Murder and the Making of a Saint: St. Thomas Becket at the British Museum

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The pages of England’s history resound with tales of Saints and sinners, of heroes and villains.

The recounting of one such tale has been on display for all to visit and relish at the British Museum in London since 20 May and concluding this weekend, marking the 850th anniversary of the brutal murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

This magnificent exhibit, drawing forth the past into the present, details the importance of St. Thomas Becket in English and Catholic history. Though Henry VIII, nearly 400 years after the martyrdom of St. Thomas, made every effort through force and decree to erase the Saint from English memory – even to the point of scattering his bones and destroying the luminous shrine erected to him – St. Thomas Becket lives on.

Within the meticulously assembled and studied display at the British Museum, there is a glorious collection of treasures on view for visitors to this splendid exhibit:
illuminated manuscripts; eyewitness accounts of the murder; jewelry and sacred reliquaries; objects from the British Museum Collection; loans from major collections across the U.K. and Europe; and an entire medieval stained-glass window on loan for the first time from Canterbury Cathedral, depicting the life and afterlife effects of the murder of the Saint.

The exhibit portrays St. Thomas Becket in a gentle and sympathetic light, and it has been successful. Record numbers of people have turned out to attend, proving that the Catholic history of England remains of both interest and importance to them.

A little bit of History

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London, in December of 1120. His father was a prosperous merchant, and the boy lived an ordinary life. Despite his humble beginnings, Thomas was later hired as a clerk for the Archbishop of Canterbury and rose quickly through the ranks. He was sent on official visits to the Pope and then to Italy and France to study law.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, recommended Becket as the Royal Chancellor to King Henry II, then the English Monarch. It was a well-paying job and provided the young man with the lifestyle of a high-ranking courtier. He and the King became close friends, and he became an important player in the life of the court, coming to be known as ‘Thomas the Chancellor.’

Following the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry II unexpectedly named Thomas the new Archbishop. The King had hoped that Thomas would be an ally in his issues between Church and State, and though biographers describe him as the King’s man more than a man of the Church, Thomas Becket’s new position seems to have endowed him with a deeper faith and desire to protect the Church. The relationship between the two began to deteriorate, and within two years, Becket was brought before the King and falsely accused of crimes against the State. Becket fled to France and remained there for six years, only returning after a reconciliation with the King was agreed upon in 1170. Within weeks, Archbishop Thomas Becket would be dead.

Murder and Martyrdom

He refused to allow the King to reduce the power of the Church in Church matters. The King, expressing his exasperation with the Archbishop to his knights, wished that someone would relieve him of this troublesome priest. His knights took him at his word and, on 29 December, 1170, proceeded to the cathedral to arrest Becket. Becket refused to obey them; they left the cathedral, and soon returned with their swords to brutally murder him. The murder shocked all of England and horrified the witnesses to the atrocious crime. It is related that those in the area immediately began to soak up the Saint’s blood and to gather any bit of him that they could, instantly relegating him to the status of Martyr.

Following his death, great miracles and healings owing to his intercession were reported. Pope Alexander III canonized Thomas Becket in 1173, just three years after his death. Henry II performed public penances twice for his part in the murder of the Archbishop, and eventually visited the cathedral, kneeling before Becket’s tomb. He then devoted himself to his old friend and took him as his protector.

The exhibition appears to draw connections with later Catholic persecutions, especially to that of St. Thomas More, also a Royal Chancellor to the King – to a later King Henry. It may be a reminder that Catholicism still remained the true faith of many English people, even after the Reformation.

By Sandra Chisholm

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