbury defaced tell the next stage of the story; glorious and costly illuminations marred and slashed out of loyalty to the will of the King. Such conformity was not for everyone, however; the last exhibit is on loan from Stonyhurst College: a piece of Becket’s skull, set in a small silver reliquary. Saved at the time of the destruction of the shrine and smuggled out of England by a pious Catholic in the hope of the return of better days, it draws the exhibition to a powerful close.

It struck me, as our slow procession round the galleries came to an end, that in the context of the present cancel-culture Becket might make a fitting patron for those who have found themselves on the receiving end of its ire. After all, if anyone knows about the risks of an angry offhand comment being taken out of context, about being cancelled, and then cancelled again 350 years later, it’s Thomas Becket. 

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is at the British Museum until 22 August

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