Dr Karen Attar, research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, uncovers traces of Thomas Becket in the Senate House Library.

December 2020 possibly marks two anniversaries concerning the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. He might have been born 900 years ago, on 21 December 1120. He definitely died in Canterbury Cathedral 850 years ago, shortly after Christmas in 1170.

The basic story of Thomas Becket is well known. He was close friends with King Henry II, who appointed him to the See of Canterbury – not a job for which his innate qualities or former behaviour ideally suited him – from nepotism and the desire to have a ‘yes man’ in the post.

Once there however, Becket opposed the king in power struggles between church and state and the friendship deteriorated into bitter enmity, until one day at Christmas dinner Henry expressed a wish to be rid of the turbulent priest. Upon this hint four of his knights rode to Canterbury and slew Becket, who faced and fought them bravely, in the cathedral.

The assassination in sacred space horrified the Western world. Alleged miracles began as early as January 1171, and Becket was canonised in 1173. So famous is the tale that the writer of one early 18th-century guide book to Canterbury Cathedral among Senate House Library’s holdings refused to relate it, on the basis that everyone knew it (William Somner, The Antiquities of Canterbury, 1703).

Senate House Library is particularly strong in literary holdings, and its accounts include two plays commemorating the deed: Alfred Tennyson’s Becket (1884), which was never performed, and several editions of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, including a copy of the fourth edition (1938) inscribed to the library by T.S. Eliot (a teacher on the University of London’s extension programme), a copy of the rare acting edition for the Festival of the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, published in Canterbury in 1935, and a German translation from 1946.

The library is also strong in Chaucerian editions, and The Canterbury Tales would not exist in the form that it does, centring around a pilgrimage to Canterbury, were it not for Becket’s death there and his subsequent saintly role. The earliest printed description of the event in a work held by the Library is in one of its most treasured volumes, William Caxton’s Chronicles of England (1480). Translated into modern English this reads:

‘And in the 7th year after the archbishop Saint Thomas had been outlawed the King of France accorded the King and Saint Thomas. And then Archbishop Thomas came to Canterbury again, to his own church. And this accord was made at the beginning of Advent. And afterward he was quelled and martyred the 5th day of Christmas following. For King Henry thought about Saint Thomas Archbishop on Christmas day as he sat at his food and said these words, that if he had any good knight with him he would be avenged upon Archbishop Thomas before many days passed. And at once Sir William Breton, Sir Hugh Morville, Sir William Tracy and Sir Reginald Fitzurse (bear’s son in English) secretly went to sea and came to England to the church at Canterbury and martyred him there at Saint Benet’s Altar in the mother church. And that was in the year of incarnation of Jesus Christ 1170.’

The vocabulary makes clear where the chronicler’s sympathies lie, through the choice of verbs, repeating ‘martyred’, the description of time entirely in religious terms to underline the heinous irreligious nature of the deed, the appellation ‘Saint’ contrasted with the translation of Fitzurse to highlight the vulgarity of one of Becket’s attackers, and the furtiveness of the murderous excursion.

But I want briefly to look at a very different work, John Burnby’s An Historical Description of the Metropolitical Church of Christ, Canterbury (2nd edition, 1783; classmark Dc [Kent – Burnby]). It is a guide to Canterbury Cathedral by a local lawyer who also published a couple of poetry volumes and a collation of letters from the Canterbury newspaper about selling corn.

Being interested in architecture and antiquities, Burnby has little to say about the dramatic event per se that it occurred in the cathedral under the Plantagenets, which he dismisses in a sentence and moves on to the fabric of the building concerned:

‘On December 29, 1170, archbishop Becket was barbarously murdered at the foot of the altar of St Benedict, ever since called the Martyrdom. But notwithstanding what some Romanists may believe, so far are these stones from being stained with his blood, that the stones themselves were removed to Peterborough by Prior Benedict, in the year 1177. (p. 2).’

For Burnby’s purposes, Becket’s shrine and chapel are what matter. Becket was moved from his tomb to his sumptuously adorned shrine amid much clerical pomp on 7 July 1220. The shrine was demolished during the Reformation at the desire of another royal Henry, King Henry VIII. Within the cathedral we still have Becket’s chapel, the Trinity Chapel, which Burnby describes in some detail (pp. 41–2). He finishes with the windows and the view from them:

‘Mr Somner thought that, if the legend of Becket’s miracles were utterly lost, it might be repaired from the windows of this chapel; this is not the case now; but in one window, a pretty regular series of transactions concerning the martyrdom and burial of Becket may be traced (p. 42).’

Why does Becket’s murder grip us today? The vivid drama with its appeal to the imagination has a lot to do with it. So does the fairy-tale simplicity of the contrast between good and evil to which the bones of an historically complex narrative have sometimes been reduced. The relationship between speech and action, again redolent of fairy tales, is striking. The king expresses a wish and without any agency on his part, the word becomes deed. Power struggles remain an eternal issue. Partly it is the way that various humanities – literature, history, art and architecture – combine to keep the story alive.

As our leaders consume their Christmas dinners in 2020, may their minds be filled with more peaceful thoughts than those of King Henry II some 850 years ago.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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