Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum
“The story of Thomas Becket’s life, death and legacy has all the hallmarks of a Game of Thrones plot. There’s drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe.”
Naomi Speakman, co-curator of Thomas Becket at the British Museum
A year-long programme of events marking the 850th anniversary of one of the most shocking crimes in European history, the murder of Thomas Becket, are unveiled today. ‘Becket2020’ will see venues in London, Canterbury and beyond host a range of events across the year to commemorate his murder – a moment which changed the course of history. The programme includes performances, pageants, talks, film screenings and religious services, and culminates in the first ever major UK exhibition to explore Becket’s life, death and legacy which will open at the British Museum in October.
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered on 29 December 1170 – 849 years ago tomorrow. He was killed in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights with close ties to his former friend King Henry II, as eye-witnesses looked on. Becket was quickly canonised a saint by the Pope and his shrine at Canterbury became a major centre of European pilgrimage before being destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in the early years of the English Reformation. In both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church he is recognised as a saint and a martyr.
In 2020, Canterbury will be the centre of activity celebrating Becket. A major new production of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral will be performed for the first time in Canterbury Cathedral in October and is a joint initiative with The Marlowe Theatre. The Cathedral will also host a special choral evensong service to commemorate Becket’s martyrdom on the 29 December 2020. Elsewhere in the city, other highlights include Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer at The Beaney, a community creative project focusing on mental and physical health and wellbeing in the context of Becket’s fame. In July, Canterbury’s fifth annual Medieval Pageant and Trail will take place, and this year commemorates Henry ll’s pilgrimage to Canterbury to perform penance for his association with the murder of Becket.
London, the city of Becket’s birth, will also host a range of important events. Thomas Becket (title tbc) at the British Museum will be the first time Becket’s life, death and legacy has been explored in a major exhibition in the UK. Opening in October, it will showcase an incredible array of over 100 objects associated with Becket, including manuscripts, jewellery, sculpture, stained glass and paintings, and will feature artefacts from the Museum’s collection as well as important loans from the UK and around the world. It will present Becket’s tumultuous journey: from London-merchant’s son to Archbishop; and from a revered saint in death, to a ‘traitor’ in the eyes of Henry VIII, over 350 years later. Highlights include a number of beautiful sacred reliquaries which once contained precious relics of Thomas Becket. These were taken across Continental Europe and speak to the profound international spread of his cult.
Also in the capital, The Museum of London will display a selection of their extraordinary collection of pilgrim badges. For over 300 years, Londoners flocked to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury often returning with a badge as a keepsake. The Museum of London will use examples to illustrate Becket’s extraordinary life and his connections to the capital. Visitors will be encouraged to undertake their own mini-pilgrimage through the museum’s Medieval London Gallery from 14 February to October 2020. In June, the Becket Pageant for London will be a landmark community project centred around a new 70-minute stage-work and set against the iconic backdrop of medieval Guildhall Yard. The event will seek to re-imagine the only known Becket pageant, performed in London in 1519, and will be a playful musical entertainment for a modern audience. His Grace The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, The Archbishop of Canterbury, will preach at Southwark Cathedral in December 2020, in commemoration of Thomas Becket’s final sermon which took place at the same site shortly before his death. The Cathedral will also host an art installation by artist Michelle Rumney during Lent.
Thomas Becket (title tbc) is at the British Museum from 15th October 2020 until 14th February 2021.