Yesterday to the British Museum during the last week of the exhibition Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint which ends on Sunday. It’s an interesting exhibition which follows Becket’s upbringing, fairly meteoric career ( from Cheapside immigrant merchant’s son to the Archbishopric and Lord Chancellorship of England ) to his eventual death and subsequent canonisation. I reread Murder in the Cathedral in preparation and the exhibition ends with lines from that verse play.
The objects on display were sometimes exquisite – the beautiful reliquaries – some times interesting – the documents and carvings – and often both – the illuminated manuscripts. They illustrated the story of Thomas Becket, or, as I was taught at school, Thomas a Becket. This was an individual with a will to power, a very clever and subtle man who, it seemed to me and my companion, also sought martyrdom as the ultimate step, a translation into immortality. Everyone knows the story, or has seen the film and recognises the famous quote ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’, although this is, without explanation, changed to ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ in this exhibition.
I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, though I’m afraid it prodded my cantankerous side. So no, I don’t accept that Henry II is mainly known for this feud and the resulting death of Becket. Henry II was a tremendously successful king, the first English Plantagenet, who reigned over the Angevin Empire – England, Wales, Scotland, much of Ireland and most of France – for thirty five years. He maintained a large and sophisticated royal court and introduced legal changes, including the use of juries, which eventually became the basis for the English Common Law. Some historians see him as laying the foundation for a unified Britain. I understand that this is an exhibition about Becket and therein its focus must lie, but no, Thomas Becket story isn’t the only, or even the main, event for which Henry II is remembered.
British Museum curators shouldn’t, in my view, be saying it is because, aside from anything else, it will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Three young people, unknown to me, but who went round the exhibition at approximately the same time as I did, clearly took away this ‘story’ without its context. Henry might not be a popular, or even a colourful, character, by all accounts he was a choleric and sometimes harsh individual, but he also inherited a cash-strapped and exhausted land, following the war between Stephen and Matilda ( Henry’s mother ). Just because he isn’t particularly likeable doesn’t mean his role in history should be limited to his role in a martyrdom. In my humble opinion, it’s bad history ( even if it is good story telling. ) The richness and complexity of life, even life in the past, is reduced in this way. Rant over.
That quibble aside, this was a good exhibition, taking in the legacy of the murder and subsequent canonisation as well as the murder itself. I was intrigued to find out about the broken sword and the depiction which showed this, as well as a chunk of skull falling to the flagstones of the cathedral floor. It’s interesting that these small, if gory, details survived and thrived in later representations of the scene. I was surprised by the far-flung examples of the Becket cult – stone carving from Sweden, a reliquary from Norway, reference in a parchment from Italy. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, the Church stretched across Europe and its saints were promoted widely.
One last point, I discovered when reading the preface to Murder in the Cathedral that sections of the original verse play which were not used in the final version performed eventually found their way into Burnt Norton as part of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Now I have to read those again.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint runs until 22nd August.