The Book in the Cathedral

New ‘Hardback Penguin’ on Becket

Published this month, between the 800th anniversary of the Translation of St Thomas Becket in July and the 850th anniversary of his murder next December, is a book which would have been part of the Becket 2020 programme.

But the pandemic has not stopped the appearance of this lovely hardback Penguin The Book in the Cathedral: the Last Relic of Thomas Becket by Christopher de Hamel.

The author, former Librarian of the Parker Library, tells the story of how he was lunching at Corpus Christi Cambridge when suddenly by chance a mystery was solved.

His guest Eyal Poleg, senior lecturer at Queen Mary University London, mentioned a book listed in the 1321 Sacrist’s Roll at Canterbury but never located. The description fitted a book in Christopher de Hamel’s possession. Coffee was abandoned as both made for the library.

Becket’s Psalter had been discovered.

It appears to be the book of psalms taken by Becket into exile and read in many places in traumatic times. A case is made for the book having returned with Becket in 1170 and even being in his hand as he died.

Is it, as suggested, the book being held by Becket in the 12th-century window in Canterbury Cathedral? And in the Old Kent Road pub sign?

There is another fascinating conjecture made. Becket admired predecessor St Alphege, preached about him in his last sermon and invoked the name as the knights murdered him. Did Becket love the book because it had once belonged to Alphege?

The de Hamel book is only 58 pages long but it is packed with information and gets close to Becket as archbishop.

It is also a book where the notes (nine pages) are rewarding.

Becket’s Psalter is due to be exhibited at the postponed Becket exhibition at the British Museum. The dates will be announced shortly.

The Book in the Cathedral: the Last Relic of Thomas Becket by Christopher de Hamel (Allen Lane; £9.99).

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