The afterlife of a piece of Becket’s cranium


Thomas Watson had a piece from the skull of Thomas Becket mounted on his processional cross when he became Bishop of Lincoln in 1556. That might sound a Gothicky sort of thing to do, but it was full of meaning.

St Thomas of Canterbury was struck down by the four knights in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29 1170. Standing next to him in his last hour was Edward Grim, his cross-bearer, whose forearm, as he tried to defend Thomas, was almost severed by William de Tracy’s heavy sword cut. The blow also struck Thomas’s head. After he fell, a portion of his brains was stirred with a sword-point on the pavement.

Within a year, Grim had written the martyr’s first biography. It was certainly a murder that shocked Europe, but the crime was eclipsed by the widespread devotion to the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury as a saint. He was formally canonised on February 21 1173, only 26 months after his death. An element in the devotion was, not so much that the authority of bishops should replace that of kings, but that kings should not tyrannise the Church.

It was a notable, though not inevitable, part of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, that he nursed huge animosity towards St Thomas of Canterbury. On November 16 1538, a royal proclamation declared that “Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed nor called a saint”. Prayers on his feast days were to be “razed and put out of all the books”.

Watson became Bishop of Lincoln less that 18 years later, in Queen Mary’s reign, and a question when Queen Elizabeth came in was what to do with him. He was put in the Tower, already sick with ague, and later locked in the fenny Wisbech Castle, where he died in 1584.

Before he died, Watson had entrusted the relic of Becket’s cranium, above, to John Fortescue, who, in the following decade, with his wife Helen, carried it into exile, at the risk of their lives if discovered. It found a place of veneration at the English Jesuit college at Saint-Omer and eventually came into the care of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, which has kindly lent it to the stupendous exhibition at the British Museum, opening this month, “Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint”, postponed by the pesky pandemic from last October.

It provides a pictorial biography and after-history of the saint, with everything from 12th-century stained glass (which happens to be absent from Canterbury Cathedral for restoration) to a smart silk-embroidered pair of episcopal bootees. I recommend similarly comfortable footwear for a good long look, or mug up beforehand with the book of the show (of the same name) by Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, its co-curators.

As usual, there is a complication over the skull relic. It might not be Watson’s but a fragment mentioned by that daredevil missionary John Gerard. He returned to England as a Jesuit priest in 1588 but was arrested in 1594 and terribly tortured before escaping from the Tower in 1597. In 1593, he mentions in his gripping autobiography, he saw a relic of part of Becket’s skull “thought to be the piece that was chipped off” when he was killed.

In any case, the relic that Saint-Omer preserved was given a round gilt reliquary in the 1660s inscribed round the rim “Ex cranio S Thomae Cantuariensis”, and the fragment itself sewn with gold thread into a red velvet wrapping beneath a glass window. Its circular form allowed it to be mounted on a silver statuette of the saint as a morse or clasp securing the cope he wears. It is a manner of presentation with which Thomas Watson might have sympathised.