The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket, British Museum

This is the final object of those I photographed in the British Museum and it’s my favourite. It’s a tiny reliquary, about 6¼” tall, 6″ wide and 2¾” deep. I like it for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s just beautiful. Despite its age the colours shine and sparkle. Secondly, because it’s enamelware from Limoges, which I don’t come across very often. Thirdly, because it’s about Thomas Becket, who was an important English saint in the Middle Ages.

I first became aware of the enamelware produced in Limoges when I was doing research for my novel Beloved Besieged, part of which is set in the town. My Pinterest board for the novel is full of pictures of enamelled objects made there and it’s beautiful stuff.

Enamel is a type of glass fused onto metal. The metal was usually copper, but it could be silver or gold. The metal between the pieces of enamel was gilded. This type of object was produced mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. About forty similar caskets made to contain relics of Thomas Becket still survive.

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on 29th December 1170 in his own cathedral by four knights who had been sent, or believed they had been sent, by Henry II to strike him down. Having risen from fairly humble beginnings to become Chancellor, Becket was made archbishop of Canterbury. Since it was Henry II who had raised Becket to prominence, he naturally assumed Becket would side with him in the constant struggle between medieval kings and the pope about the authority each had over the king’s subjects.

The archbishop did not support the king and was exiled. They were reconciled and the trouble began again. Hearing the king utter the infamous words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (possibly in medieval French, Norman French or even Latin, but definitely not English) the four knights rushed off to Canterbury and did their king’s bidding.

Becket was canonised in 1173. Henry II made a very public penance, and he and his descendants were very energetic in promoting the murdered archbishop as a saint. His relics were sent to churches and monasteries all over Europe in reliquaries like this one. The shrine at Canterbury drew pilgrims from many countries, becoming the fourth most visited shrine in the Middle Ages, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.

Pilgrims didn’t just visit the shrine, they also bought ‘Canterbury water’. It was holy water mixed with a drop of Becket’s blood and was said to cure many illnesses and disabilities. Sold in ampoules it could be taken back home if the sick person was too ill to make the pilgrimage on their own behalf.  The monks also sold badges to pilgrims as reminders (souvenirs) of their pilgrimage.

Becket was an important saint for English pilgrims, as demonstrated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were on their way to Becket’s shrine. Many pilgrimages ended at Canterbury, but others continued on to Dover, with pilgrims crossing the English Channel in the next stage of their journey to Rome, Compostela or Jerusalem. It was not always safe enough to travel further afield, though, and many had to be satisfied with Canterbury.

The saint’s murder was a popular motif in medieval art and the British Museum also has an alabaster panel depicting it. The image on the reliquary is of two of the knights attacking Becket in front of the altar. It dates from the early thirteenth century, about 40 years after the event. At this time Limoges was part of the duchy of Aquitaine, whose dukes were the Plantagenets, which explains why so many Becket reliquaries were made there.

Henry II’s descendants took their devotion to St Thomas seriously.  They were always stopping off at Canterbury to visit his shrine. Edward III once walked from London to Canterbury as a pilgrim. In 1343 he gave a golden ship to the shrine after he had been saved from a storm. Edward of Woodstock, his eldest son, is interred there.

All my photograph does really well is show you how tiny the reliquary is. Here’s a better photograph of its front.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

The Perfect King – Ian Mortimer



Filed under Pilgrimage, Thirteenth Century

18 responses to “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

  1. Finally! Something I remember seeing!

    One of my visits to England was a month’s stay studying English dialects.
    We’d all delved into The Canterbury Tales (which is, I believe, required by legislation), & our professor made sure we visited the British Museum to see the reliquary, Book of Kells, & other must-see links to the origins of our great language.

    My stomach churned at the thought of a bunch of monks divvying up pieces of Becket’s corpse, to place in caskets. We learned that the small size made it easy to take to special events where extra blessings were needed, such as ship launchings, healing the sick (royal & noble folks only), and other matters of importance. Amazing what a piece of flesh was expected to do!

    Anyone know if Becket’s bits are still in the reliquaries? Talk about resting in pieces! Kind of flew in the face of the old belief that complete bodies needed to be buried to come out whole on Resurrection Day! Hmmmmmm .. .. .. .. .. ..

    Best ending possible for a great series. I’ve learned so much. Hope you do this kind of thing again! Many thanks! Sure wish I could “like” it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I too am uneasy about the thought of people cutting off bits of his body.

      I doubt there’s anything inside, although my sources are silent on that point. Very few relics survived the Reformation and fewer survived the Civil War in the seventeenth century.

      As to the resurrection. I suppose they thought that he wouldn’t miss a finger or a toe.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The reliquary is beautiful. We learned how to enamel copper when I was in Metal Shop in 8th grade. It’s a painstaking process and, like ceramic glazes, the colors change during the firing process. We made pretty crude designs. I can’t imagine the effort required to make something with so much detail.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Beautiful shots on your Pinterest page, April. Such fine workmanship! When I see reliquaries I often wonder what’s actually inside. I’m sure the sale of relics must have been a very lucrative business. Checking the provenance must have been well nigh impossible.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I can see why it’s your favourite, it’s amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is exquisite. I can see why you like it so much.

    I was reminded recently of Henry II’s rash statement when I was looking through the Elizabethan writer John Hayward’s book about the first part of the life and reign of Henry IV. He gives two lively accounts of Richard II’s death – the first being that Richard was starved to death. Given wonderful dinners but no time to eat them.

    The second was that: “King Henry sitting at his table, sad and pensive, with a deep sigh brake forth into these words: Have I no faithful friend that will deliver me of him, whose life will breed destruction to me and disturbance to the realm, and whose death will be a safety and quiet to both?”

    Whereupon a knight called Sir Piers of Exton set forth with “eight tall men” for Pomfret…and there’s a good fight scene where Richard defends himself with a carving knife and manages to dispatch a few of them before they dispatch him. Predictably, Sir Piers got no reward for his action…

    Kings really need to watch what they say when knights are around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s said that Henry IV had a guilty conscious for the rest of his life about what he’d done to his cousin. Once a king’s been deposed, there’s not much you can do with him except kill him. If you don’t, his supporters will always have a cause to fight for. If you do kill him, they still might fight you, but it’s a bit pointless if he didn’t leave a son behind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. A deposed king would always be a risk.
        John Hayward had Richard (after the fatal blow) making a speech along the lines that Edward II had been deposed and killed, which was how Edward III came to the throne.
        So, as Edward III’s successor, he had it coming. Very odd, because Edward III would have got the throne regardless. Perhaps I misread it.
        The really interesting development was the idea that a king could be put on trial before being executed.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, that is odd about Edward III. He had nothing to do with the deposition and must have feared for his own life when his father died/was murdered. He also became king before his father’s death, since Edward II abdicated.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I have always found it rather odd that St George ended up the patron saint of England (and so many other countries) instead of Thomas Becket as he was so very popular in the Middle Ages.


Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s