For an event that took place almost 850 years ago, Thomas Becket’s death is surprisingly well documented.
Four knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral, shortly after Archbishop Becket returned from a lengthy exile in France. They demanded to speak to him; they claimed to be acting for the King, Henry II. They drew their swords and cut Becket down, leaving him dead on the stone floor.
The murder shocked Europe and outraged the church. Henry II is alleged to have signed Becket’s death warrant with the hasty words: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” He swiftly declared his repentance, walked barefoot into Canterbury and prayed for forgiveness. Pope Alexander III declared Becket a saint. Saint Thomas Becket was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, in an ornate golden shrine studded with precious stones. Rumours quickly began that the saint worked healing miracles, and the pilgrims started to come. Thousands of them, down the ages, remembered best now in Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic poem The Canterbury Tales.
What happened next is less well-documented. We know that Henry VIII, in his own bitter battle with the Catholic Church, declared Becket a traitor, and had the shrine destroyed. What happened to Becket’s remains? Nobody really knows, and that mystery is a key part of the plot of Unlawful Things.
So I was excited to see that Saint Thomas Becket’s remains are back in the news – or at least, his blood-stained tunic is. The tunic was given to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, some 50 years before the shrine at Canterbury was destroyed. The basilica will loan the relic to Canterbury for an exhibition to mark 850 years since the saint’s death, in 2020.
Two years ago, a sliver of his elbow joint toured Britain, attracting crowds. When I started to write Unlawful Things, I wondered if modern Britain would be in the slightest bit interested in what had happened to the saint’s remains. Happily, it looks as if Becket can still pull a crowd, eight centuries after his death.
But what does Thomas Becket have to do with Christopher Marlowe, modern day London and Unlawful Things? Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out!