Becket’s martyrdom. The Carrow Psalter, Walters Art Museum, MS W.34, f.15v. (image courtesy of Walters Art Museum, under Creative Commons licence)

Today is the feast of the translation of Thomas Becket. It commemorates the translation of the martyr’s relics on 7 July, 1220, from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral to their shiny new shrine at the East end of the cathedral proper (from whence they were removed and subsequently destroyed by everyone’s favourite art lover, Henry VIII and cronies).[1] Becket, for those who don’t know or need reminding, was murdered in the cathedral on 29 December 1170 (the morrow of Holy Innocents) by three knights who may or may not have been acting on the orders – or at least wishes – of Henry II. Among much else, this act produced one of the most recognizable motifs of later medieval religious art.

Although Becket’s martyrdom was by now 50 years in the past, this was but a short time in the memory of the English church and the wider English political community, for whom both the event and the anniversary were invested with high symbolism. The date of the translation had been fixed at least two years in advance by Archbishop Stephen Langton, not to fall fifty calendar years from the martyr’s death, but on the more ‘providential’ jubilee. It was calculated, in the words of Anne Duggan, “according to the details given in Leviticus … [to fall] on the tenth day … of the seventh month after seven-times-seven years from the event; and for good measure, the day was Tuesday, corresponding with the special Tuesdays in Becket’s life, the date was the anniversary of Henry II’s inhumation in 1189, and 1220 was a leap-year, a time of good fortune.”[2]

Thus, the martyr’s translation signified much more than a liturgical event and an opportunity for Canterbury to increase its already burgeoning pilgrim trade. It was also a political moment, and even a diplomatic one. Coming at the end of a period of civil strife and upheaval traceable at the least from Magna Carta and the death of King John through the turbulent early years of Henry’s minority,[3] it was attended by the young Henry III, who had been re-crowned only seven weeks earlier by Langton in a symbolic ceremony of royal and ecclesiastical reconciliation at Westminster. Also in attendance were the powerful chief justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, and the papal legate, Pandulf, two men who were among the main architect’s of Henry’s grip on power after the disastrous final months of King John’s reign.[4] Langton probably intended it as a seal on the preceding seven weeks of symbolic rapprochement, with the luminaries present both as participants and witnesses to authenticate the occasion. With the benefit of our historical perspective, we know how short-lived this period of calm turned out to be, but in 1220, perhaps those present truly felt that in celebrating the anniversary of the old king’s burial and the translation of his rival, they were also interring the remains of their conflict.

However, the ghost of Becket continued to cast a shadow over the Angevins, just as the spectre of conflict over the liberties and limitations of kingship also continued to hover. In 1231, Henry III is said to have exclaimed on the death of William Marshall the younger, “Woe is me! Is not the blood of the blessed martyr Thomas fully avenged yet?”[5] These words, attributed to the king by the monastic chronicler Matthew Paris, might represent true royal superstition that the curse of the martyred archbishop would continue to haunt the Angevin dynasty until his spirit was placated; equally, or also, it might represent Matthew’s idea of what a king of England ought to feel and say on such an occasion. In either case, it demonstrates Thomas’ continuing potency as a symbol of the wrongs of kings, the power of holy retribution to punish and constrain them, and the position of the church at the centre of the maelstrom that was the debate over the nature of kingship in high medieval England.

Thomas’ murder was a political and personal act embedded in an ecclesiastical context. His conflict with his old friend and king orbited the twin suns of Thomas’ resolve to uphold the independence and liberties of the English church in the face of Henry’s equally steely resolve to subject it to his law and will, and the king’s deep affront and sense of betrayal at what he perceived to be Thomas’ ungrateful intransigence. It ought to come as no surprise then, that, commemorated by a church still feeling the pressure of royal demands, the figure of Thomas remained a politicized one with provocative potential.

The feast of the Translation of St Thomas of Canterbury provides a handy opportunity to reflect on that.


[1] The most recent discussion of the translation (with special reference to its Office) known to me is Sherry L. Reames, ‘Reconstructing and Interpreting a Thirteenth-Century Office for the Translation of Thomas Becket’, Speculum, 80 (2005), 118-70.
[2] Anne J. Duggan, ‘The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Thirteenth Century’, in St Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford: Essays in His Honour, ed. by Meryl Jancey (Hereford, 1982), pp. 21-44 (pp. 38-9).
[3] Henry ascended the throne at the age of nine, and officially assumed his personal rule in 1226. For the minority, see D. A. Carpenter, The Minority of Henry III (London: Methuen London, 1990).
[4] Richard Eales, ‘The Political Setting of the Becket Translation of 1220’, in Martyrs and Martyrologies, ed. by Diana Wood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 127-139.
[5] Matthaei Parisiensis, monachi Sancti Albani, chronica majora, ed. by H. R. Luard, Rolls Series, 7 vols. (London: Longman, 1876) III, p. 201, as translated in Louise J. Wilkinson, Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (London: Continuum, 2012), p.37.