When Henry VIII of England carried out the Dissolution of the Monasteries one of his objectives was to erase one particular name from history: Thomas Becket. In 1538 the shrine housing the saint’s bones, which had been the central attraction for pilgrims to Canterbury since 1220, was destroyed on orders from the king. But Henry’s efforts were in vain; Becket remains a legendary figure in English history and his image appears in countless artworks from the twelfth century onwards. Becket, after all, was not merely a local martyr; the political circumstances and gruesome details of his murder at Canterbury Cathedral turned him into an international celebrity the likes of which had not been previously seen.
Who Was Thomas Becket?
Thomas Becket was born in London in 1120 to a prosperous Norman family who provided him with the privilege of a formal education. Making a living as a clerk, he acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, and made the acquaintance of Henry II, whom he quickly befriended. The king would go on to appoint Becket as his Lord Chancellor and after Theobald’s passing, to the seat of Archbishop of Canterbury. King Henry expected that Thomas would continue to act as his political servant, but as archbishop Becket adopted an austere lifestyle and a new ideology that placed the interests of the Church before those of the State. His refusal to compromise with Henry made Becket an enemy of the crown.
On the fifth day of Christmas, 1170, Becket was in the middle of leading Vespers when through the doors of Canterbury Cathedral entered four of Henry’s knights. Believing themselves to be acting according to the king’s wishes, the men approached the altar, drew their swords and killed the archbishop. In the aftermath of the event, Henry began a campaign of public penance culminating in an act before Becket’s tomb, where he confessed his sins and then allowed each bishop present to give him five blows from a rod, followed by granting each of the 80 monks on site three blows. Becket was canonized as a saint in 1173 after Henry’s reconciliation with the papacy over the murder of one of their clergymen. His cult spread throughout Europe quickly and the consequences of this were promptly seen in the arts.
It is difficult for us to evaluate the horror with which the news of Thomas Becket’s murder was received, but public fascination with the event was strong enough for at least ten different biographies on Thomas to be written by different authors before the end of the twelfth century. Comparisons have been made in recent years between Becket’s martyrdom and the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963, two shocking episodes in American history which we actively study and commemorate today. The popularity of Becket’s shrine at Canterbury was entirely dependent upon his renown abroad, and for centuries he was a model of faith and fearlessness to Christians throughout the European continent.
There are some practical means by which the story of Becket’s martyrdom reached the Christian world beyond England. Henry II, the great-grandson of William the Conqueror, was a Norman ruler—one of many who had assumed regal power throughout Europe—and therefore had strong ties to other courts. His three eldest sons held control over the territories of western France. His daughters were married off to princes in Germany, Spain, France, and Sicily. With all of these royal connections throughout Europe, the western world was more than prepared to venerate the martyr with beautiful images and luxurious objects.
The earliest known icon of Thomas Becket is a mosaic located in Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. It’s a rare image, considering it only portrays the saint himself and not a hint of his background story, which is so important to the cult of Becket. The martyrdom itself is depicted in some of the finest medieval metal works to come out of France—reliquary caskets from the Limoges region. About fifty of these are still around today and can be found in collections ranging from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Louvre in Paris. At Chartres Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a stained glass window in the south east ambulatory illustrates the entire story from Becket’s consecration as archbishop to his relics healing the sick after his death. Reverence for the saint quickly reached as far as Scandinavia, where English clergymen working in the church of Lyngsjö, Sweden, commissioned a baptismal font made of sandstone that depicts the tale of his martyrdom.
Becket would also go on to make a significant impact on our literary tradition—the most influential work to be written in vernacular English in the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is staged around a group of pilgrims on a journey from Southwark in London to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury Cathedral.
Becket in New York
Although the vast majority of artwork related to Becket permanently resides in Europe (much of it is attached to ecclesiastic buildings) The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses a number of small works of art which bear his image. Among these are a silver reliquary box with scenes from the martyrdom, a pilgrim’s badge with the head of St. Thomas, and a highly detailed ivory plaque from the fifteenth century showing the murder in the Cathedral.
An alabaster panel depicting St. Thomas’s consecration as archbishop will be exhibited at MOBIA in our upcoming exhibition, Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum. One of several fifteenth-century alabaster panels centered on his life that survive, it still bears traces of the paint that brought the scene of St. Thomas’s triumph into vibrant color. The work will be on view from this Friday, March 7, through June 8.
In Today’s World
Several modern literary works based on the life of Thomas Becket have been written. The twentieth century brought us T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s drama Becket. Anouilh’s play was turned into the classic film starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as Becket. Ken Follett’s popular 1989 novel The Pillars of the Earth features the murder of Thomas Becket in one of the last scenes. More recently, Paul Webb’s play Four Nights in Knaresborough, which premiered in 1999, recounts the aftermath of the assassination by four knights making “the worst career choice in history.” Webb has adapted his play for the screen and sold the rights to The Weinstein Company, which means we could be seeing Becket on the big screen again very soon!
- D.L. for MOBIA