To mark the 850th anniversary of the assassination of the Thomas Becket, the British Museum has announced a major exhibition about the man, the Archbishop, the saint.

It’s part of a year long series of events to mark the notorious death of a man who turned from ardent supporter of the King while employed by the King, into an ardent supporter of the Church when employed by the Church.

Born and educated in London, he rose to power and fame at a time when Church and government were essentially the same, and even though he held many religious posts while working for the King he was not even ordained a priest until after he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

In an act that in many ways echoes King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, in 1163 King Henry II tried to limit the powers of the Church and its links with Rome, and while most priests accepted, Thomas Becket refused, and had to flee to France. The Pope negotiated a truce between the two sides, and Thomas was allowed to return to England in 1170, but as Archbishop, he promptly resumed his dispute with the King, excommunicating opponents of the Church, and thwarting his attempts to enthrone his son as the future King.

It was in December that same year that the King is said to have — maybe — uttered the immortal phrase of “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

And thus a man died and a saint was born, and 850 years later that one moment in time is sufficiently famous that an entire year of events is being held to remember it.

The series of commemorative events, Becket2020 will see venues in London, Canterbury and beyond host a range of events across the year, including performances, pageants, talks, film screenings and religious services, and culminates at the British Museum in October.

A Reliquary, Limoges, c. 1200. The front panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket © The Trustees of the British Museum

Opening in October, the exhibition will showcase an array of over 100 objects associated with Becket, including manuscripts, jewellery, sculpture, stained glass and paintings, and will feature artefacts from the Museum’s collection as well as loans from around the world.  Highlights include a number of sacred reliquaries which once contained precious relics of Thomas Becket. These were taken across Continental Europe and speak to the  international spread of his cult.

Alabaster sculpture, c. 1450–1550, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Museum of London, Guildhall, Southwark Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral will also host events though the year.

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One comment on “A turbulent priest appears at the British Museum
  1. Laura Crockett says:

    Henry II is my favorite king, and the entire episode between him and Becket a fascinating study. Ergo, I shall be coming “home” for this exhibit, plus other wanderings around the land of my ancestors.

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