2020 marks an important anniversary for the extraordinary figure of Thomas Becket. On 29th December it will be 850 years since his dramatic murder in Canterbury Cathedral. The year was 1170 and Thomas Becket was one of the most powerful figures in England, serving first as royal chancellor and then as Archbishop of Canterbury. Initially a close friend of King Henry II, he became engaged in a series of bitter disputes with the King over the power of the church which culminated in his assassination at the hands of four knights with close ties to the King.
There were five eye-witnesses to the murder, which was gruesome in the extreme. When the knights tried to arrest Becket, he took refuge in the church but the knights pursued him with drawn swords. When Becket clung to one of the cathedral pillars, they struck the first blow and cut him down.
Becket’s reputation as a miracle-worker developed swiftly. His body had not even been buried before stories started to circulate of his healing powers. He was made a saint in 1173 in one of the fastest acts of canonisation in history. His reputation as a miracle-working saint spread across Europe, turning Canterbury Cathedral into a prime pilgrimage spot. King Henry II in a public act of penance for inciting the murder, visited Becket’s tomb in 1174.
In death, Becket remained a champion of the defender of the rights of the Church. Images of his murder can be found in churches across Latin Christendom, from Germany to Spain, Italy and Norway. One of these is the fifteenth century wall painting in the nave of St Mary’s Church at Lydiard Tregoze which would have been obliterated in the following century as a result of Henry VIII’s abandonment of the Catholic faith.
During works to the building in the 1830’s Lydiard’s wall paintings were rediscovered, hidden under layers of lime-wash. Before being painted over again the Becket picture was copied in a detailed watercolour which was donated to the church by the Brake family in 2018. Both the wallpainting and watercolour have now been conserved as part of the St. Mary’s Conservation Project, enabling visitors to view the two pictures together. See projects we have supported: https://www.friendsoflydiardpark.org.uk/projects/st-marys-church-lydiard-tregoze-conservation-project/
In this anniversary year of Thomas Becket’s murder we may reflect on a story of drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe. These events had repercussions that have echoed out through time and are commemorated at Lydiard and across the world.