Saint for All Seasons

Whatever Henry II may have wished, we will never be rid of Thomas Becket.

A window from Canterbury Cathedral at the British Museum. Photo by Guy Bell/Alamy.

James Comey, former director of the FBI, was questioned in June 2017 at a hearing of the US Senate Intelligence Committee by Senator Angus King. At issue was President Trump’s requests for Comey to drop an investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his dealings with the Russian Ambassador. 

King interrogated Comey about one such request, asking: ‘Do you take that as a directive?’ Comey replied: ‘It rings in my ears as a kind of “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest”.’ ‘I was just going to quote that’, said King.

Readers of History Today will have no problem identifying the reference: the alleged line of Henry II, spoken before four knights who took him at his word and murdered his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.

It is remarkable that the murder of Becket retains such resonance after so long, yet extraordinary, too, is the speed with which his cult spread throughout medieval Europe, as a small but enlightening exhibition at the British Museum – Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint – demonstrates. 

Within three years of his death, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III. Though born in Cheapside – he took the title ‘London Tom’ in his early days – he was a cosmopolitan, schooled in France and Italy, and a friend and adviser of various monarchs and pontiffs. Europe embraced him in death. There is, for example, a Swedish copper reliquary dedicated to him, styled in the manner of a Viking vessel. But the most impressive pieces on display are some of the windows of the cycle dedicated to him in Canterbury Cathedral. It is a rare privilege to be so close to what has been described as ‘Becket Bling’, with its eyecatching technicolour tales of his miracles. There always was a commercial circus around the saintly cult, as the many pilgrim badges assembled demonstrate. Even I, excited by my first exhibition post-lockdown, was tempted to buy one of the rubber ducks in the image of St Thomas on display in the BM shop. His incarnations never cease.