One of the most notorious episodes in medieval English history took place at Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. During evening vespers, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury and erstwhile friend of King Henry II, was murdered by four of the king’s knights, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito. They are said to have been incited to action by Henry’s exasperated words, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’
The earliest known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B II, f. 341r)
Becket's martyrdom was the subject of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, first performed on 15 June 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral before it moved to a run at the Mercury Theatre in London. Eliot’s play drew on the work of an eyewitness to the event, a clerk named Edward Grim who had attempted to defend Becket from William de Tracy’s blow. Henry had actually hoped that the appointment of his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, would help him to reassert royal authority over the Church. But the king had not anticipated that Becket would resign as chancellor shortly after he was elevated to the see of Canterbury. The conflict between Henry II and Becket centred on the perennial issue of the balance between royal and papal authority and the rights of the church in England.
Becket’s murder sent shockwaves across Western Christendom. The four knights were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III, who ordered them to serve in the Holy Land for 14 years while they sought his forgiveness. Becket himself was canonised in February 1173, less than 3 years after his death, and Canterbury Cathedral became a major site of pilgrimage – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th century, are testament to the continued popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas. Henry II, meanwhile, undertook a public act of penance on 12 July 1174. Confessing to indirect responsibility for the murder, he entered Canterbury in sackcloth, both barefoot and mute, and made a pilgrimage to the crypt of St Thomas where he was whipped by the monks while he lay prostrate and naked by the tomb.
Our new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy, includes three items that relate to the legacy of Becket’s martyrdom. One is a 12th-century English manuscript of the Letters of Thomas Becket, collected by Alan of Tewkesbury, which contains the earliest known manuscript miniature of Becket’s martyrdom, shown above. The second is a beautiful enamelled Champlevé reliquary from Limoges, on loan from the British Museum. On one compartment is an image of Becket being struck with a sword; above, he rises from his tomb to ascend to heaven. Reliquaries such as this would have been used to store relics of the saint.
A reliquary depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (British Museum 1854,0411.2)
The third item relating to Becket's martyrdom is the seal of his successor, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-28). Langton's seal shows the murder of Thomas Becket on its reverse, as a permanent reminder of the suffering endured by the Church. It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that the first clause of Magna Carta, perhaps inserted at Langton's insistence (and still valid in English law today), confirms the liberties of the church in England.
Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (#MagnaCarta)