London: Thomas Becket @ the BM

Back at the British Museum again, and oh man, was this a spectacularly bad time, though it was not the fault of the exhibition…or was it? More on that in a minute. So, I’d booked Thomas Becket way back in April, and unlike, say, the Sneakers exhibition, this was something I was genuinely excited to see. I’ve always been more into early modern history than early medieval, but when I was in my late teens, I read The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman, which is about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and liked it so much that I re-read it three or four times in a two or three year period. It was basically a highly romanticised and fictionalised version of Eleanor’s life where she was secretly in love with one of her knights, and Henry II was a creepy rapist with paranoid delusions (based on what I know about medieval kings, that part is pretty believable). Anyway, Thomas Becket features in part of the book, and though I’m sure Kaufman’s account of his death was super historically inaccurate like the rest of the book, it definitely gave me an interest in his story (as did the The Canterbury Tales, though to a lesser extent, as I was more focused on Chaucer’s excellent gross-out details about the people on the pilgrimage than the pilgrimage itself), so I booked my tickets for this exhibition as soon as I saw it advertised.

  

Thomas Becket: Murder and The Making of a Saint (the BM writes their exhibition titles in all lower case letters, but I just can’t do it) runs until 22 August (which frankly doesn’t seem like enough time in this Covid era of unanticipated sudden closures, but whatever) and admission is £17, or £8.50 with Art Pass. We turned up at the appointed time, and except for an overzealous security guard getting a bit snippy with me during the bag check, all was fine. We got into the exhibition and started looking at a reliquary (the very reliquary shown above, in fact, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to take chances), and then the bad time started.

 

You know how saints’ relics are supposed to cure ailments? Well, I must be pure evil or something, because Thomas Becket definitely cursed me with his mouldy old bone fragments and brown coagulated blood smears. Earlier that morning, I had gotten a bit of eye cream in my eye when doing my daily (probably excessive) moisturising routine. It burned for a bit, but I used some eye wash and put drops in and it felt better, no big deal, and I went into town without thinking anything more about it. But then, as soon as I got into the exhibition, my eye started burning with the fire of a thousand flames. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I normally carry a bottle of eye drops with me (I don’t wear contacts, but my eyes are pretty dry) but of course I had just switched purses that morning and neglected to transfer them over, so I had absolutely nothing to alleviate the pain, and as I had just entered the exhibition, I couldn’t very well leave again immediately, especially thanks to the Covid protocols. So I walked around the exhibition in absolute agony with one hand clamped over my right eye, tears streaming down the side of my face, barely able to see anything. My eye was turning redder and redder until I practically looked bionic, and people were definitely staring at me. It got to the point where I couldn’t read any of the captions or look at any of the artefacts anymore, so £8.50 be damned, I ran out of that exhibition and into the toilet to splash water on my throbbing eye, which just made it burn even worse (I didn’t think such a thing was even possible at that point). By this point, all I wanted to do was get home, so my plans for an early dinner in town were completely scuppered, and we headed for the train. Fortunately, Marcus was with me, because as soon as I got in the bright sunlight, my sensitive burning eye refused to open, even with sunglasses, and so I had to walk back to Waterloo with Marcus leading me by the hand because I was effectively blind. My eye finally started to feel better when I was almost home, after closing my eyes on the train for half an hour, and was back to normal a couple of days later, but my god, what a horrible experience. I was also having a flare up of TMD at the same time, so eating was causing me terrible jaw/inner ear pain. The gods were frowning on me that week.

 

Needless to say, I don’t feel that I really saw enough of the exhibition on the day to adequately review it, but I did ask Marcus to take a lot of photos there so I could look at them later and take a stab at writing something in this post that isn’t just about the stabbing pain in my eye. The exhibition opened with some information about Thomas as a boy, and I got the impression that there isn’t much known about his childhood, but he was very much a commoner, born in Cheapside in London around 1120 to French parents, Gilbert and Matilda. He attended Merton Priory as a child, but never completed the schooling that a clergyman would normally have – rather, he worked his way up from a position as a clerk to a trusted assistant to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, where he caught the attention of Henry II and was promoted to Lord Chancellor, and eventually to Archbishop of Canterbury himself. There weren’t really any artefacts from his childhood, just generic stuff from the time period, like bone ice skates, because boys in London enjoyed ice skating, and a jug, because his father would have used jugs. Yeah, you get the idea. Slightly more exciting was the only surviving impression of his seal.

 

So Thomas become Archbishop of Canterbury, and life was good…until he developed a will of his own. Henry only wanted him there as his puppet so Henry could exert control over the Church, and did not like it when Thomas started coming up with ideas that Henry disagreed with (that book I used to read made it sound like they were drinking buddies, but I don’t know how true that is). Henry wanted clergymen to be tried in normal courts, instead of ecclesiastical ones, and Thomas refused (although I think Henry was right). He also refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which Henry designed to weaken the authority of the Church, and this pissed off Henry so much that Thomas was forced to flee to France in fear of his life. After six years, Henry finally agreed to let Thomas return from exile, but as soon as he got back, Thomas really messed up by excommunicating some of Henry’s pals for crowning Henry’s son, Young Henry, joint king to ensure his line of succession (spoiler alert: Young Henry rebelled against his father and ended up dying before him, so he never actually became king, and the whole thing was a bit pointless really) without consulting Thomas first, and that was the last straw. Henry issued his (probably apocryphal) command, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights rushed to do his bidding, and rather stupidly, confronted Thomas inside actual Canterbury Cathedral, and proceeded to hack at his head until he died, bleeding all over the tiles of the cathedral, which is a pretty good way to ensure you’re martyring someone in a way that will come back to haunt you.

  

Of course, Thomas became a saint only two years after his death, Henry II was forced to do public penance in the cathedral, and the Plantagenet line basically became known as the killers of Saint Thomas Becket, which probably didn’t do John any favours (“Too late to be known as John the First, he’s sure to be known as John the Worst.” Much as I love Disney’s Robin Hood, I have never understood that lyric. He was John I, or would be if there had ever been a John II to make it necessary to call him something other than just John. Are we just supposed to pretend that he didn’t become king after Richard died?). As you might expect from the medieval church, who loved a good martyrdom, there were some excellently grisly illuminated manuscripts and such depicting Thomas’s unfortunate demise, and I really wished I could have seen them properly in the exhibition, because they look amazing.

  

Following a fire in Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, shortly after Thomas’s canonisation (I think that’s the appropriate term – hopefully all those years I was forced to go to Sunday School were good for something), Canterbury became THE Becket cathedral and Thomas got his own special shrine in the Trinity Chapel. Unfortunately, another jerk Henry, Henry VIII (probably a bigger jerk than Henry II, if I was rating them, because at least Henry II was capable of faking penitence. Henry VIII was a straight-up psychopath) saw Thomas’s dead body as a threat to his authority and had his shrine destroyed along with many others in the process of creating the Church of England. However, the exhibition had a video recreation of the shrine, based on drawings and descriptions, and it looked pretty fabulous.

  

The exhibition also had a lot of other bits and bobs saved from the cathedral, including wood carvings, chunks of carved marble, and some magnificent stained glass showing various miracles Thomas’s relics allegedly brought about (Thomas’s relics were interesting in that they were very blood-centric, perhaps because of the way he was killed. People allegedly sopped rags in his blood shortly after he was killed, which brought about miracles. It all feels a bit Elizabeth Bathory, frankly), including my particular favourite, a man who was castrated and blinded, and had his testicles and eyes magically regrown thanks to Thomas. Glad to know he can restore sight when he wants to (less bothered about the testicles).

 

There was also a small section on The Canterbury Tales, probably the most famous Thomas Becket related piece of literature, including an illustration of the Wife of Bath. My personal favourite Canterbury tale is the “Miller’s Tale”, for obvious reasons, though it sadly didn’t get a flatulent mention here, nor did the Cook’s weeping knee sore that flavoured the blancmange, another favourite detail, but I loved the display of the badges that pilgrims would collect from Canterbury Cathedral when they got there. Collectibles almost make a pilgrimage sound like fun!

 

If I had been able to see properly, I think I would really have enjoyed this exhibition (certainly more so than Nero). Grisly martyrdom paintings and The Canterbury Tales are totally in my wheelhouse, and though I didn’t learn that much about Thomas himself, it was interesting to read more about the role his sainthood played in the development of the medieval English church and monarchy (could definitely be a good dissertation topic, though I’m sure someone has already done it). I’ll downgrade him a bit for temporarily blinding me in his exhibition, but it’s still a solid 3.5/5.

12 comments

  1. Thomas Becket is one of those historical figures (like Cleopatra or Maria Stuarda) whom I feel I ‘know’ because I have seen operas about them. In the case of Thomas Becket, we had a great production here in Frankfurt a few years ago of the opera “Murder in the Cathedral” by the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti, based on a play by T.S. Eliot, with Sir John Tomlinson in the role of Thomas Becket. While he was here, Sir John came as our featured guest to a meeting of my English-language opera appreciation course “Frankfurt OperaTalk” and spent the whole evening talking with us and answering our questions.

    1. I know I already said I know virtually nothing about opera, but it was definitely news to me that there is one about Thomas Becket! I suppose it could have been mentioned in the exhibition for all I know – I wouldn’t have been able to read about it then anyway due to my eye issues.

  2. This exhibit looks really interesting-too bad Thomas cursed instead of healing your eye! It’s so interesting how the books of our youth impact us. I was addicted to romance novels in middle/high school-to be honest, I still love a good one, although I’m much more particular these days!) and I totally credit that with my fascination with England and British history (back in the day, they were mostly Harlequin, so set in England). Thanks to those romances, I’ve always known more about British than American history.

    1. I used to read all the VC Andrews novels in middle school, and those are pretty warped. I fear they may have led to my interest in reading books about people who escape from religious cults and other weirdly isolated circumstances. I was more into British history than American at that age too, but that was because of Alison Weir’s nonfiction books about the Tudors, so I guess at least they were somewhat academic.

    1. Yes, both better now, thanks, though I can tell my jaw is still a bit weak. I did have an incident with my other eye last weekend when I was on a tour of Eel Pie Island, and I can’t blame Thomas for that one. I’m pretty sure it was because I accidentally rubbed sunscreen in my eye, which is always a risk this time of year, but it was nothing like the Thomas Becket experience, which was absolutely horrible. That had to be a curse!

  3. Know the Thomas Becket story pretty well but this is fascinating, so much that I hadn’t read before. The exhibition sounds really good, shame about your cursed eye. Hope it’s all sorted now.

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