At the end of the British Museum’s wonderful exhibition Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint (reviewed on page 48), there is what looks like a brooch but is, in fact, a relic of the saint. Loaned by Stonyhurst, it is a fragment of his skull, wrapped in red velvet and tied with gold thread. This piece of bone brings together past and present, spanning the temporal divide between us and the saint.
Even without this relic, what is apparent is that the story of St Thomas still resonates, over 850 years after his death. St Thomas remains a symbol of spiritual defiance against temporal authority; the nearest to his murder in our day was the killing in 1980 of Bishop Oscar Romero, also at his altar. Becket now is seen less as a defender of the rights of the Church, as he was prior to the Reformation, as a man who defied a king – Henry II – for what he believed to be right.
Becket did not, however, see himself as a medieval defender of the rights of conscience; he was the head of the Church in England and sought to preserve the Church from undue interference from the Crown – his success came posthumously with the opening article of Magna Carta. And the Church in England more or less preserved those freedoms until the reign of another bad king, Henry VIII, who destroyed the freedoms of the Church by making himself, as he thought, its head. Under him, the cult of St Thomas was extirpated, his name removed from the prayer books and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral destroyed.
Both Henrys failed. Thomas Becket the martyr was too large a figure for either of them. He became famous throughout Europe in an astonishingly short time for his defiance of the king and the manner of his death: the iconography of St Thomas, showing him struck down at the altar, is one of the most distinctive of any saint and his shrine one of the great destinations of the Middle Ages. And after Henry VIII’s Reformation, he remained an outstanding historical figure as well as an inspiration for persecuted Catholics.
He is immortalised in literature, in Jean Anouilh’s Becket and TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. As an example of moral and spiritual courage, he remains a potent figure. For Catholics, he is a martyr and an intercessor. Go to this splendid exhibition if you can but don’t forget to pray to St Thomas for the Church now.
This article appears in the June issue of the Catholic Herald.Subscribe now.