Exhibitions and events
Why did they move Thomas Becket's bones?

On Tuesday 7 July 1220, just over 800 years ago, the great and the good of the English church and state, along with many thousands of pilgrims, gathered at Canterbury Cathedral for one of the most spectacular and symbolic occasions it had ever seen. 50 years after his murder, the remains of Thomas Becket were carefully removed from his tomb in the cathedral’s crypt and transferred (or ‘translated’) to a bejewelled and golden casket in a purpose-built chapel behind the high altar. To move the bones of the dead may now seem disrespectful, but in the 13th century it was the ultimate confirmation of a saint’s exalted status. In subsequent years, the anniversary of the translation of Becket’s bones to his shrine was the most important and well-attended pilgrimage feast (festival) in England.

Translation: moving saintly bones
Reliquary casket made to hold the relics of St Thomas. The Becket Casket, about 1180-90.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The remains or relics of saints were believed to retain some of the saint’s holy virtue or power: they were a link between their mortal and immortal life, a place where heaven and earth might touch. By venerating, touching, or even seeing the relics of saints, pilgrims could hope to gain the saint’s miraculous aid in curing an illness, for example, or answering prayers. Most holy men and women were not officially recognised as saints until several years after their deaths, usually after they had performed posthumous miracles and pilgrims had begun to seek out their burial site as a holy place. Their original burial sites might be unsuitable for visitors, difficult to access, not well-marked, or considered inappropriate to their exalted status, such as a grave in the churchyard or in one of the less-important parts of the church. It was expected that saints’ bones should be preserved in a setting which appropriately reflected their awesome holy power, not hidden or obscured in a plain tomb. Following Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew, it was commonly said that the relics of saints ‘should not hide under a bushel but should rather be, as it were, set upon a lamp-stand’. In the Middle Ages, the process of moving saintly relics was called a translation, translatio in Latin, meaning simply ‘to transfer from one [place] to another.’

The 1220 translation of Thomas Becket
Pilgrims at the tomb of St Thomas in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Miracle Window, Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, early thirteenth century. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral.

Thomas Becket was murdered on 29 December 1170 and was hastily buried in the cathedral crypt the very next day. Pilgrims immediately flocked to the site, and a protective marble case with holes in the sides had to be placed over his grave to allow pilgrims to kiss the holy tombstone but prevent them from chipping pieces off as souvenirs. As early as 1173 there were plans to translate Becket’s remains to a more impressive and important location in the upper church. In 1174 a fire destroyed much of the east end of the cathedral but left the crypt unscathed. Within 10 years the cathedral church had been rebuilt with a new and glorious chapel for Thomas Becket’s shrine as its focal point at its east end above the high altar. Yet attempts to move Becket’s remains from the crypt were continually frustrated by disputes between the monks, the archbishops of Canterbury, the king, and the pope, so it was not until 1215 that serious plans could be made for the translation.

Counterseal of Archbishop Stephen Langton, showing Becket’s martyrdom, about 1213–15.
© Reproduced by permission of the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The organisation of Becket’s translation was the work of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the most important figures in the drafting of Magna Carta. In his own struggles against King John he saw himself as something of a Becket figure, and in translating Becket’s relics he wanted to make a powerful statement about the importance of the cause – the rights and freedoms of the Church – that the saint had died for. The date chosen for the event, 7 July 1220, was both symbolic and practical. It was the ‘jubilee’ anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom, not simply 50 years but calculated according to the Biblical definition of 49 years, 7 months, and 10 days after the event. It fell on a Tuesday, a day of great significance in Becket’s life as supposedly it was also on a Tuesday that he was born, was condemned by the King’s council, fled into exile, had a vision of his martyrdom, returned from exile, and was martyred. Moreover, the date of the anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom, 29 December, was awkward as it not only fell during the Christmas celebrations but was at a time in midwinter when pilgrims were unlikely to travel. By establishing another anniversary of equal importance in the middle of summer, at the height of the pilgrimage season, and at a time when it would not clash with other church feasts, Archbishop Langton ensured that the feast of the translation would become one of the highlights of the English religious calendar.

A few days before the ceremony, Archbishop Langton, together with the Bishop of Salisbury Richard le Poore and a few specially chosen monks of Canterbury, went down to Becket’s tomb in the crypt. They opened up the saint’s grave and removed the holy relics, and Archbishop Langton placed them in a wooden box bound with iron. As he was doing so, he removed some of the smaller bones and put them aside as presents for the visiting dignitaries.

Stephen Langton blessing the body of St Thomas in the Stowe Breviary, about 1322–5. This manuscript contains the liturgy (prayers) written by Langton for the translation ceremony.
© British Library Board, Stowe MS 12, f. 270r.

The day was designed to live long in the memory. It was also an occasion to bring together all the political factions in England after the strife of King John’s reign. The 12-year-old King Henry III was present with his aunt Berengaria, who was the widowed queen of King Richard the Lionheart, along with his chief advisors and lords and nobles from England, Scotland, and France. Important church figures included Pandulf, the Pope’s representative in England, the Archbishop of Reims, an Archbishop from Hungary, perhaps from Veszprem, and 17 bishops from England and elsewhere, together with the abbots and abbesses of all the major monasteries in the country. Contemporary chroniclers differ on exactly how many pilgrims came to Canterbury for the day, but they all agree that it was one of the largest gatherings witnessed in their lifetimes. Archbishop Langton spared no expense in accommodating these vast crowds, almost bankrupting the cathedral in the process. Pilgrims were allowed free accommodation on the route from London to Canterbury, and on their arrival free wine and food was provided on the streets. A vast banquet was held in the archbishop’s palace, with food served from gold and silver platters, for the more exalted guests.

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

Becket’s remains, still located in a wooden box, were carried in procession through the cathedral, and reverentially placed into a purpose-built shrine in the chapel at the highest and easternmost point of the church. This consisted of a rectangular pink marble base around 7ft high, 7ft long and 3ft wide, with arched niches in the sides where pilgrims could pray. On top was a golden casket, made under the direction of master-craftsmen Walter of Colchester and Elias of Dereham, of gold plate covered in a mesh of gold wire to which gemstones and jewellery, donated from all over Europe in the build-up to the translation, were attached. In prime position on the south face of the shrine was the Regale of France, a huge red gem given to Archbishop Langton by the French king Philip Augustus.

Reconstruction of the shrine of St Thomas in the Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. This model draws on surviving fragments and contemporary descriptions to show how the space might have looked in around 1408. Created by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture (CSCC), University of York. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. © CSCC (2018)
Becket’s new shrine

Becket’s first tomb, which was simple in appearance, had been in the crypt, distant and detached from the upper parts of the church where the monks performed their daily liturgical devotions. Pilgrims had flocked to it, swarmed all over it, and sat around it waiting in the hope of miraculous cures. After the 1220 translation his relics were housed in one of the most spectacular settings in medieval Europe. As the monks sang in their choir they looked eastwards towards the golden casket, glittering in candlelight beyond the high altar. Such splendour, one of the largest collections of gold and jewels in the world, necessitated increased security. Pilgrims had to be carefully controlled and supervised so that they would not disturb the monks in their prayers or try to pluck jewels from the shrine itself. Soon after the 1220 translation iron grilles were erected around the shrine allowing it to be closed off, and two monks and two clerks were appointed to be full-time custodians of one of the most sacred sites in medieval England.

The Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Today, a candle marks the place where Becket’s shrine once stood. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

The anniversary Feast of the Translation, held on 7 July but with festivities continuing for two weeks afterwards, saw thousands of pilgrims descend on Canterbury every year. It was this day, not the Feast of the Martyrdom on 29 December, that was the principal celebration of Thomas Becket’s life and afterlife at Canterbury Cathedral every year throughout the Middle Ages. Every 50th ‘jubilee’ year was of particular importance, with the 1370, 1420, and 1470 jubilees drawing perhaps hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at a time when the population of England was barely three million. For the medieval devotees of Thomas Becket, this day symbolising his continued presence on earth was as, if not more, important than the day he died.

Further information on Dr John Jenkins’ work on Becket’s cult with the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, resulting from AHRC-funded projects 2014-2020, can be found here.

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