“Very quickly you would turn your heart and favour away from me, which is now so great between us, and replace it with the most savage hatred” – Thomas Becket to Henry II in 1162
I recently visited the British Museum in London to see their current exhibition about Thomas Becket, who was the Royal Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II. On the 29th December 1170 four knights went to Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Thomas Becket scandalizing Western Europe. Two years after his death he was canonized and became a saint with his cult spreading far and wide.
This exhibition took you from Thomas’ humble beginnings, as the son of a London merchant, to his spectacular rise to Royal Chancellor. He was in the service of Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury for nine years, and it was Theobald who recommended him to Henry II. Henry and Thomas became a dream team, with Thomas his right-hand man. One of the items on display is the only surviving wax impression from Becket’s seal matrix, and you can still see the fingerprints on the lower left side!
The relationship between Henry and Thomas turned sour when Henry made the controversial move to make Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury on Theobald’s death, despite him not being a priest. From Henry’s point of view this would mean he would have his Royal Chancellor at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, who would help him circumvent church authority. Needless to say, his plan did not work out the way he expected.
The beautiful manuscripts on display show how their once strong relationship deteriorated, with Thomas renouncing his position as Royal Chancellor and committing to his role as the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his new role Thomas supported the authority of the church and went head-to-head with Henry, with things getting so tense that he fled to the continent and court of Louis VII of France where he remained for 6 years.
The trigger for Thomas’ return was the coronation of Henry’s son (known at Henry the Young King) to secure the succession. This coronation was quite sensible when you consider Henry’s younger years and the civil war that engulfed them. However, because of his argument with Thomas he got somebody else to crown his son which was a challenge to Thomas’ authority.
Thomas returned on the 2nd December but by the end of the month he would be dead. The British Museum installed a video showcasing the dramatic events in Canterbury Cathedral, and how four knights took it upon themselves to arrest Thomas after hearing Henry complain about him. The altercation led to murder, and the next part of the exhibition explored Thomas being made a saint. Henry was likely distraught by the murder and even served public penance. He would go on to support Canterbury Cathedral as shown by this document from 1175, bearing his seal, which protects the rights of the monks who live there. Henry adopted St Thomas as his protector and his daughters spread the cult of Thomas abroad through their dynastic marriages.
The cult of Thomas spread much further than I had ever realized, even going as far as Norway! Miracles became associated with Thomas, as shown in the beautiful Miracle Windows on loan from Canterbury Cathedral. It’s rare to have the opportunity to be that close to medieval stained glass, and it was an amazing addition to the exhibition. Thomas Becket became one of Catholic Europe’s most popular saints, and there are more parish churches dedicated to him than any other saint in England.
The final part of the exhibition fast forwarded to a few hundred years later and the infamous Henry VIII. The English Reformation that began in his reign had a massive impact on Becket’s cult, with his shrine destroyed on Henry’s orders. It was decreed that Thomas’s image and name should be removed from books, as shown by these three examples below. Seeing these damaged books is incredibly powerful, and the careful cutting out of his image from the first one and lack of crossing out of the second shows many people would have been under duress to remove images.
This exhibition was one of the best I’ve ever been too, and has been carefully thought out. The interpretation was informative, interesting and easy to read, with the archives and objects on display supporting the narrative. It was wonderful to see how many organisations were involved, as there were items on loan from The National Archives and Canterbury Museums and Galleries among others.
The exhibition is on until the 22nd August so if you’re in London I would highly recommend booking a ticket!
Have you been to this exhibition? What were your thoughts? I would love to hear them in the comments section below.
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