It’s almost surprising that there has never been a major exhibition of Thomas Becket at a British national museum before now, considering the rude health of the Becket cult, even 850 years after his death. Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint has been five years in the making. It seems fitting that this long-awaited exhibition is set in the British Museum’s Reading Room, the high altar of British literary research and learning.
The original reason that the Becket show was put together was to commemorate the double anniversary last year of the 850th anniversary of his murder in 1170 and the 800th anniversary of the translation of his shrine from the Canterbury Cathedral crypt to the Trinity Chapel. But his renaissance today has a more contemporary explanation – and appeal – than just these historic anniversaries. Becket, later known as St Thomas of Canterbury, is synonymous with medieval pilgrimage in England until the Reformation, when pilgrimage to Canterbury and what was left of Becket’s memory was banned.
This sublime exhibition makes a strong case for showing how pilgrimage is not so much simply returning to these isles, with the rediscovery of old pilgrim routes, but never really left. Fittingly, the first object of the exhibition is a reliquary that would have contained Becket’s material remains: the exquisite 12th-century Becket Casket.
Believers often wrangle with complex intellectual issues of theology and spirituality that the modern secular disposition regards as arcane and obscure. Such reverence for bones reminds us of the power of relics in the Middle Ages and why they were destroyed by Henry VIII’s commissioners. It’s a shame that the Vatican 17th century reliquary that holds the blood-spattered tunic he was wearing when murdered is not part of the exhibition, or is yet to return on loan to Canterbury as planned, but that is something to look forward to.
The “warrior priest” was only ordained weeks before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. He led an eventful and paradoxical life that was the subject of around 12 biographies within 20 years of his death. Atheists and believers alike can agree on much about his life as so much was recorded, and this show has plenty for both camps. What is fascinating about the exhibition is how many people of all faiths, or no faith, are now reconnecting with the cult of shrines, holy places, relics and the “materiality of the holy” that pilgrimage affords. In many ways, Becket is the patron saint of modern pilgrimage and his continuing cult testifies to this.
This exhibition starts with the comparatively plain objects of Becket’s modest beginnings growing up in Cheapside and traces his rise through the courtly ranks to Chancellor, then Archbishop, and finally saintly and schoolboy legend. But it is the final showpiece which brings it all round – from plain ceramics to exquisite glass and gold to the most earthly of all: a piece of Becket’s skull encased in a miniature reliquary. Locking my gaze with it, I saw how all the finery paled next to a piece of human bone. Ecce homo: Behold, the man.
Of course, the fine art is extraordinary too. Several so-called “miracle windows” were made after Becket’s death to illustrate miracles associated with him. These windows were installed around his Trinity Shrine in Canterbury Cathedral in order to remind pilgrims of what might happen to them. In several, the “blood of Thomas” – holy water from Thomas’s well near the shrine – is depicted as being the conduit of healing. They are perhaps the greatest collection of 12th to 13th-century stained glass in the world, and I recall seeing the empty spaces in the cathedral before they were removed and loaned to the British Museum.
Part of their medieval marketing power would have been that instead of showing biblical scenes (as most stained glass windows do), they illustrate stories that centred on ordinary people, just as Chaucer was to write about the middle-classes to give his Canterbury Tales popular appeal.
One of these windows is particularly surprising. In a series of panes, the story of a “pilgrim” who had shoplifted precious items from Becket’s shrine is shown to have been caught with the loot tied to his back. A judge orders his castration and the removal of his eyes. In the second pane, pre-punishment, Becket appears to the thief in a dream. The third pane shows the thief being held down by other men as his eyes are being stabbed at and his testicles sliced off. The fourth shows Becket returning his eyes and testicles to the invalid, whilst the fifth depicts a crowd of people witnessing the return of his body parts. In the final pane, the thief is shown giving his thanks to Becket at his tomb. Clearly, these miracles were not soft affairs, and the windows were designed to grab attention.
Other striking art on display shows Becket’s significance across Europe. He was particularly popular in Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden. Two reliquaries from Sweden and Norway depict the scene of Becket’s martyrdom, and the high craftsmanship of the Swedish Lyngsjö font illustrates the scene, but with an intriguing detail: it is here implied that King Henry II directly ordered Becket’s execution.
Of all the saints in Europe, St Thomas has the second largest number of churches dedicated to him after St James of Compostela. This suggests that the pilgrimage destination of Canterbury would have been second only to Santiago in medieval Europe. Therefore, given the Camino de Santiago’s recent success, it is high time Canterbury regains its place in the pantheon of major global pilgrimage destinations.
So what gave Thomas of Canterbury mass appeal and why did his story attract so many pilgrims? As William Cash has written previously in the Herald, Becket’s relatively low-born beginnings as a half-Norman Londoner made him a man of the people. His social mobility, love of hunting, furs and the finer things in life made him a figure people could identify with.
Educated in Paris, he was a man on the make who rose to the very top of the court. Yet when he became Archbishop – so the myth goes – he reinvented himself, rejecting the high life for simple robes and a new humble priest persona that included a self-flagellating spiritual asceticism. The contrast of the two worlds and his rejection of the fripperies of court life has long held popular appeal. By standing up to the King, taking back land from the Crown and giving it to the Church, Becket would have activated the Robin Hood archetype in the public imagination. Most obviously, pilgrimage was effectively a holiday (holy-day) for many labourers, and they were grateful to Thomas for the time off.
According to Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the exhibition, the South English Legendary (a 13th to 14th-century hagiography) painted Thomas in this rebellious light which further drew people to him. Thomas surely gained confidence in the knowledge that it was the Church that ultimately confers divine power upon the King (a subject on which John of Salisbury writes in his Policraticus, also on display). Indeed, today’s coronation oil is still linked to Becket who had received it from the Virgin Mary herself.
Much of the material of this unique exhibition is, by its nature, a distillation of the trial of being human and Becket’s longing to transcend himself. In this vein, you could view the show as a spiritual or religious experience in itself. You might even set your intention just before you enter. At the end, you can pause on the TS Eliot line from “Murder in the Cathedral” on the wall above the final exhibit (quoted below), taking a moment in silence to pause and reflect, before heading through the exit. “Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take the stone from the stone, take the skin from the arm, take the muscle from the bone, and wash them. Wash the stone, wash the bone, wash the brain, wash the soul, wash them wash them!”
Guy Hayward is co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust. The exhibition runs until 22 August at the British Museum.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.