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Thomas Becket’s elbow

05/25/2016

There has been a lot of media coverage in the last few days of the return to England, after 800 years, of what is alleged to be a bone fragment from Thomas Becket, the medieval Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his own cathedral in 1170. The relic is thought to have been obtained by two clergy who were present in Canterbury Cathedral when Thomas Becket’s body was reburied in 1220 and his tomb opened, and who took it with them to back to their native Hungary.

Becket was made Archbishop by his close friend, Henry II. The friendship unravelled when Becket defended the church in disagreements with the king. On 29 December 1170 four knights killed Becket, believing that the king wanted him out of the way. It is unclear whether Henry actually directly ordered the murder or not. Becket was made a saint and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a focus for pilgrimage, until it was completely destroyed during the Reformation.

The first exhibition on which I ever worked was to display the Becket Casket in Canterbury Cathedral. It is a beautiful Limoges enamel reliquary, pictured below, made shortly after Becket’s death to contain his relics (now lost), owned by the V&A and loaned to Canterbury for a short period in 1997.

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There is no way of proving if the Hungarian relic is actually is a fragment of Thomas Becket, but nevertheless it’s a fascinating reminder of the man and the period.

 

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