Thomas Becket

A brutal medieval murder is recalled through fascinating relics and great art, reports John Westbrooke.

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When characters in Quentin Tarantino films threaten to “get medieval on your ass”, they’re probably thinking of something like the gruesome murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.

The British Museum’s new exhibition gives the details: four knights attacked him, carrying out what they thought was King Henry II’s will, chopping at his head until bone, blood and brains were muddled on the floor. The crime, the slaying of a holy man in a church, was instantly infamous. Within three years the pope had declared Thomas a saint and the cathedral became an international pilgrimage site up there with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The exhibition traces the rise of a bright London boy, born in Cheapside near St Paul’s cathedral about 1120; he went to grammar school and spent three years in Paris when he was 20 or so. On his return he worked as a clerk for Theobald, a friend and perhaps relative of the family who was now archbishop of Canterbury, going on diplomatic missions abroad and studying canon law in Italy. One of Henry’s first acts as king was to make Thomas chancellor in 1155 – the top job in his household, paying five shillings a day.

They became close friends, and may have been much alike – two hard-working Normans (Henry was born in Normandy, Thomas’s parents had emigrated from there) and perhaps hot-headed ones too: Henry was known to chew carpets when in a rage. Keen to have the church on his side, the king in 1162 made Thomas archbishop of Canterbury, England’s senior religious figure.

Alas for Henry, Thomas went native, turning from a worldly young man into a religious ascetic and giving up the chancellorship. When the king – a great legal reformer – wanted clergy accused of serious crimes to be tried by secular rather than religious courts that imposed lighter penalties, Thomas refused so firmly he had to flee to Europe for six years. While he was away, Henry had his son crowned co-monarch – by the Archbishop of York, among others. It should have been Thomas’s job, so Thomas returned home and excommunicated them all. Henry, in another rage, said something like “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” and the four swordsmen rode out.

What’s surprising is how the medieval butchery led to beautiful medieval art. Illuminated biographies are on display, as are carvings of his martyrdom. Reliquaries (small caskets) were made to house his relics. At the start of the exhibition is a blue-enamelled one made in Limoges within 20 years – with, when you look at it closer, copper figures illustrating the killing: one man striking the saint’s neck with a sword, another unsheathing, the third wielding an axe while two monks look on in horror. On the lid, monks lay out the body, and the dead man ascends into Heaven.

Several others are displayed, including a Norwegian one with added dragon heads. The cult of Thomas was widespread at home, where he became the most popular dedicatee of parish churches and Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales about pilgrims travelling from London to Becket’s shrine. But his fame also travelled abroad quickly. He rated second only to St Olaf in Norway; he was venerated in Sicily – ironically, where Henry’s daughter Joan was queen. A Swedish baptismal font on show directly blames Henry for the killing, which may have been unfair.

Even Becket’s blood could work wonders: monks would fill an ampulla, a small flask, with watered-down drops of it, which pilgrims would take home, across north and west Europe, to cure the sick.

Nor has the power of his relics diminished: the exhibition includes plenty. There’s a book he might have owned, a wax seal with a fingerprint that might be his, and a small colour portrait, in a book of the gospels he commissioned, that might be him. And at the end of the exhibition there’s a genuine relic “ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis” – from the skull of St Thomas of Canterbury, hacked off 851 years ago (Covid delayed the exhibition a year) and smuggled abroad.

The highlight, though, is a richly coloured stained-glass “miracle window” from the cathedral, disassembled so each row can be seen at eye-level rather than through binoculars. It shows some of the hundreds of cures attributed to Becket. Ralph de Longeville is healed of leprosy, Goditha of Hayes of dropsy, and Etheldreda of fever. Most remarkably, Eilward of Westnoning is blinded and castrated for theft, but Thomas appears to him, as he lies in bed afterward looking rather poorly, and the missing parts grow again.

Edlward’s case is symbolic of Becket’s problem: the centuries-old clash between church and state, in which he’d intervened to demonstrate God’s mercy by reversing an undeniably harsh secular penalty. All the same, would anyone today support Becket’s demand that clergy be allowed to avoid the regular courts that deal with laymen, and face trial only by their lenient fellow priests?

Henry however was in no doubt that, whether he’d intended the murder or not, he’d made a big mistake. He walked barefoot through Canterbury in penance, then prayed at the tomb all night while receiving three lashes from each of the 80 monks present. And in 1215 the church’s rights were strongly reaffirmed in the first clause of the Magna Carta. The church, clearly, had won this battle.

The cult continued until the reign of another self-willed king, Henry VIII. Thomas’s fate had drawn comparison with that of Christ, and would in Tudor times be echoed by that of Thomas More, another mighty man who disagreed with his king.

Henry initially approved of Becket, but when he decided that the English church should be headed by himself rather than the pope, sparking religious objections, he began instead to see Becket as a dangerous rebel whose influence had to be squashed. His sainthood was repudiated, his name was cut out of books, and his shrine and relics were destroyed – some say by being shot from a cannon.

And yet, even though we no longer live in an age of miracles, his memory hasn’t faded away as the Henrys must have hoped. Medieval England was a hard place, and the exhibition doesn’t play down the brutality of life, but it gave rise to great religious art and stories of men like Becket that have persisted down the centuries.

Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint runs as the British Museum until 22 August 2021. Adults £17 (seniors half-price after noon on Mondays). All visits to the exhibition, and the museum, must be booked in advance.

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