“Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint”
The British Museum, Bloomsbury, London
May 20-August 22, 2021, £17

Review by Charlotte Gauthier

Few English saints have captured the popular imagination as thoroughly or enduringly as Thomas Becket, the medieval Archbishop of Canterbury and staunch defender of ecclesiastical privilege whose murder at the hands of four of King Henry II’s knights in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, echoes down the centuries to the present day.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425-50 | © The Trustees of the British Museum

Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint was to have marked the 850th anniversary of the prelate’s death. Delayed for a year by the COVID pandemic, it has certainly been worth the wait. An extraordinary collection of over a hundred objects from churches, libraries, museums, and private collections all over Europe charts Becket’s life and legacy from boyhood through his early and rapid promotion in ecclesiastical circles, to his murder and the rapid spread and final suppression of his cult.

Fearlessly curated, the exhibition starts as it means to go on: with a lavish depiction of Becket’s murder. Alone at the entrance stands a Limoges reliquary — exemplar of a veritable industry of enamelled reliquaries turned out in their hundreds to please an eager medieval public — illustrating the bloody scene in deceptively naïve medieval enamel. Below, knights brandish sword and axe while Becket’s companions look on, hands raised in impotent horror. Above, mournful monks prepare Becket’s body for burial while flights of angels sing his soul to its rest.

Having set the mood, the exhibit retraces its steps, illustrating Becket’s London boyhood with bone ice skates and gaming pieces, his early manhood with documents from Becket’s mentor Theobald of Bec’s time as Archbishop of Canterbury, and the future saint’s rapid rise to political and ecclesiastical prominence with his commission as chancellor, a contemporary episcopal miter and crozier, and a luxurious Gospel manuscript.

Would-be visitors should reacquaint themselves with the outlines of Becket’s conflict with Henry II before attending. While the descriptions of a series of illuminated folios on loan from a private collection outline their internecine dispute over ecclesiastical privilege, which came to a head with the coronation of Henry the Young King and Becket’s excommunication of the bishops involved, there is little time or room to elaborate.

Sound and physical design make the compact exhibition space feel at once expansive and intimate. A dramatic animated video of Becket’s murder, complete with a slow-motion shot of spurting blood worthy of Quentin Tarantino, caps the first third of the exhibit. Its chilling effect is deepened by an illuminated manuscript — the only object in that space — depicting a shard from the murderer’s broken sword and a piece of Becket’s severed skull flying across the scene. The video’s austere soundtrack, the chanting of the minor doxology, fills the entire exhibition. Those who miss the placard explaining that the music is from a re-creation of the vespers being sung by the monks of Canterbury Cathedral at the moment of Becket’s murder will find the soundtrack in a small but well-stocked gift shop at the exit.

The remaining two-thirds of the exhibit detail the extraordinarily rapid spread of the Becket cult to places as far away as Sicily, Sweden, Spain, and the Holy Land, ending with the cult’s brutal suppression by Henry VIII in 1538 and its continuance by exiled English Roman Catholics. A superb Swedish baptismal font and a Norwegian reliquary recapitulate the by-now familiar scene of Becket’s murder, attesting to the saint’s popularity throughout Christendom. A multiplicity of pilgrim badges and other artefacts underscores the popularity of the saint’s cult within England. In the late 12th century, the shrine at Becket’s London birthplace employed a man to melt down and recycle the thousands of lead ampullae of Becket’s miraculous blood carried home to the capital by Canterbury pilgrims. The number and variety of surviving pilgrim souvenirs on display in the exhibition captures some of this roaring trade.

The highlight of the exhibition is without doubt a series of medieval stained-glass windows, carefully transported from Canterbury Cathedral, depicting some of the numerous miracles attributed to the intercession of St. Thomas Becket. These range from the commonplace to the amusingly fantastical: prominent among them is a series of panels depicting the story of a criminal who prayed to Becket for mercy after having been judicially blinded and castrated. The final panel in the cycle rather charmingly depicts the rehabilitated miscreant pointing to his eyes, while an astonished onlooker points at his groin. A flourishing tree in the corner implies the man’s complete restoration.

Baptismal font showing the murder of Thomas Becket, Sweden. c. 1191. | By kind permission of Lyngsjö Church

Henry VIII dominates the visitor’s final moments in the exhibit: a life-sized rendering of Holbein’s famous portrait commands the space. The curators have taken pains to highlight Henry’s early devotion to Becket, making the display of three mutilated service books more shocking. Henry VIII personally oversaw the complete destruction of Becket’s shrine at Canterbury in 1538, and ordered his feast day to be scrubbed from the liturgical calendar. Rather than dispose of books with prayers for Becket’s feast, many priests chose to scratch out or otherwise cover the prayers to comply with the king’s edict suppressing the Becket cult. One missal on display is covered in an ocean of ink red as fresh blood.

Some visitors might object to the exhibition’s emphasis on Becket as a prototype for English Roman Catholics, including John Fisher and Thomas More. It closes with a few artefacts highlighting the suppression of Roman Catholicism in England and the continuation of Becket’s cult on the Continent and among recusants. Last to greet the visitor is a reliquary purporting to contain a piece of Becket’s skull, smuggled out of England during the Elizabethan era. Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint is a whirlwind tour through the life, death, and afterlife of England’s most popular medieval saint. As turbulent now as he ever was, Becket continues to divide opinion 851 years on.

Charlotte Gauthier (@FaraiUnVers) is a historian of the later Middle Ages.