Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Mystery of Becket's Bones

Brutally murdered on 29 December 1170 in his own Cathedral by four of the king's knights, Thomas Becket was canonized by the Pope on 21st February 1173. The whereabouts of the Saint's relics remain a mystery despite several excavations in the cathedral.

The Tomb of the Martyr
The night of his murder, Thomas Becket's body was laid before the High Altar in the Trinity Chapel before being interred in the crypt below between two marble pillars the next day.

The crypt in which Thomas Becket was laid remained locked for three months after his death. In April 1171, it was opened for the first time to the public and almost immediately the site became one of miraculous cures. When he was murdered local people managed to obtain pieces of cloth soaked in Becket's blood. Word soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, people were cured of their ills. Benedict of Peterborough described that after the death of Becket some of the blood was carefully collected and kept in a vessel in the church. The Canterbury monks were soon selling small glass bottles or flasks (Ampulla) of water containing Becket's blood to pilgrims. By the end of the 12th century no fewer than seven hundred miracles had been recorded at Becket’s tomb.

Canterbury Pilgrim Ampulla, 13th Century, Bergen
The sudden overwhelming interest in Becket's remains made the Canterbury monks fearful that his old adversaries might attempt to steal them, so they removed them and hid them behind the altar of Our Lady in the Undercroft for safe keeping in a wooden chest. Subsequently, to protect the Archbishop's remains, a tomb was constructed protected by four strong walls of stone, reinforced with iron. A large slab was placed across the top with two holes were left in one wall so that pilgrims could reach inside.

Gervase of Canterbury records that on 5th September 1174 the Cathedral was ravaged by a fire that damaged the roof, stone walls, columns and several buildings of the Priory but it left Becket's tomb intact and unharmed. Pilgrims continued to visit Becket’s tomb as the Cathedral during the rebuilding by William of Sens.

Four years later he was injured after falling from some scaffolding at the site of the reconstruction work, William the Englishman took over. In 1179 work began on extending the eastern crypt under the Englishman's direction so that it would align with an improved Trinity Chapel above it. He extended the church to the east and raised the Trinity Chapel higher than the choir, increasing the height of the crypt. Completed in 1181, Becket’s tomb was now symbolically located in the central aisle of the eastern crypt and directly below where William the Englishman planned to build the new shrine.

The shrine of Thomas Becket
from Shines of British Saints by J. Charles Wall (1905)
Becket's Shrine 
In 1220 the work was completed and on 7th July Becket's remains were translated to the new shrine in the Trinity Chapel which was to become the most popular and richly adorned shrine in England. In “Shrines of British Saints" (1905) J. Charles Wall writes that the completed shrine “was the work of that incomparable officer, Walter de Colchester, Sacrist of St. Albans, assisted by Elias de Dereham, Canon of Salisbury”. The shrine was constructed in three parts. Mounted on a stone plinth base was a richly decorated wooden casket containing Becket's relics. A painted canopy could be raised up and down on a pulley to hide the shrine from view.
The easternmost part of the new work  was called “The Crown of St. Thomas” or “Becket’s Crown” some claimed it derived its name of “Corona” because it was circular and the ribs of the vault suggested a crown, yet others claim is was named after Becket's skull which was kept there.

According to Wall when the Dutch scholar Erasmus, visited the shrine shortly before the Dissolution he claimed the “perforated skull of the martyr” was exhibited in the crypt with “the forehead is left bare to be kissed, whilst the other parts are covered with silver.” When he went into the chapel at the extreme east end (the Corona?), he was shown the whole face, “tota facies” of St. Thomas, gilt, and adorned with many jewels, by the “attendant of the holy head.” Erasmus observed that the gold was the least valuable thing about Becket's shrine but the most valuable precious part was the jewels; “Everything here,” he said, “glittered, shone and sparkled.”

Canterbury Pilgrim Becket's Shrine badge, mid-14th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

In 1538 this magnificent shrine was destroyed and the bones of Becket were said to have been burned and scattered to the four winds. The jewels and the gold were taken back to the King’s own treasury; the Régale of France, a large ruby donated by Louis VII in 1179, was made into a thumb ring for the king. Becket's bones were taken from their wooden casket, arrested and tried for crimes against Henry II and found guilty of treason.

Today a solitary candle on the floor of the Trinity Chapel marks the spot where Becket's shrine stood from 1220 to 1538, the steps leading up to it worn and polished by the feet of countless pilgrims.

Did the Monks Rescue Becket’s Bones? 
Rumours persisted that Becket's remains had been switched with the bones of the Abbott of Evesham before the king’s agents could arrest Becket’s remains. The Canterbury monks had expected the arrival of the King’s Commissioners at least three months beforehand allowing them plenty of time to hide their most valuable relics as other religious houses had done up and down the country.

The monks probably expected Becket's bones to suffer a far greater fate than those of other saints across the land. After all, at this time Becket was  probably the most popular saint in the country with more parish churches dedicated to him and thousands of pilgrims flocking to his shrine. And he had humiliated the king's ancester Henry II. And the king's henchman Thomas Cromwell was certainly a vindictive man.

Cromwell and the king appear to have singled out Becket and his cult for strict suppression. It was fairly common to find saints deleted or struck out from English medieval manuscripts, but many early Royal Injunctions that sought to abolish the “most detestable sin of idolatry” mention St Thomas by name.

Much of the argument of the survival of Becket's bones is based on whether they were actually burnt or not? No eyewitness accounts have ever come to light. The story of the burning comes from the Pope who announced on 17 December 1538 that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic church.

We must bear in mind that this was the time of the English schism with Rome and it is likely that the Pope promoted the idea of a much loved saint's bones having been burned and his wicked treatment of relics and shrines of other saints across the country to influence public opinion against the King.

The fate of Becket's bones may have been left to the discretion of the king's commissioners. It is of course possible that Becket's remains were simply transferred to another part of the Cathedral to remove them from the public consciousness and prevent their continued veneration.

in 1539, Thomas Derby, Clerk of the Privy Council, had written a rather contradictory statement. “.....the shryne of Thomas Becket, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury......was arrested that his shrynes and bones shuld be taken away and bestowed in suche place as the same shuld cause no superstition afterwards, as it is indeed amongst others of that sorte conveyed and buried in a noble tower.
Canterbury Cathedral

The Vault called Becket's Tomb
In 1546, just eight years after Becket's shrine was destroyed, the crypt of the Corona, together with the whole of the crypt of William the Englishman, received unique treatment and was assigned as a cellar for the personal use of the First Prebend, an administrative post in the Cathedral.

The eastern part was walled off from the rest of the Crypt and appropriated to Richard Thornden, the second Bishop of Dover, under the name of the “Vault called Becket's Tomb”. Thornden was formerly a monk of the Priory of Christ Church (Canterbury) from 1512 until its dissolution, when he became one of the Prebendaries of the Cathedral. Thus, the public were excluded from the this part of the crypt, containing the site of Becket's first tomb, for almost 300 years, between 1546 and 1838.

The 1888 Exhumation
On Monday 23rd January, 1888, and during an archaeological excavation to locate an earlier Norman church, a coffin containing a very old skeleton was discovered very close to where St Thomas Becket’s original tomb had been located in the eastern crypt, buried just a few centimetres below the surface.

The bones were taken to the home of the Cathedral’s architect, Mr HG Austin. On January 25th, the bones were presented to Dr Thornton, who then spent three days examining them. Thornton determined that the bones belonged to a male aged between 45 and 55 years old, close to two metres tall. Already they seemed to fit the description of Thomas Becket.

Thornton reported a fracture of the crown that had most likely occurred when the skull was removed from the stone coffin. On the right side, there was a fracture, which he thought might have been caused by an axe or a mace, and on the left side there was a severe fracture that he thought was possibly caused by a two-handed sword.

Of course, when compared with modern methods Thornton’s analysis does not seem at all accurate and it is easy enough, for those wishing to dismiss Thornton's finds, to argue that Becket's bones must have been burned in 1538 as the Pope claimed. Sixteen days later the bones were re-interred on 10th February 1888. But debate raged on as to the true identity of the bones without any firm conclusion being reached.

In 1895 a member of the original Investigating Committee of the 1888 exhumation, Canon Routledge, argued in defence of the skeleton, claiming that the 'crown' or 'corona' referred only to the tonsure, i.e. the shaven part of a monk’s head, which was regarded as sacred and injuring it would therefore have been considered sacrilegious. He suggested that it was possible the entire crown of Becket's skull had not been severed at all but wounds were inflicted to the tonsure.

However, this contradicts eye witness accounts of Becket's martyrdom, such as Edward Grimm who clearly states the top of Becket's head was sliced off. Furthermore, the skull is thinly covered, any contact with a sharp, heavy sword would have inflicted damage to the bone beneath.

A Second Look
A new shrine was planned by The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury who were clearly of the opinion that the remains exhumed in 1888 did indeed belong to Becket. But at the last minute seemed to have doubts and ordered the grave be re-opened.

On 19th July 1949 Professor Cave removed the bones and transported them to the Anatomy Department at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College where he examined the bones for two years before reburying them on 15th June 1951.

The following May Professor Cave issued a 31 page report in which he argued that “all the cracks, breaks, fractures, and erosions are most emphatically of a post mortem nature” and certainly not consistent with perimortem sword wounds.

Cave noted that the coffin contained several animal bones and some other human bones suggesting the body had originally been buried in the ground and was damaged during a hasty exhumation. There is no evidence to suggest that Becket was ever buried in the ground and this certainly did not seem to reflect the treatment expected of saintly relics. This tends to suggest that these bones were dug up in a hurry and substituted for whoever's bones were really in the coffin. Is this evidence that the monks did indeed switch the bones before the king's commissioners arrived?

Cave came to the conclusion that unless the contemporary accounts of Hugh de Horsea (the evil clerk) sticking his sword inside Becket's skull were totally incorrect it was not possible that the bones discovered in 1888 could be Becket's.

Becket was first interred  between the two marble pillars
in William the Englishman's lofty Crypt beneath the Trinity Chapel

Are Becket's Bones still in Canterbury Cathedral?
However, there were still those who believe Becket's remains are in the Cathedral. It seems there have been several exhumations in Canterbury Cathedral that have not been made public; the last time that we know of was in 1966; the findings unknown.

On an August night in 1990 two French men armed with crowbars, bolt cutters, chisels, a torch and a map of the interior layout were arrested in Canterbury Cathedral suspected of attempted burglary. Peregrine Prescott and Risto Pronk, both veterans of the French Foreign Legion, insisted that they had no intention of stealing anything, but were merely searching for the bones of Thomas Becket.

Their plea was that the French Cardinal Odet de Coligny was forced to flee to England during the Catholic persecution of Huguenots. When he died it was claimed that he was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, his assigned tomb wedged at a peculiar angle between two pillars very close to the place of Becket’s original shrine in the Trinity Chapel. Prescott and Pronk claimed that Coligny’s death had been faked and that he actually returned to France alive. They were freed by the Magistrates. But this leaves the enigma of Coligny's tomb unsolved; is it empty or does it contain someone's remains – if so whose?

In 1997 Cecil Humphery-Smith, an English biochemist, claimed that Canterbury canon Julian Bickersteth, had witnessed the exhumation of a skeleton near the cathedral’s Chapels of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Nicholas. Bickersteth claimed that he and three other men, including canon John Shirley, cut into a stone slab in the 1940s (during or immediately after WWII) to confirm their suspicions that it covered Becket's bones in an unmarked grave, buried there for safe-keeping during the 16th century. Oddly, this was before the second exhumation in 1949; is it likely that Bickersteth's find was indeed kept secret between the four men and not known outside their circle at the time?

Humphery-Smith told the Sunday Times 22 June 1997, that Bickersteth, his godfather, saw the bones of a tall man that had the right hand missing. He added that he also saw fragments of Becket’s episcopal vesture and seal ring. It is of some interest that Bickersteth and Shirley paid for the renovation of these two chapels in the 1950s.

When Shirley died his ashes were later interred in St. Mary Magdalene’s chapel, where he had paid for the installation of a red perpetual lamp, the colour symbolising the presence of a martyr.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

By far the most detailed account of Becket's bones is contained in John Butler's 'The Quest for Becket's Bones' (Yale Univerity Press, 1995) but later events such as the 1966 exhumation and Cecil Humphery-Smith's statement in 1997 appeared after it had gone to press. However, in his book Butler seems to suspect that Bickersteth and Shirley were on to something.

Further reading:
Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket, University of California Press, 1990.
Canon Scott Robertson, The Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Part II, Archaeologia Cantiana -  Vol. 13  1880.
Report (1888) on the Discoveries in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral by Canons Routledge and. Scott Robertson, and Dr. Sheppard Archaeologia Cantiana -  Vol. 18  1889
John Butler, The Quest for Becket's Bones, Yale Univerity Press, 1995.
Bess Lovejoy, Rest in Pieces, Gerald Duckworth & Co. (Kindle Edition) 2014
J. Charles Wall, Shrines of British Saints, 1905
William Urry, Thomas Becket: The Last Days, Sutton, 1999.

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