4 min read

The medieval treasures that tell the story of Thomas Becket 2

a photo of an ornate box in gold and blue inlay with medieval manuscript style figures depicting the murder of Thomas Becket

A Thomas Becket Reliquary, Limoges, c. 1200. The image on the front panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Beguiling treasures of the medieval world are to go on show to help tell the story of Thomas Becket and his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170

The spectacular rise and fall of the medieval Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is filled with drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe.

As Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition marking the 850th anniversary of his murder puts it: “the story of Thomas Becket’s life, death and legacy has all the hallmarks of a Game of Thrones plot.”

The Archbishop’s murder on December 29 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights as eye-witnesses looked on, was certainly a grisly and ignoble end for a man whose close friendship with Henry II saw him appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.

The year-long programme of events and exhibitions for Becket 2020 marks the anniversary of a momentous fall from grace that may have set in train the crown verses Rome journey that culminated in Henry VIII’s break with Rome and explores its aftermath via exhibitions and events in venues in London, Canterbury and beyond.

At the British Museum, a spectacular collection of medieval objects helps to tell the story of his rise and fall.

an alabaster relief sculpture showing Thomas A Becket being struck down at the altar

Alabaster sculpture, c. 1450–1550, England. Here, Becket is shown kneeling at an altar, his eyes closed and his hands clasped in prayer, all the while four knights draw their swords behind him. To Becket’s right is the monk Edward Grim, whose arm was injured by one of the knight’s swords. © The Trustees of the British Museum

a small metal relief badge showing figures attacking Thomas Becket

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. This badge depicts the scene of Becket’s martyrdom. An inscription at the base of the badge reads ‘THOMAS MA’ (meaning ‘Thomas Martyr’). Becket is on his knees in front of an altar with four knights attacking him. Behind the altar stands the figure of Edward Grim, a clerk who tried to stop Becket’s murder. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Born in 1118, the son of a Norman merchant-landowning family who lived in London, Becket rose to high office through a series of clerical positions that included a period in the 1130s working for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, who made Becket and archdeacon of Canterbury and eventually recommended him to the king for the position of Lord Chancellor.

Becket proved to be expert at protecting the King’s income and grew close to Edward, who reasoned that here was a man to be trusted with representing the power of the crown against the church in the influential role of Archbishop of Canterbury.

After Theobold died in 1161 Henry nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Once in the role however, something changed. Warming to his new position he became increasingly ascetic and soon began to defend and even try to extend the rights of the bishopric – especially in relation to the power of ecclesiastical courts.

Miracles were reported at his tomb and he was pronounced a martyr and canonised in 1173

As relations with Henry deteriorated, there was a trial and Becket spent some time in exile, eventually returning to Britain where the struggle soon resumed as Becket excommunicated some of the bishops loyal to the King.

His murder in Canterbury Cathedral by four of the King’s knights on December 29 1170 and the news of his death shocked the Christian world. Miracles were reported at his tomb and he was pronounced a martyr and canonised in 1173.

Becket’s shrine at Canterbury became a major centre of European pilgrimage before being destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in the early years of the English Reformation. In both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church he is recognised as a saint and a martyr.

obverse and reverse side of a shaped golden pendant showing Thomas Becket

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

a photo of a reliquary box inlaid with gold and blue

Reliquary, Limoges, c. 1200. The image on the front panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“These events had repercussions that have echoed out through time, and we’re delighted to be telling this important story for the first time in a major exhibition,” adds Speakman whose show opens in October 2020 to showcase an incredible array of over 100 Becket-related objects.

They include manuscripts, jewellery, sculpture, stained glass and paintings drawn from the Museum’s collection as well as important loans from the UK and around the world.

Among them will be a number of the beautiful sacred reliquaries, of which there are 52 known surviving examples. Most of them were produced by the Limoges enamelists in the 1200s to take the Archbishop’s remains across Continental Europe in response to the profound international spread of his cult.

Together the star objects will present Becket’s tumultuous journey from London-merchant’s son to Archbishop; and from a revered saint in death, to a ‘traitor’ in the eyes of Henry VIII, over 350 years later.

Also in the capital, The Museum of London’s extraordinary collection of pilgrim badges will be displayed (from February 14 to October 2020) exploring how, for over 300 years, Londoners flocked to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury often returning with a badge as a keepsake.

Examples of these fascinating medieval relics will also be used to illustrate Becket’s extraordinary life and connections to the capital with visitors encouraged to undertake their own mini-pilgrimage through the museum’s Medieval London Gallery.

a pewter cut out badge in the shape of a medieval bishop

Becket Pilgrim badge, pewter, a standing figure of St Thomas Becket, wearing archbishop’s vestments and holding a cross-staff. Becket’s shrine at Canterbury was the most popular in England. 14th century. © Museum of London

In June, the Becket Pageant for London will be a landmark community project centred around a new 70-minute stage-work and set against the iconic backdrop of medieval Guildhall Yard. The event will seek to re-imagine the only known Becket pageant, performed in London in 1519, and will be a playful musical entertainment for a modern audience.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, will mark the occasion by preaching at Southwark Cathedral in December 2020, in commemoration of Thomas Becket’s final sermon which took place at the same site shortly before his death. The Cathedral will also host an art installation by artist Michelle Rumney during Lent.

Thomas Becket (title tbc) is at the British Museum from 15 October 2020 until 14 February 2021.


British Museum

London, Greater London

Founded in 1753, the British Museum’s remarkable collection spans over two million years of human history. Enjoy a unique comparison of the treasures of world cultures under one roof, centred around the magnificent Great Court. World-famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures, and Egyptian mummies are visited by…

2 comments on “The medieval treasures that tell the story of Thomas Becket

  1. Carol Ann Howaon on

    Dear History people,
    Can anyone tell me why Thomas Becket is also referred to as ‘Thomas a Becket’. What is the significance of the ‘a’ ?

    Thank you
    Carol Ann HoWson

    • James Bailie on

      From a footnote on the Wikipedia page for Becket:

      The name “Thomas à Becket” is not contemporary, and appears to be a post-Reformation creation, possibly in imitation of Thomas à Kempis.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *