Thomas Becket

2020 was the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s assassination.  To mark the event, the British Museum is currently holding an exhibition about the twelfth-century figure to great acclaim.  Taking the exhibition as inspiration, we can delve into the Historic Collections at Magdalene to discover some fascinating items relating to Becket.  His influence has been long lasting, exemplified through these books and manuscripts ranging from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries.

The aftermath of Becket’s murder: defacement in manuscript and printed sources

Becket’s influence and image was subject to much censorship and iconoclasm in the reign of Henry VIII.  In the King’s proclamation of 1538, issued in partnership with Thomas Cromwell, Becket’s ‘Images and pictures, through the holy realm, shall be put down, and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places … the days used to be festival in his name shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphoners, collects, and prayers, in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’[i]  In the same year, Henry VIII had the shrine to Becket in Canterbury cathedral destroyed.

It is therefore common to see the excision and defacement of pages which include any veneration of Becket, or simply mention Becket’s feast day in the calendar of the church year.  Below we have two examples of this treatment: one from a manuscript source and one from a printed source.

Old Library F.4.10, the Peterborough Antiphoner.

Old Library F.4.10, the Peterborough Antiphoner, folio 32v showing defacement and excision.

An antiphoner is a book comprising of chants for the services making up the ‘Divine Office’: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  The Old Library’s ‘Peterborough Antiphoner’, as its name suggests, originates from Peterborough Abbey and dates from the mid-13th century.  Professor David Hiley from the University of Regensburg tells us more about the chants composed for Becket’s feast day in the Peterborough Antiphoner, and why this manuscript is particularly important for the study of chants composed for Becket:

‘The succession of services in the Office is unfamiliar today, but in the Middle Ages they took up a great deal of time, especially in monastic establishments. On a great festival such as St Thomas of Canterbury’s Day over forty psalms and canticles would be sung, each of them framed by a special chant called an antiphon. During Matins, passages from the Life of the saint would be solemnly intoned, each one followed by long chant called a responsory.

Cycles of chants such as these have survived the ravages of time for hundreds of saints. Such was Thomas of Canterbury’s renown, so important was his aid deemed to be, that several sets were composed in different places across Europe. The first set, the one usually sung in England, was made by Benedict, a monk of Canterbury who had witnessed Thomas’s murder in 1170, became prior of Canterbury in 1175 and abbot of Peterborough in 1177. It is Benedict’s chants for Becket which appear in the Peterborough Antiphoner, or rather only portions of the beginning and the end’. 

Hiley says the excision and defacement of the chants by Benedict in the Peterborough Antiphoner is especially sad: ‘We’ve lost a lot of what might well have been the most ‘authentic’ source.’

A Pepys Library Printed Primer

PL 1374, A goodly prymer in englyshe, newly corrected and printed, with certeyne godly
meditations and prayers added.  London: John Byddell, for William Marshall, 16 June 1535.

This printed book of hours from 1535 in the Pepys Library contains defacement of Becket’s feast day.  Books of hours were called ‘primers’ or ‘prymers’ in late Middle English, and is a term now used to refer to books of hours written in English rather than Latin or other languages. They typically contain prayers and devotional texts for particular times during the day, or particular days of the week or month, and a liturgical calendar.  This particular primer contains a commentary on Psalm 51 by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) translated into English.  Savonarola, a Dominican friar from Ferrara, Italy, composed his commentary on Psalm 51 in prison, shortly before he was executed for disobeying orders from Pope Alexander VI.

Becket and twentieth century literature

Murder in the Cathedral is a verse drama by TS Eliot, based on the events leading up to Becket’s assassination.  It was first performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral in 1935, exactly four hundred years after the primer above was printed.  A film version, directed by George Hoellering, followed in 1951. 

The Old Library’s collection of TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ in several editions and translations.

The Old Library contains a very large collection of printed editions of Murder in the Cathedral forming part of the Valerie Eliot bequest.  The bequest consists of TS Eliot’s printed copies of his own works, some of his personal library including books he used for his academic studies, and translations of his works into other languages.  Some of the latter were printed during his lifetime and he would often present them to Valerie Eliot with an inscription.  Other translations post-date his death, but were sent to Valerie Eliot as part of her role in TS Eliot’s literary estate.

An inscription from TS Eliot to Valerie Eliot in Old Library M.12.234: Eliot, TS, Lindergren, E (translator): Mordet I Katedralen. Stockholm : Albert Bonniers Forläg, 1939.

There is a diverse selection of languages represented in these translations of Murder in the Cathedral, a testament to Eliot’s literary success.  We see Kannada, Malay, Gallego, Friulian and Welsh represented amongst many others. Illustrated above is an inscription by TS Eliot to Valerie Eliot in a Swedish translation.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections

Further Reading

‘Erasing Becket’ – British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

British Museum: Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint.

Jane Richardson, Canterbury Christ Church University: ‘Murdered, Deleted, Survived’: Thomas Becket defies Henry VIII’.


[i] The kynges most royall maiestie being enfourmed.  [London]: Tho. Berthelet regius impressor excudebat, [1538].  The spelling in the transcription has been modernised.

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