Exhibitions and events
How to erase a saint: Thomas Becket and Henry VIII

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint at the British Museum is a doughnut – tempting and delicious, but with a hole in the middle. We owe that hole to Henry VIII, who in 1538 had Becket’s shrine destroyed. And not half-heartedly either. One of my highlights of the exhibition is the marble fragment of Becket’s shrine that was fished out of the River Stour in Canterbury – one of the few physical remnants of what was once one of the richest shrines in Europe.

Marble fragment of a double capital, probably from Thomas Becket’s shrine base in the Trinity Chapel, c. 1180–1220. © Canterbury Museums and Galleries.

The philosopher and scholar Desiderius Erasmus called it ‘a shryne of gold’ in which ‘all thynges dyd shyne, florishe, and as it were with lyghtnynge appered with precyouse stones and those many and of great multitude: some were greater than a gowse egge’. Henry VIII swiped the lot. As to the saint’s bones, we don’t know for sure exactly what happened to them, and that is part of the point – they were disappeared to help suppress the cult. Probably they were burned, but Hilary Mantel’s suggestion in The Mirror and the Light that they were jumbled anonymously into a heap of bones in Thomas Cromwell’s cellar could conceivably be true. Certainly Cromwell, the king’s sternly reformist chief minister, was instrumental in the destruction of Becket’s cult.

Gilded-silver medal of Thomas Cromwell, England, 1538.

But when a saint has a following as widespread as Becket’s, it takes more than that to suppress him. A couple of months after the shrine was pulverised, a royal proclamation ordered that all memory of him should be extinguished from the English Church – statues, paintings, windows, services all had to go.

Did they though? England had 9,000 parish churches, and despite Cromwell’s reputation for running a police state, he and his agents couldn’t be everywhere. We do know that a wave of parish churches were suddenly rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle. We also know that only one report reached the regime of a priest openly defying the new order and celebrating the feast of St Thomas on 29 December 1538. This was Thomas Tyrell, the parson of Gislingham in Suffolk.

It was not a matter of ignorance – the proclamation had been read and posted in Bury St Edmunds the week before Christmas. What is striking is that, according to the account we have, ‘none of his parishioners would help him to sing the said service’ and so ‘the parson said it himself alone’. The following Sunday, Tyrell urged his people to go on pilgrimage, and they replied, not unreasonably, that it was now impossible, for there were no shrines left. Tyrell replied ominously that ‘if he were disposed to go a pilgrimage he knew whither to go’. You cannot help respecting Thomas Tyrell’s defiance, but this sort of thing was evidently doomed. He was lucky not to suffer serious consequences – but then, Cromwell was usually good at telling the difference between dangerous and harmless opposition.

St Mary’s parish church, Gislingham, Suffolk, seen from west-southwest. © Bob Jones / St Mary’s Church, Gislingham / CC BY-SA 2.0

What we really want to know, of course, is the extent of quiet defiance, and for a long time this question has been unanswerable. The scale of the destruction of images of Becket is almost impossible to assess, since any that did survive Henry VIII’s anger would have been caught up in the more general eradication of statuary at the beginning of Edward VI’s reign. We know about a handful of cases. In the summer of 1539, it was reported that the churchwardens of Ashford in Kent had, instead of destroying their image of Becket, moved it and ‘toke out of his hande the crosse & sett in a wull combe’ – neatly altering him from St Thomas of Canterbury into St Blaise, the 4th-century Armenian confessor who was patron of the wool trade. This kind of Barbie-doll approach to saints’ images – change the accessories and you change the saint – is ingenious, but it is hard to know whether it denotes resistance or simply a reluctance to burn a perfectly decent statue.

And it is a side issue. Images weren’t necessary to continue saying the service. In 1543, a Protestant preacher celebrated the suppression of Becket’s cult, but added darkly that ‘a gret meny of byshops and prestes kepe his commemoratyon still. Sureli I suspect yt.’ Was he right?

There’s only one way to find out: service-books. That was where the battle for Becket was fought in 1539 and thereafter. Cromwell’s correspondence contains a trickle of reports of parishes reported for not ‘reforming’ their service-books properly. But again, that’s just a scattering of anecdotal evidence.

Until recently that was the best we could do. But thanks to the work of the brilliant young French scholar Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti, whose PhD I was lucky enough to supervise a few years ago, we now have a more systematic picture. It is well known that Henry VIII’s government ordered that the service-books in use across England be amended to reflect his changes, most obviously by removing all references to the Pope. It’s also fairly well known that this order was implemented with varying degrees of enthusiasm, from the most minimal crossings-out to attempted erasures of whole blocks of text. But that is where common knowledge of this subject ends, and Aude has for the first time conducted a thorough survey of nearly two hundred missals which survive from Henry’s reign, along with dozens of other liturgical books from the same period. Amongst her many findings, one of the most surprising is that, although priests were told firmly to ‘reform’ their service-books, they were not given any clear or precise guidance on what that meant. So, the precise extent of the changes made were down to local discretion – most unusual in the reign of this most control-freakish of kings. And that means they can tell us something about what was really being done in parish churches.

When you first look at Aude’s evidence, it is the variety that strikes you. The services commemorating Becket are sometimes completely erased, heavily crossed out, or given the most minimal treatment. Sometimes simply the offending word ‘Thomas’ has been removed. Occasionally, pictures as well as words have been defaced. In one manuscript on display in the exhibition, thick red dye has been selectively smeared through the Mass for St Thomas, almost entirely obliterating the text beneath. Some of these books would have been easy to use despite the ‘erasure’. Some would have been impossible, although priests could still have memorised the liturgy.

But the overall picture is still very clear. In absolutely every one of the missals Aude examined which were ‘reformed’ in Henry’s reign, the services for Becket have received some attention. That’s more surprising than it sounds. Remember, there were no detailed or central instructions as to precisely what should be done to the missals or other liturgical texts, and indeed there had been no explicit or direct instructions to remove Becket from such texts at all, merely to stop observing the services. But the sample we have – about 150 of these books – suggests that if a priest was going to delete anything from his service-books, it would be the name of St Thomas of Canterbury. Becket is removed more consistently than references to the Pope. And in 80% of the missals in Aude’s sample which have been reformed, the entire service for Becket has been crossed out; in all but one case (and that one was probably an oversight) – both of the annual services on 7 July and 29 December. Given how miscellaneous and otherwise hit-and-miss the corrections made to liturgical texts normally are, this is a very high level of consistency indeed.

So what does it mean? Well, it could just mean that, under excruciating pressure, priests were choosing the easy option: the problem of Becket was easier to solve than the problem of the Pope. After all, good Catholics have never been under an obligation to venerate St Thomas – if the king said he had to go, then he had to go, whereas getting rid of the papacy is a different matter. But I think what the service-books really testify to is the zeal and thoroughness with which the campaign against Becket was pursued across the length of England. Henry VIII’s anger against the Pope was still smouldering away, but his anger with Becket was blazing. He was the most powerful symbol of the clerical defiance which Henry VIII loathed – the man who, according to the most popular late medieval account of his life, had bluntly told Henry II that ‘I am head of the church of England’. Henry VIII had claimed that title for himself and called anyone who doubted it a traitor. If there was one thing no English parson would want to be caught doing, it was honouring that turbulent, treacherous priest.

References: Aude de Mézerac-Zanetti, Université de Lille: Liturgical developments in England under Henri VIII (1534–1547), unpublished PhD thesis, Durham 2011.

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22 August 2021. To find out more about the exhibition and to book tickets, visit britishmuseum.org/becket  

Buy the richly illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

Supported by:

The Hintze Family Charitable Foundation

The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts

Jack Ryan and Zemen Paulos