THOMAS BECKET MURDER AND THE MAKING OF A SAINT.
Upon having performed a fair amount of research into the history of London, tracing the city’s past back to both it’s usage as a tidal port by Danish sailors during the early tenth century and through the Abbey System established along the banks of the Thames by Norman builders throughout the course of the following two hundred years, I have, as may well be imagined with regards to such matters, inevitably found myself drawn to attend the details of the Archbishop “Thomas a Becket’s” accidental murder by the cohorts of the English King “Henry The Second” beneath the eves of Canterbury Cathedral during the mid twelfth century, an event that, in formalizing the beginning of the Plantagenet reign upon English soil, may, in keeping with the conventions of record keeping that pertain to such things, correspondingly be observed to represent something of a standard without which any appraisal of London’s medieval heritage would appear strangely incomplete…
Standing as perhaps one of the best recorded event of it’s era, being furnished with numerous first hand accounts of the chain of incidents which were observed to have finalized it’s edict, the brutal slaughter of the archbishop within the precinct of his own church, was further witnessed to have served as the axis for a pilgrim convention that, in extending it’s invitation forth across both Britain and Europe through until it’s repudiation by “Henry the Eighth” during the mid sixteenth century, was perceived to enjoin all comers to visit Canterbury in efforts to receive trinkets from it’s community of monks and partake in something of the miracle to which the spirit of “Thomas A Becket” was then believed to ascribe.
Legendarily conducted in public upon the flagstones of what is now the Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel by five men respectively named “Reginald Fitzurse”, “Hugh De Morville”, “Richard Britto”, “William De Tracy” and “Hugh of Horsea”, “Thomas A Becket’s” murder, was observed to have occurred during an insurrection in which the city of Canterbury, having been stormed by a multitude of armed men, bore witness to the deaths of many members of the innocent clerical community that then occupied it’s churches, an instance in which that of “Thomas a Becket”, was ultimately to earn distinction from the due process of law subsequently enforced by the Plantagenet monarchy, becoming synonymous with the notion of religious martyrdom.
Although, in being a well documented fact, the tale of “Thomas A Becket’s” murder, may yet be considered to have played subject to a degree of re-interpretation through association with the practice of it’s re-enactment for the purposes of entertaining pilgrims visiting Canterbury throughout the middle ages, it was essentially observed that the priest was struck upon the back of the head as he turned from the five men who proposed to kill him with a blow of such force that it cleaved through the top of his cranium and proceeded to half sever the arm of a man named “Edward Grim” who had coincidentally attempted to curtail the event, a circumstance beneath which the sword that administered the injury was correspondingly recorded to have broken into two pieces as it hit the ground leaving the doomed archbishop to bleed to death upon the paved floor of the Cathedral, a location in which his body was notably probed by those who either wished to confirm his demise or receive some form of miraculous blessing from it’s mortal remains for some hours before finally being conveyed forth for burial in the building’s crypt.
The series of events that had led to “Thomas A Becket’s” fall from grace were, in contrast to his death, of a somewhat ambiguous persuasion, it being inferred that, in initially having been a friend of “Henry The Second”, he had been granted a post as the King’s chancellor, a pretext beneath which, upon culminating with his installation as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was subsequently observed to have become one of the most powerful men in England, a privilege that, far from consolidating his loyalty to the monarch, was paradoxically witnessed to have resulted in a series of disagreements which were ultimately to lead to both the siege of Canterbury by an armed militia and the accidental circumstance of his demise.
Although ostensibly a well recorded fact, the murder of “Thomas A Becket” could, in this sense, be viewed as something of a metaphor for the method of execution subsequently conferred upon the guilty by the later Plantagenet monarchy, an instance in which the practice of decapitation was noted to have been formally conducted upon a premeditated basis to insure the clean demise of those that had committed murder rather than precariously upon those that had not, although, perhaps ironically, the celebratory haruspexy which occurred after the occurrence in efforts to deter such things may effectively be observed to have remained much the same.
Regardless of the assertion that “Thomas A Becket’s” death was potentially accidental, an event which occurred due to the immoderate use of force, rather than a premeditated assassination, much of the dialogue pronounced by “Henry The Second” pertaining to the affair nonetheless serves to infer the King’s displeasure with regards to the cleric’s conduct, an instance in which the Archbishop was, in being described as both “a loathsome priest” and “a traitor”, further noted to have been wearing an unseemly “hair shirt” beneath his ceremonial vestments postmortem, a series of observation that could, in effect, be credited to the many poetic flourishes for which the monarch earned justifiable renown during his reign rather than any implicit wish to effect dispatch.
Canonized by “Pope Alexander The Third” three years after his death, a process through which formal pilgrimages to the Archbishop’s tomb were eventually conducted across the extent of both Britain and Europe upon a fairly impressive scale, a popularity which through association with a fire that destroyed much of the Cathedral in the late twelfth century resulted in the movement of the Saint’s shrine from the building’s crypt to a suitable location situated beneath the fabulous Gothic arches of it’s newly constructed “Trinity Chapel” in 1220, the legend of the restorative power that had, through association with the Saint’s unjust demise, been invested in the many relics associated with him spread far and wide, resulting in the accumulation of a vast assortment of objects which, upon being thought to possess miraculous properties, were observed to have circulated back and forth among a surprisingly diverse community of erstwhile wayfarers for almost four hundred years.
Having learned something of “Thomas A Becket’s” murder throughout the course of my research into London’s past, I was naturally delighted to discover that “Bloomsbury’s British Museum” was in the process of staging an exhibition devoted to the fallen Archbishop, a show which, in ostensibly having been devised to celebrate the eight hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the priest’s death would notably contain a number of the reliquary caskets that were once used as receptacles for the many items which were either reputed to have been owned by the Saint or to have been drawn from his body following his death among the fraternity of pilgrims that were subsequently compelled to visit Canterbury in pursuit of revivification.
Making my way swiftly across town to attend the event, I duly disembarked at Bloomsbury’s Piccadilly line railway station and forged passage forth through the sweltering heat of perhaps one of the most perfect summers that Britain has experienced in the last decade towards the imposing colonnade that presently serves to distinguish the British Museum’s entrance hall, a process through which I promptly entered the building and crossed it’s remarkable covered courtyard to arrive at the exhibition’s threshold speculating wildly as to what revelations may yet lay in wait.
The first thing that I noticed upon entering the display hall was that an image of Canterbury Cathedral’s Trinity chapel had been projected onto a fabric partition dividing the first part of the exhibition from it’s latter aspect, an arrangement which, in blessing the proceeding with a markedly episcopal character, incidentally served to introduce an assortment of gargoyles, stone ornaments and base reliefs that were recorded to have been recovered from the church during the time of the Archbishop’s residence within it’s precinct, a selection of items that, in bearing more than a passing resemblance to the representations of such things crafted in both Egypt and Persia at much earlier dates, represented evidence to suggest that the architectural conventions to which such articles may be presumed to ascribe had changed little for over two thousand years, recreating the same monsters, parodies and caricatures that have perhaps always served to confound human sense.
Proceeding forth through the exhibition my attention was drawn to a number of minutely inscribed charters attached to an assortment of impressively hefty red wax bosses, tracts which, in being noted to have legitimized the monastic community of Canterbury’s right to hunt within the city, were observed to confirm the assertion that the relationship between “Henry The Second” and “Thomas A Becket” was, at least initially, sound.
Upon immediate appraisal the delicacy of the script invested in such articles resembled in many ways that which was habitually devoted towards the encryption of the Christian Gospels conventionally drafted by the scribes of the era, an observation which would, in effect, suppose that, although of a legal persuasion, such charters were finished by clerics rather than men of royal stock, a premium beneath which it may well be imagined that the tracts’ authors were, in being necessarily bound beneath the authority of the King, nonetheless largely inclined to draft laws to suit themselves, submitting their propositions forth for appraisal in much the same manner that a committee may seek to gain license before figuratively formalizing them in the instance of regal acceptance.
Moving briskly forth into the exhibition’s next chamber of displays I was confronted by an impressive animated interpretation of the murder itself, an enactment which, in being projected onto a blank screen located at the far end of the room alongside fragments of the dialogue which were thought to have been exchanged at the scene of the crime, was notably enacted in cameo with the employ of cut out figures to the effect of achieving a markedly conspiratorial atmosphere that served to give some impression of the auspices beneath which the deed was believed to have been conducted.
The next part of the exhibition was devoted towards the assortment of fabulous golden reliquary caskets for which the pilgrim tradition of Canterbury is most well known, an instance in which many of the articles in question were ironically noted to have been manufactured in “Limoges”, a location from which they were thenceforth distributed across the extent of Europe, drawing people towards the prospect of Holy Communion in Southern England from every corner of the continent.
Each chest was, this instance, witnessed to have been meticulously gilded, decorated with Jewelry and illustrated with descriptions of the Archbishop’s death surrounded by the detachment of armed men who were recorded to have killed him, an observation which would suppose that the cult of “Thomas A Becket” had, in the years between the Saint’s demise and the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, become something of an institution in virtually every part of the known world.
Rumored to have contained articles which once belonged to the Archbishop, an assertion that would potentially have made him one of the wealthiest men that has ever lived, the purpose of the caskets was thought to have been the distribution of an assortment of tin trinkets and objects d’art that had been pressed by various monastic communities as mementos for pilgrims seeking to preserve some physical vestige of their adventure for posterity, an instance in which vials filled with mixtures of water and blood and lead ‘ampulla’ that once also presumably contained liquid were freely exchanged to the effect of consolidating the belief that any object associated with the Saint may, in keeping with it’s reputation, somehow possess a miraculous restorative property.
Although latterly considered a poison it seemed, with regards to such matters, that, owing to it’s pliability, lead was frequently used to preserve any native mineralogical effervescence that naturally drawn water may be presumed to possess, a practice which would suppose that, with regards to it’s choice of refreshment, the medieval palate differed substantially from our own.
Ironically the British Museum’s exhibition actually does include a number of items genuinely owned by twelfth century bishops within it’s catalog of displays, an instance in which a triangular cotton mitre, a traditionally pacifistic crozier, a bejeweled gold ring and a pair of soft fabric shoes called buskins, were notably observed to have been fashioned at approximately the same time that “Thomas A Becket” was appointed to office at Canterbury.
Proceeding forth into the exhibition’s next bank of displays, I was confronted by an illuminated wall configured to resemble a row of stained glass windows decorated with images of daily life at the Cathedral and the many restorative miracles to which they once presumably circumscribed during the thirteenth century.
Standing as perhaps one of the most beautifully realized artistic idiosyncrasies of the middle ages, stained glass windows were perceived by the Museum to have arisen as a result of medieval science’s inability to cast glass in uniform sheets of sufficient size to fill windows, a process through which they were effectively patched together from gem sized shards of multi colored glass cut to unique measurements pending arrangement in lead frames, a contrivance which, like that of the ceramic mosaics which once paved the floors of many early churches, coincidentally blessed their creators with the ability to recant tales and stories in pictoral form to the effect of preserving a unique record of event for posterity.
Although such methodology could, in effect, have served to inspire the allusion to naval stargazing which occurs in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth century book “A Treatise On The Astrolabe”, the practicalities inherent in the formulation of stained glass windows were, in retrospective terms, observed to have represented something of a science unto themselves, a technology of components and configurations bound together at once to the effect of achieving cumulative cogency.
The last section of the exhibition was, in this instance, notably devoted to “Geoffrey Chaucer’s” description of the many conventions pertaining to religious migration described in “The Canterbury Tales,” a book which, in having been written at approximately the same time as Boccacio’s “Decameron”, may easily be imagined to have alloyed the practice of evacuation which occurred during the Black Death to the older tradition of holy pilgrimage, an instance in which an example of a fourteenth century copper Astrolabe displayed alongside an excerpt from “The Shipman’s Tale” presents evidence to suggest that travel during the epidemic was not necessarily limited to relays between sites of religious significance.
Displayed alongside such articles was a delicately crafted silver surgical instrument case illustrated with a depiction of the Archbishop’s murder upon it’s back, an item which, in being recorded to have been presented to a Royal surgeon by “Henry The Eighth”, infers that, despite what was essentially thought to have been the monarch’s disregard for matters of an episcopal nature, he was nonetheless not beyond commissioning articles decorated with religious themes.
In correspondence with such an observation an ivory cup decorated with silver and pearls, which was once owned by Henry’s queen “Katherine Howard” stands alongside the surgical case in an adjoining cabinet, a vessel that, in being coincidentally illustrated with both a mitre and the initials T.B. is similarly believed to pay homage to the concept of martyrdom.
Concluding with a life sized portrait of “Henry The Eighth” dressed regally in correspondence with the conventions of Tudor fashion, the exhibition is effectively perceived to chart the cult of “Thomas A Becket” from it’s origins through to it’s ultimate fragmentation in the mid sixteenth century, an odyssey that, as is inevitably the case with regards to such things, is yet observed to remain partially obscured beneath the weight of it’s own mystery.
Sponsored by the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation, The Ruddock Foundation For Arts, Jack Ryan and Zemen Paulus, The British Museum’s current foray into the religious practices of medieval Britain provides an intriguing insight into a world which, in being geographically familiar, nonetheless appears to have been incongruously severed from the present by the train of subsequent event.
Scheduled to run until the Twenty Second of August 2021, “Thomas A Becket the Making Of A Saint”, represents an interesting diversion from the customary rigors of urban life and for those wishing to learn something of London’s past comes highly recommended.
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