The destroyed shrine of St Thomas Becket

This engraving keeps alive the memory of a religious cult that the architects of the Henrician Reformation were determined to make the nation forget. The shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury was one of the premier destinations of pilgrims in late medieval Europe. Assassinated in his own cathedral in 1270, Becket’s status as a saint was closely tied up with his defence of the rights of the Church against the encroachments of King Henry II. Unsurprisingly, his cult became the most high profile casualty of the break with Rome: a proclamation of 1538 ordered the obliteration of his name and image from liturgical books and ecclesiastical buildings. His tomb was smashed to bits, but the exact fate of his bones remains a mystery. Rumours that Henry VIII had them ceremoniously incinerated scandalised sixteenth-century Catholics, but they may simply have been buried to prevent their continuing veneration. Based on a drawing among the manuscripts in Sir Robert Cotton’s library, this illustration was incorporated into Roger Dodsworth and William Dugdale’s influential Monasticon Anglicanum, the first volume of which appeared during the Interregnum. Indicative of mellowing attitudes towards the monastic past within some sectors of the Church of England, this antiquarian compilation of documents included many images of dissolved abbeys and priories. AW

Roger Dodsworth and William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum sive Pandectæ Cœnobiorum, Benedictinorum Cluniacensium, Cisterciensium, Carthusianorum; a primordiis ad eorum usque dissolutionem, 3 vols (London: Richard Hodgkinson, 1655-73), vol. 1, second plate between pp. 20 and 21.

CUL: R.1.15-17 (OS)

Further Reading

London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius E viii, fo. 278v.

Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin (eds), Tudor Royal Proclamations, vol. I: The Early Tudors (1485–1553) (New Haven and London, 1964), pp. 275–6.

John Butler, The Quest for Becket’s Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).

Robert E. Scully, ‘The Unmaking of a Saint: Thomas Becket and the English Reformation’, Catholic Historical Review, 86 (2000), 579–602.

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