Murder and the Making of a Saint : Thomas Becket
The story of Thomas Becket’s brutal murder and the cult of devotion that followed his death is told at the British Museum.
A story of friendship and treachery
The story of Thomas Becket’s rise and fall is one of friendship and treachery, ambition and murder, a medieval epic that resonates through the years like footsteps echoing through Canterbury Cathedral’s gothic cloisters. The twists and turns of this terrible narrative, which notably sees the titular priest killed by four savage knights, his brains spilt in the sake of revenge, are celebrated in an exhibition at the British Museum.]
Becket was born in Cheapside, London, near St Paul’s Cathedral, to parents who had moved from northern France. He was seen as dashing and bright, as well as quick-witted and ambitious. He worked as a clerk for the Archbishop of Canterbury as a young man, and the archbishop suggested him for the job of Chancellor to the new king, Henry II, because of his skill for legal debating and diplomatic affairs. Henry became good friends with Becket.
With vivid artifacts from Becket’s London, this show masterfully establishes the mood. The book explains that a pair of smoothed-out cow shin bones were fastened to the feet and used as ice skates on Moorfields’ frozen marshes. Building stone sculptures include entangled monsters biting each other’s tails and toothy images of dogs that we would not recognize today.
Some remarkable manuscripts
This exhibition has several genuinely remarkable manuscripts that speak to Becket’s ardour for his new role. He collected and commissioned religious manuscripts, and the sole surviving contemporary depiction of the new archbishop is assumed to be in a copy of the New Testament made in 1162. He stands there, resplendent in royal blue robes, his hand lifted in benediction. Around this time, Becket resigned as chancellor and began to oppose the king on matters involving the state intervening in the church’s affairs. Becket left to France for six years when their relationship fell up.
Thomas Becket `s death
When he returned in 1170, he condemned a number of bishops who had backed the king, infuriating Henry. Hearing Henry’s fury, four of his faithful knights rode to Canterbury to arrest Becket. The events that followed are as well-known in English history as the Battle of Hastings. When Becket resisted the knights’ attempts to capture him, one of them slashed off his head’s crown. More blows were delivered, and the priest’s brains were eventually dispersed around the cathedral’s altar’s frigid flagstones.
After Becket’s assassination
Becket’s assassination, which occurred in such a sacred location, sent shockwaves across the country and subsequently throughout Europe. Only three years after his death, he was canonized. The moment the first knight’s sword strikes the archbishop’s head is depicted on a reliquary chest created in Limoges, France (1180-90), with the thin protagonists represented in glittering copper on a background of blue enamel. Becket’s body is lowered into a tomb in the scene above. Two angels carry his soul to heaven to the right.
A Protestant nation
While Henry VIII revoked Becket’s sainthood in England – after all, he was executed for refusing to tolerate royal meddling in church matters, an issue dear to the Tudor king – he remained a popular saint in Europe. When England became a Protestant nation and separated from Rome, English Catholics had to think outside the box to keep Becket’s legacy alive. Many reliquaries, including the last one on exhibit here, were smuggled out of the nation. A bit of bone, supposedly a piece of the Archbishop’s skull, is trussed up in a piece of crimson velvet and sealed within a small brooch-like repository.
The first exhibition that focus on Thomas Becket ‘s life
This is the first exhibition that focus on Becket’s life and the cult that sprang up around him after his death. This is not just a program for medieval buffs, but for anyone who appreciates intrigue and plot twists, with all of its grisly details, rich artifacts, and outstanding storytelling. Although his religious prominence has waned during Henry VIII’s reign, this exhibition demonstrates that his story has continuing appeal.