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Hagiography: PR for the Cult of Thomas Becket

By Edited Oct 26, 2016 0 0

What made the medieval cult of Thomas Becket so popular and long-lasting? Among the many factors responsible for the longevity of St. Thomas, hagiography played a crucial role in the journey from martyr to saint.

During the twelfth-century, England witnessed the horrific murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury after years of turbulent disagreement with the monarch, Henry II.  Thomas Becket fought hard for the rights of the clergy and the safety of the Church.  On becoming archbishop Thomas committed to the religiosity of his role in a way his king did not anticipate.  Thomas quickly became a Martyr and a Saint.  During this period pilgrimage became a central part of Christian life and the act of completing it sought to externally represent the inner spiritual journey.  There were different types of pilgrimage and visiting the shrine of St. Thomas fell into the category of ‘Place Pilgrimage’.  The especial feature of this type of pilgrimage centred on gaining physical proximity to a saint or martyr in order to express devotion and gain blessing, healing and forgiveness.  Acquiring a relic was meaningful to the experience as it meant a pilgrim could take the benefit of pilgrimage with them everywhere, ever after. 

Image of Thomas Becket in Stained Glass at Canterbury Cathedral
Credit: TTaylor Photo 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

Image of St. Thomas Becket in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral

Hagiography then, was a key contributor to the popularity of the cult of Thomas Becket.  As literature concerned with the life and posthumous miracles, the contents of hagiographical writing offered evidence and impetus to medieval pilgrimage.  These records also provide useful evidence to the modern reader in both the interpretation of such popular following and in understanding the events themselves.  Of course one must always remember the possibility of bias and agenda, mainly because many hagiographers attempted to assert morality rather than teach historical facts. 

Hagiography would tend towards drawing parallels with the life and deeds of Jesus and the stories of the bible.  It is possible to see evidence of this in two posthumous accounts of events preceding the murder of Thomas Becket.  The first is from Herbert of Bosham on, ‘The return of Thomas Becket to Canterbury (1 December 1170)’.  The narrator immediately begins with Thomas’ journey to the city being, ‘welcomed by the poor as a victim sent from heaven… or… as an angel of God, with joy…’.   As if this analogy to Christ is not explicit enough, the author follows this with the additional information about the reception of Christ by the poor.  The crowd, apparently, even cry, ‘ “ Blessed is he [Thomas] that cometh in the name of the Lord.” ’

Herbert of Bosham then appraises the situation by comparing Thomas directly with Jesus and his Passion.  Thomas, he informs us, prepared himself in advance to sacrifice his life at Canterbury for the sake of the entire body of the English Church.  This act is explicitly paralleled with Jesus' salvation of mankind.  Also pertinent to understanding this sacrifice as such are the narrative choices made by the author.  He aligns Thomas’ sacrifice to Christ implicitly, by repeatedly referring to the Church as the ‘bride of Christ’.  So we can see this account by Herbert of Bosham contains the essential elements of prophecy and sacrifice at the hands of brutal oppressors to the Christian cause bound within it.  The account fits neatly within the sphere of contemporary hagiographic writing. 

The second example of a ‘preceding’ account in the tradition of hagiography comes from William FitzStephen.  It is described as, ‘The events leading up to the murder of Thomas Becket (December 1170)’. This account begins with Thomas being accused of treason when unable to defend himself and that these accusations were not only false but evil.  At once the reader is able to view Thomas as a victim of treachery.  The source goes on to reveal that the four knights who had vowed and set out to murder the archbishop had, ‘…the Devil, the arch-enemy as their guide…’. Following this the reader is informed that Thomas receives the news that the murderers are on their way and he decides to remain at Canterbury and face them having donned the armour of ‘faith in God.’  This, once more, celebrates the Christ-like nature of Thomas Becket’s sacrifice made for the Church, as well as his own particular piety.  Further to this William FitzStephen tells his readers that in his ‘…splendid sermon to the people…’ on Christmas Day, Thomas even advised those listening that Canterbury may soon have its second martyr.  This statement provides the prophetic nature needed to express true piety in contemporary terms.  This account also helps to emphasise the notion that hagiography is central to a discussion on why the cult of Thomas Becket became so popular amongst pilgrims.

The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
Credit: Walters Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket from an East Anglian Manuscript, mid-13th Century

In terms of hagiography having the design and purpose of increasing popularity in the cult of Thomas Becket one must address an account of the murder itself.  The natural choice is that of Edward Grim, as he is known to have been at the scene and is also known as a fairly impartial witness.  He was only recently arrived in Canterbury which, it could be argued, allowed a little distance from the conflict between archbishop and king.  However, it is easy to assume he had formed an opinion.  It is also worth noting that he stayed by Thomas throughout the ordeal.  Another aspect of hagiographical writing concerned with the dissemination of information is a thematic approach that not only provides parallels with Jesus but groups relevant saints together to emphasise pertinent issues and provide continuity and authenticity within the Christian faith between established saints and new ones.  ‘The narrative of the murder of Thomas Becket’, by Edward Grim is no different.  There is, early in the piece, a reference to the date and its proximity to the feast of the Holy Innocents, and a speedy alliance of the word ‘innocent’ to Thomas.  It is difficult for the modern reader to interpret an explicit meaning; does this mean Thomas is as innocent as a new born child? Or does this mean, in a moment of prophecy, he will be welcomed into heaven as would an innocent child?  Either way the link with the bible and the early life of Christ was affirming to the contemporary reader, one would assume.  When Thomas mentions his exile, it is important to note the sacrificial tone; his exile has hurt his congregation, they have, ‘…been deprived of the consolation of my presence’.  The author demonstrates Thomas’ lack of concern for himself.  Following this, during a verbal exchange between Thomas and the knights, Grim reports that the archbishop openly declared himself ready for martyrdom.  The hagiographic need to group the saints begins to be addressed at this juncture.  As he faces his martyrdom Thomas announces his allegiance and similarity to St. Alphege (b.954-d.1012).  This saint was both the archbishop and ‘first martyr of Canterbury’and like Thomas, achieved a reputation through asceticism and aiding the poor.  St. Alphege allegedly ensured the conversion of a Danish chieftain, who then refused to attack England again.  He was taken prisoner by invading Danes and staunchly refused to pay the huge sum they demanded for his release.  When an epidemic sprang up within their midst the Danes released him out of fear.  He miraculously cured them with blessed bread. Despite this they later axed and beat him to death. St. Alphege was often pictured as a shepherd guarding his flock or shown depicted with an axe.  It is fair to assume the twelfth-century audience would have been familiar with St. Alphege and the parallels between the two archbishops would have been clear to see.  This part of Grim’s narrative is the necessary ‘proof’ required, not only for canonisation but also for providing fuel for those involved in developing the cult.  Pilgrims can be assured they are learning about, and when visiting, are drawing close to, a real martyr who can heal, bless, forgive and intercede.  It appears that the drama of fighting and resisting a monarch and bravely facing martyrdom could elicit entry into a particular, saintly club.  This may have increased the desire to encounter such an event, thus popularising Thomas Becket’s cult.

Henry II & Thomas Becket
Credit: British Library, Royal 20 A II folio. via Wikimedia Commons

Henry II and Thomas Becket in dispute. Early 14th Century. 

The murder of Thomas Becket, clearly as brutal and vicious as that of St. Alphege, certainly made this pilgrimage a great opportunity for blessing, reinforced as it was by the previous act and the parallels in this hagiographical text continued.  In addition to telling the reader that Thomas had a crown of immortality which, although tenuous, may refer to Christ’s crown, the text places St. Mary and St. Denys with St. Alphege in the counting of saints appropriate.  It is believed that the Bishop of Paris, St. Denys (d.c.258) was also martyred during an attempt to protect Christians.  His relics were moved to the Abbey in Paris which carried his name. So again we see the tendency of this genre to group saints in one piece of writing to demonstrate explicit facts about a potential saint.  To add to this the reader is again invited to picture the martyr’s lack of fear and total readiness for death.  Thomas has a Christ-like ability to accept pain for God and on behalf of His true followers of the Church.  Yet more emphasis is placed on the qualities of salvation and sacrifice by the allusion to the five wounds and Grim can be quoted, ‘…the martyr who… had imitated Christ…’ to ensure his audience remain persuaded.  On a final point concerning this scene it is worth drawing attention to the narrator’s description to the blood and brain which significantly stained the cathedral floor, and indeed one another, red and white.  The author returns to his earlier reference of St. Mary to note the colours are that which represent the Virgin – the white lily and the red rose.  A rather horrible, graphic image to combine with piety.  So we can see that hagiography as a literary genre was incredibly purposeful and effective in creating a popular cult for pilgrims.  During the period in question the genre sought to promote canonisation, affirm saintly reputation, encourage piety and be a focus for drawing pilgrims.  It could be used for personal or group entertainment and education and was often useful in preparing and delivering sermons. Such activities engaged a broad audience and must therefore have greatly assisted the popularity of the cult of Thomas Becket.

So if this new popularising of hagiography had aligned Thomas’ sacrificial and protective actions to those of Christ and previously persecuted saints, it is fair to assume a brand new hero was being created for the twelfth-century and, unbeknownst to them, beyond – up to the Reformation.  To guarantee popularity amongst pilgrims, the cult of Thomas Becket relied upon a combination of immediate local devotion and ecclesiastical approval.  With hindsight it is easy to see, immediately after the murder, that this ‘new hero’ had the potential to fulfil an incredibly special role within the sphere of ‘place pilgrimage’.  Almost immediately after the murder local devotion sprung into being.  We are told this fact in the, ‘Description of the scene after the murder of Thomas Becket’, by Benedict of Peterborough. It is clear to see that this writing fell into the emergent, re-branded hagiographical tradition and therefore has its own agenda.  Although this means that historians must guard against blindly believing every word, when considering this as evidence, it does provide great insight into the necessary requirements the medieval mind used to embrace a potential new saint and the desperate need and belief in forgiveness and healing miracles. 




English Historical Documents. 2: 1042-1189, Eds. Douglas, David Charles,, Greenaway,George W., (London; New York: Eyre Methuen ; Oxford university press, 1981), pp.808-820

Catholic Online, St. Alphege, http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=1278

K. Brainerd Slocum, Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket (Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2004) p.98-101



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