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Chasse with the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket (detail), gilded copper with champlevé enamel (c. 1190).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the introduction to his acclaimed play Becket, Jean Anouilh describes how he became inspired to write about his most famous protagonist, Saint Thomas Becket.  Unlike the zealous pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales or the ardent knights of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Anouilh did not purposely set out in search of Becket.  Rather, he discovered Becket by happenstance—in the pages of a winsome old history book about the Norman Conquest. 

“I am not a serious man,” he freely admits.  “I wrote Becket by chance.”[1]  In his introduction, Anouilh recounts how he purchased Augustin Thierry’s The Conquest of England by the Normans from one of the many book sellers that line the Seine.[2]  “I did not expect to read this respectable work, which I assumed would be boring,” he explains.  “I bought it because it had a pretty green binding and I needed a spot of green on my shelves.”[3]

Anouilh returned home and was gently browsing its pages—he insists he is “well-mannered with old books”—when he happened on the story of Saint Thomas Becket.[4]  The story “might have [been] taken to be fiction,” he writes, “except that the bottom of the pages were jammed with references in Latin from the chronicles of the twelfth century.”[5]  Anouilh was “dazzled.”[6]  “I had expected to find a saint—I am always a trifle distrustful of saints, as I am of great theatre stars—and I found a man.”[7]

The Life of Thomas

According to the Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Thomas Becket was born in London on 21 December 1118, the Feast Day of Saint Thomas the Apostle.[8]  At the age of 21, Becket lost both his mother and father in short succession, and after working for several employers, Becket obtained a post in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.[9]  Theobald trusted and respected Becket, and in 1154, Theobald nominated Becket to become Archdeacon of Canterbury.[10]  A year later, King Henry II appointed Becket Chancellor of England.[11]

Saint Thomas Becket

Detail of Saint Thomas Becket, stained glass window, Canterbury Cathedral. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas and Henry II developed more than just a close professional relationship during Thomas’s Chancellorship.  As Butler explains, “their friendship was not confined to a common interest in affairs of state, and their personal relations at times of relaxation have been aptly described as ‘frolicsome.’”[12]  When Theobald died in 1161, Henry II told Thomas he intended to appoint him the new Archbishop of Canterbury.[13]  Becket was reluctant.  “Should God permit me to be archbishop of Canterbury,” he told the king, “I should soon lose your Majesty’s favour, and the affection with which you honour me would be changed into hatred.  For several things you do in prejudice of the rights of the Church make me fear you would require of me what I could not agree to . . . .”[14] 

The king remained undeterred, and on 23 May 1162, Becket’s election was confirmed.[15]  Many of Staunton’s biographers suggest that Becket underwent a genuine conversation following his elevation to Archbishop.[16]  Suddenly Becket, who had grown accustomed to wealth and luxury as Chancellor—his household apparently rivaled that of the king—exchanged the finery of his previous life for a simple black cassock, linen surplice, and sacerdotal stole, under which he wore a hair-shirt.[17]  More significantly, he wholly immersed himself in the life of an ascetic.  He regularly celebrated Mass at 9 o’clock in the morning, and at 10 o’clock distributed alms—which he had doubled—to the poor.  He cherished the “monastic regularity” of his new office, and he personally examined and selected candidates for holy orders.[18]

Thomas’s commitment to the Church would eventually bring him into open conflict with the king.  After a series clashes that pitted the king’s secular power against Thomas’s authority as Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry II’s anger finally boiled over when he learned that Thomas had excommunicated three bishops who had participated in his son’s coronation.[19]  “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry raged.  Four knights interpreted the king’s appeal as a call to action, and they hastened to Canterbury in search of Thomas. 

Death Comes for the Archbishop

In the years immediately following Saint Thomas Becket’s death, a number of Vitae detailing Becket’s life and death were written.  Though the exact number of works is unknown, the volume of biographical accounts produced was unusually high.  In his insightful book Thomas Becket and His Biographers, Michael Staunton suggests Becket’s popularity was due in large part to his compelling life story.  Staunton writes, “That so many people chose to write about him in the years immediately after his murder is due not only to the explosion of popular veneration in the early 1170s but to the fact that his life and death provided such rich biographical material.”[20]  Thomas Becket and His Biographers examines ten such works, nine of which were written within seven years of Becket’s death. [21]

Five of Staunton’s chosen biographers actually witnessed Becket’s assassination, and their accounts are vivid.[22]  Staunton reminds us that while our familiarity with Becket’s story has “dimmed the shock of the event,” for Becket’s contemporaries, the event would have been far more visceral and alarming.[23]  After all, Becket was “the leader of the English Church at the height of his fame, murdered in his own cathedral by agents of the king in a place and time where such martyrs must have seemed an exotic reminder of a distant past.”[24]

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Reliquary Casket with Scenes from the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, gilded silver with niello and glass (1173-80).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The biographer known as Anonymous I provides one of the most concise accounts of Becket’s final moments.  After discovering Thomas in the cathedral at Canterbury, Henry’s knights confronted him.  Becket, sensing his impending death, “joined his hands and opened his eyes” before addressing his prospective executioner, the knight Reginald FitzUrse.[25]  “I commend myself to God and St Denis and St Aelfeah,” he told the knight.  At this, Reginald “approached and struck him powerfully from the side in the head, and cut off the top of his crown, and knocked off his cap.  The sword fell upon the left shoulder-blade, and cut all his clothes to nakedness.”  Then the knight William de Tracy “approached, and struck him with a great blow on the head; but still he did not fall.  The same William struck another powerful blow and at this the holy man fell prone on the pavement.”  The knight Richard le Bret then took a turn, striking Becket “as he lay on the pavement,” shattering his sword in the process.  Finally, the knight Hugh Mauclerk, “the most wicked of all men, approaching as he lay, put his foot on his neck and thrusting the point of the sword into his head spread his brains on the pavement, crying out and saying, ‘Let us go, the traitor is dead.’”[26]

Staunton notes that for some of Becket’s biographers, the act of scattering Becket’s brains on the cathedral floor was an outrage.[27]  John of Salisbury, for example, compares the knights unfavorably with Jesus’ executioners, who at least refrained from breaking Jesus’ legs when they realized he was already dead.[28]  In Edward Grim’s account, once Becket’s crown had been separated from his head, “the blood white from the brain, and the brain equally red from the blood, brightened the floor with the colors of the lily and rose, the Virgin and Mother, and the life and death of the confessor and martyr.”[29] 

In art, Saint Thomas Becket is sometimes portrayed with a bleeding head, signifying the first blow of his attackers.[30]  Becket’s other attributes in art are a long sword, representing the sword with which he was martyred, and the palm branch or martyrdom.[31]  In some cases, the sword is shown cleaving, or inserted in, the saint’s head.  The presence of a bishop’s mitre also helps identify him.

Pilgrims’ Progress

Soon after the assassination, miracles were attributed to Becket’s intercession, and a cult quickly grew around the saint.  Staunton attributes the cult’s popularity to its versatility.  “One of the reasons for Thomas’s broad appeal as a saint is that he meant many different things to different people.  Each could take from his memory and his image what they sought, whether it was the miracle-worker, the martyr, the champion of the Church, or a combination of these.”[32]

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Gold Reliquary Pendant with Queen Margaret of Sicily Blessed by Bishop Reginald of Bath (1173-77).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  On the opposite side, the pendant used to contain a crystal under which a number of relics were kept.  An inscription on the pendant indicates the relics included “blood of St. Thomas Martyr” as well as parts of his vestments stained with blood, including his cloak, belt, hood, shoe, and shirt.

The notoriety of the Becket’s death and reports of his miracle-working relics naturally attracted pilgrims to Canterbury.  Pilgrimages, though certainly not unique to Christianity, were a common form of religious expression in Medieval Europe.[33]  Christians regularly undertook these journeys to shrines and other holy places to fulfill vows, to seek cures, as penance, or merely to deepen their faith.[34]  Indeed, The Canterbury Tales begins with a paean to the religious pilgrimage: 

When the sweet showers of April fall and shoot
Down through the drought of March to pierce the root,
Bathing every vein in liquid power
From which there springs the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath . . .
Then people long to go on pilgrimages . . . .[35]

The text further hints that at least some of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury are veterans of previous pilgrimages.  The Wife of Bath, for example, is described as having “thrice been to Jerusalem,” as well as “to Rome and also to Boulogne, / St James of Compostella and Cologne.”[36]  The Pardoner is portrayed has having sewn a “holy relic on his cap,” most likely a pilgrim’s badge commemorating an earlier trip to some holy site.[37]  Their tales and the tales of their fellow pilgrims unfold as they wend their way to Canterbury.

Saint James - Metropolitan Museum

Saint James the Greater, pine with paint and gilding, South German (1475-1500), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Saint James is depicted here with one of the earliest and most recognizable pilgrim’s badgesa scallop shellattached to his cap. Sea shells like this were associated with pilgrimages to Saint James’s shrine at Santiago de Compostela.

Once at Canterbury itself, a number of sites would have formed part of the pilgrimage experience.  As Paul Webster explains in The Cult of St. Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, key pilgrimage sites at Canterbury Cathedral included “the site of the martyrdom, the crypt tomb, the principal shrine itself, and the chapel known as the Corona, housing ‘Becket’s crown’, the shrine of that part of his head removed by his murderers.”[38] 

As at many medieval shrines, pilgrimage souvenirs, including pilgrim’s badges or ampullae, were available for purchase at Canterbury.  Most depicted scenes from Saint Thomas Becket’s life or death, or featured images from the cathedral itself.  Depictions of the saint’s assassination—scenes restless with fretful knights and drawn swords—were popular.  Renderings of the saint’s shrine were also common and help establish what the shrine might have looked like to a medieval visitor. 

A pilgrim’s badge in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York includes a representation of the shrine dating to the late 14th century.[39]  The jeweled shrine, ordered by Archbishop Thomas Langton and dedicated on 2 July 1220, rested above a golden tomb containing an effigy of Saint Thomas in ecclesiastical vestments; the effigy is clearly visible on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pilgrim’s badge.[40]  The shrine itself was “encrusted with jewels on a trellis-like ground and surmounted by two ship models.”[41]  It also featured what was purportedly the largest ruby in the world, donated to Canterbury by the king of France in 1179.[42]  (Look closely and you may spy a small figure pointing directly at the famed ruby.)

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Pilgrim’s Badge of the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury, cast tin-lead alloy (1350-1400).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Following his elevation to Canterbury, Thomas Becket underwent a religious conversion, the sincerity of which has remained a subject of much speculation ever since.  Citing John of Salisbury, Stauton describes how some “deliberately misrepresented his behaviour, interpreting his zeal for justice as cruelty, his magnificence as pride, his pursuit of God’s will as arrogance, his protection of the Church’s rights as rashness.”[43]  Staunton further observes how Thomas’s character “seemed to feature a preponderance of traits which could be interpreted either way,” noting that “there is a thin line between bravery and foolhardiness, between constancy and stubbornness.”[44]

At the end of Anouilh’s Becket, King Henry is shown kneeling before Becket’s tomb, naked, as monks whip him with ropes.  The play, which is told in flashback, begins as it will conclude.  “Well, Thomas Becket, are you satisfied?” Henry exclaims.[45]  “I am naked at your tomb and your monks are coming to flog me.  What an end to our story!  You, rotting in this tomb, larded with my barons’ dagger thrusts, and I, naked, shivering in the draughts, and waiting like an idiot for those brutes to come thrash me.  Don’t you think we’d have done better to understand each other?”[46]

Understanding Saint Thomas Becket may, perhaps, have been too much to expect.

[1] Jean Anouilh, Becket at xvii (Lucienne Hill trans., 1960).
[2] Id.  The stalls Anouilh describes are still a familiar sight along the Seine, and many continue to sell curious and wonderful books.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 629 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 630.
[13] Id. at 631.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] See, e.g., id. at 631; Michael Staunton, Thomas Becket and His Biographers (2006).
[17] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 8, at 630-31.
[18] Id. at 631.
[19] Id. at 634-35.  The Archbishop of York, who performed the actual coronation, had usurped Canterbury’s right in conducting the coronation.  Id. at 634.
[20] Staunton, supra note 16, at 216.
[21] In particular, Thomas Becket and His Biographers describes the works of John of Salisbury, Edward Grim, William of Canterbury, William Fitzstephen, Guernes of Ponte-Ste-Maxence, Herbert of Bosham, Anonymous I, Anonymous II, Benedict of Peterborough, and Alan of Tewkesbury.  Staunton suggests that the various Vitae, or Lives of Thomas, “are not only exceptional witnesses to Thomas’s life and death and the events in which he was involved,” they are also “literary works of high quality, more complex and sophisticated than has always been recognized.”  Id. at 2.
[22] Id. at 184.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id. at 195.
[26] Id.
[27] Id. at 198.
[28] Id.
[29] Id.  Notably, Edward Grim was standing next to Becket during the attack, and his arm was nearly severed by the blow that cleft the top of the saint’s head.  In Grim’s own account, he identifies the first blow to Saint Thomas Becket’s head as the “same blow [that] almost cut off the arm of this witness.”  Id. at 196.
[30] Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 354 (Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., Stefano Zuffi ed., 2002).
[31] Id. at 353.
[32] Staunton, supra note 16, at 216.
[33] Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pilg/hd_pilg.htm.
[34] Id.
[35] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales 25 (Nevill Coghill trans., 1952) (1392).
[36] Id. at 37.
[37] Id. at 44
[38] The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, c. 1170-1220 (Paul Webster and Marie-Pierre Gelin eds., 2016).
[39] “Pilgrim’s Badge of the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/473470.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id.
[43] Staunton, supra note 16, at 216-17.
[44] Id. at 217
[45] Anouilh, supra note 1, at 1.
[46]  Id.