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Skull of St. Thomas Becket to go on display at British Museum


HVH | CC BY-SA 3.0

J-P Mauro - published on 04/27/21

The exhibit, marking the 850th anniversary of his death, will be the most extensive look at St.Thomas' life to date.

A fragment of the skull of St. Thomas Becket is set to go on rare display at the British Museum. The first-class relic, which has survived since 1170, will be the centerpiece of the exhibit. It will sit alongside artifacts from the saint’s murder as well as historical records relating to his death.

According to the British Museum, the exhibit will be titled Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint. This rare glimpse into the notorious murder comes while England is recognizing the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s death.

The exhibit will include illuminated manuscripts from the 12th century. Some of these even hold first-hand accounts of the infamous assassination. These will be presented besides reliquaries and jewelry belonging to Becket. In addition, Canterbury Cathedral has loaned out a grand stained glass window emblazoned with images of St. Thomas’ story

The murder

Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most influential figures of his time. While he was initially close friends with King Henry II, and even served as the king’s chancellor before taking holy orders, the two became locked in a heated dispute over the appointment of bishops. This ultimately led the king to famously muse, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

On the evening of December 19, 1170, four armored knights with ties to the king entered Canterbury Cathedral and publicly executed St. Thomas. In an interview with The Guardian, Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the British Museum exhibit, explained: 

“Becket was a real hothead, and he more or less said ‘come and get me’ to them, even gesturing with the side of his hand that they should slice into his neck.”

St. Thomas Becket was murdered in gruesome fashion before a gathering of monks and parishioners at prayer. Several eye-witnesses wrote accounts of the event, which shocked medieval Europe. Soon afterward, Canterbury Cathedral became a central place of pilgrimage that has endured to this day. 

The major exhibit will be the first of its kind to present the full story of St. Thomas Becket. It will examine his life in entirety, as well as the aftermath of his murder. The gallery will also include records from the 16th century, when King Henry VIII desecrated Becket’s tomb during the Reformation. 

Visit the British Museum today to learn more.

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