The murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, cut down inside Canterbury Cathedral by knights of King Henry II’s retinue, sent shock waves throughout England and beyond – an act as scandalous, according to one of his successors as archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as the assassination of JFK or Martin Luther King.
The extent to which those ripples reverberated across Europe will be illustrated by a number of rare exhibits on display for the first time at the British Museum, as part of its forthcoming exhibition later this month about Becket, his murder and its powerful aftershocks.
“It is no exaggeration to say that this was the crime of the century,” said Naomi Speakman, one of the co-curators of the exhibition. Becket was not only a senior churchman in his own right, but was highly connected to rulers and church figures across Europe, including the pope. And so when he died, she says, the outrage and veneration was swift and widespread.
“A key objective of ours was to take what is [often] thought of as an insular British story, and to refocus it and say, actually, this is a European story,” said Lloyd de Beer, the other co-curator. “This murder happens on a European stage. And these objects speak to different elements of how that murder was received in those European countries.”
Two of the most striking exhibits come from Sweden and Norway, where the cult of Saint Thomas of Canterbury quickly became established, though it would also spread across continental Europe and as far afield as Iceland and Sicily.
Among them is a dramatic font, made two decades after the killing, which depicts the murder in a series of vivid scenes – including, highly unusually, an image of the king giving his soldiers explicit instructions to kill Becket (in case of any doubt, the stonemason has included Henry’s name).
For 850 years the font has stood in a simple rural parish church in the southern Swedish village of Lyngsjö, a building it is not thought to have left since its creation by a local 12th-century stonemason called Tove. “It is a very little village, and has been since the medieval time, and it hasn’t been altered all that much during all of these centuries,” said Heikka Ranta, the heritage officer for the diocese of Lund, in which the church is located.
While today’s parishioners, still baptising their children in the ancient font, may not know much about Becket, according to Ranta (“we are not Anglicans and we are not so familiar with the English stories”), he was a wildly popular saint in the region in the years after his death, as illustrated by a gold reliquary box from Hedalen in Norway, which will also be leaving its home for the first time.
The box, in the shape of a church building mounted by two dragons’ heads, depicts on one side the adoration of the Magi and the murder of Becket – a juxtaposition that illustrates the significance of the saint’s martyrdom at the time. Its home is the spectacular Hedalen stave church, a highly ornate wooden building dating from the 12th century.
One “very cool” aspect of the casket, according to De Beer, is that it portrays both a broken tip of the sword and a portion of Becket’s skull falling to the floor – as described in contemporary accounts of the murder. Both were preserved as relics and given their own chapels inside Canterbury Cathedral, which pilgrims could visit to seek the saint’s blessing.
The exhibition will also include a number of other gold and enamel caskets made in Limoges in France to honour the saint – remarkably, almost 50 similar examples are still known, treasured by churches across Europe.
The reason for his popularity at that time also suggests a relevance today, De Beer said. “Why does Becket appear on this font in rural Sweden, 20 years after his death? Well, Becket represents this person who stands up to royal authority. He’s an extremely attractive figure as a saint, and as a defender of the rights of the church, but as defender of the people against royal tyranny.
“One of the most enduring aspects of Becket today is his reputation as a rebel.”