Canterbury’s Becket anniversary exhibition

Exhibition poster in Canterbury

Canterbury’s own Thomas Becket anniversary exhibition has opened after the long delay caused by the virus.

Has the wait been worth it? Certainly Thomas Becket: World Celebrity Healer at The Beaney is very well researched with the organisers having the advantage of access to local material.

Even the chronology at the entrance is extremely thorough and a must to read before you see the exhibits.

Casually on the floor are two pink marble capitals believed to come from Becket’s shrine. They were found forty years ago in the river near the West Gate.

There is much evidence provided of how quickly devotion to Becket spread following his murder in 1170 and of his memory being kept alive during the years following the Reformation.

The murder is described as being as great a shock as the assassination of President Kennedy or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was in the 20th century.

Becket’s image was quickly found as far south as Sicily and east in Sweden where his statue was dressed in his own vestments.

The show suggests that the few relics we have today, despite Henry VIII’s destruction of the shrine, come from 1220 when the cathedral opened the coffin prior to the body being placed in that final upstairs shrine.

Photographs include Bill Brandt’s Pilgrims Way, Kent (1950) which is described as ‘one of his most abstract and mysterious’.

One of Elisabeth Frink’s Canterbury 1971 etchings of pilgrims depicts Arrival at Canterbury.

William Blake’s 1810 print showing Chaucer’s pilgrims leaving Southwark reminds us how the pilgrimage was being highlighted and recognised in the early 19th century.

In a brief look at the wider world of pilgrimage there are two photographs by Czech photographer and pilgrimage expert Marketa Luskacova taken in Slovakia and Ireland.

It is interesting to find that Canterbury Cathedral’s chapter house has long been a venue for Becket theatre.

There in 1897 Henry Irving gave a reading of his role as Becket in Alfred Tennyson’s play which in 1932 was fully staged in the same long room.

Just two years later it was the venue for the premiere of TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

When Robert Donat played the role of Becket in a new production of the play at The Old Vic in Coronation Year 1953 he received twenty curtain calls on the opening night.

It appears that the play was only written and premiered at the Canterbury Cathedral thanks to Margaret Babington, cathedral Friends’ treasurer, who had played Eleanor of Aquitaine in Tennyson’s play. A letter reveals how Dean Hewlitt Johnson was primed by her to agree to it.

The many items on show embrace holy water bottles old and new, pilgrim badges and even a bottle of Bishops Finger ale available today at pubs on the PW.

An hour is probably not long enough to look at everything. The museum should consider publishing a souvenir catalogue of the show which only runs until Sunday 4 July.

Thomas Becket; World Celebrity Healer at The Beaney is open Tuesday to Sunday; admission free. Booking ahead is essential whilst social distancing rules are required.

One of the pink marble capitals from Thomas Becket’s shrine

The exhibition has a photograph of an Exeter Cathedral roof boss depicting Becket’s murder. It was put in place about 1341 at the instigation of Bishop John Grandisson who had a special devotion to St Thomas.
Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell’s A Canterbury Pilgrimage (1885) open at Canterbury pages. The American couple explored the PW from London on a tandem tricycle.

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