The British Museum’s exhibit on St. Thomas Becket gives a sympathetic look into the past


LONDON – In a gallery at the British Museum, light shines on an array of medieval crosses, reliquaries and manuscripts, while an audiovisual exhibit recreates one of the most notorious crimes in English history.

In the center, three stained glass windows, painstakingly transferred from Canterbury Cathedral, convey images of the legendary afterlife of Saint Thomas Becket (1120-1170), alongside the badges and souvenirs left by generations of pilgrims to his place. of martyrdom.

When the ‘Murder and Make a Saint’ exhibit opened in May, as England’s coronavirus lockdown was eased, curators said they hoped to portray Becket’s journey from a humble clerk to one of the most popular holy miracles in Europe.

Three months later, after drawing record crowds for the 850th anniversary of his death, many are struck by the warm evocation of the exposition of the country’s Catholic past and the dramatic reconstruction of the centrality of the church and of the faith.

“There is no doubt that the long-held anti-Catholicism here is now dissipating, allowing a more sympathetic understanding of the past, which cultural events like this can subtly reflect,” said Jesuit Father Timothy Byron, historian, at Catholic News Service.

“There are issues around our religious and cultural identity and how we assess our history and a better climate now to debate the place of our Catholic and Protestant traditions.”

Born in London, Becket studied in France and Italy, before becoming a senior lay official in Canterbury for Archbishop Theobald de Bec.

In 1155, he was appointed chancellor of King Henry II, responsible for royal revenues, becoming a close and trusted confidant; just seven years later, after the death of Archbishop Theobald, the king appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury.

The top post of the church carried great wealth and power. But Becket, a fine horseman and sword fighter, was not even a priest. The surprise meeting therefore also required, in the words of the commissioners, “a certain staging”.

The exhibit includes artifacts from Becket’s early London life, a rare document bearing his seal, and an alabaster altar panel depicting him blessing on his episcopal consecration just one day after his ordination.

The exhibit also noted that the king’s neat arrangement quickly fell apart.

Henry had expected his new chancellor-archbishop to obey his orders, but Becket adopted an ascetic lifestyle and opposed the king’s authority, especially when he sought to tighten control over the church with a series of statutes in 1164.

As tensions grew, Becket fled abroad under the protection of the King of France, while the Pope negotiated on his behalf.

He finally returned at the end of 1170 and was killed in Canterbury on December 29 by four knights who had witnessed the King’s Christmas tirade against “the wretched drones and traitors” he had “fed and promoted” in his royal house.

Evidence indicates that the intruders planned to take Becket to Winchester. When he resisted, they lost control and slaughtered the archbishop to death in his cathedral during vespers.

Becket’s violent end, captured by five eyewitness accounts, shocked Europe – sending, in the words of the conservatives, “strong echoes through the centuries.”

His cult of the martyr developed rapidly, and just 26 months later he was canonized by Pope Alexander III, making Canterbury the first pilgrimage center in Europe after Rome, Jerusalem and Saint-Jacques-de- Compostela.

Its four disgraced murderers later died while serving in the Holy Land by papal order, while in 1174 Henry II begged forgiveness.

Becket’s fame is recalled in objects such as a golden blue-green coffin, which is said to have contained fragments of his bones or bloody clothing, as well as in the cathedral window “Miracle Windows”, depicting healings during of his intercession.

An original copy of “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, the first book printed in English, shows how Becket’s story quickly took root in the public imagination.

Father Byron, the historian, believes that the enduring cult of Becket illustrates how popular devotions can last for centuries, against all efforts to diminish them, if the “soft power” they represent is effectively harnessed and directed. .

Joseph Shaw, an Oxford lecturer on medieval philosophy, agrees and is struck by Becket’s sympathetic portrayal in the exhibit.

“Catholics have often been portrayed here as peddlers of weird superstitions – but this exhibit shows a detachment from bigotry and a genuine willingness to engage with what Becket has achieved,” Shaw told CNS. “While this shows that there are two sides to history, it also reflects today’s greater openness, which allows people to look at art, theology, and history more objectively. . “

During the 16th century Reformation, King Henry VIII declared that Becket “was no longer a saint, but a traitor to the crown”. All references to Becket were removed from the prayer books, as the king proclaimed his party’s end – a move that shocked Europe and hastened Henry’s excommunication.

People have drawn parallels between Becket and the new generation of Reformation-era martyrs, most notably St. Thomas More, who was also royal chancellor. The English Catholic College in Rome, training priests for the secret ministry, promoted Becket “as a model of emulation.”

The exhibit includes a carved marble base from the desecrated tomb of Becket, found in a river near Canterbury, as well as a bone fragment from the saint’s skull, which was smuggled abroad around a Jesuit college exiled in France.

Shaw thinks Becket’s connection to the exhibit’s subsequent Catholic persecutions is significant.

“It is a reminder that even after the terrible destruction of the Reformation, Catholicism still remained the true faith of many English people,” Shaw told CNS.

Ruth Cornett, art historian from Northern Ireland, admits that it is difficult for an exhibition to capture complex historical ideas through material objects or to trace the political and ecclesiastical divisions of modern minds. But the exhibit shows what was lost to spiritual life due to the Reformation conflicts, she said, and will resonate with people familiar with the modern murder of the Frankish clergy, as well as with images of cultural and artistic vandalism from Afghanistan to Syria.

“Becket’s instant fame across Europe, where Christians were horrified by his plight, shows how the church of the day knew no borders,” Cornett told CNS.

“Today, when education is key, exhibits like this can help expand knowledge and understanding, challenging perceived truths about the past.”

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