The Search for Becket’s Bones

Does This Casket at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum Really Contain the Bones of Saint Thomas of Becket?

On an August night in 1990, sometime after midnight, two young men with Dickensian-sounding names approached Britain’s Canterbury Cathedral. Armed with crowbars, bolt cutters, chisels, wire, masking tape, and a torch, Peregrine Prescott and Risto Pronk were well prepared for surreptitious entry but perhaps not well enough. Despite the fact that both young adventurers were veterans of the Foreign Legion, the police learned of their apparent burglary-in-progress and promptly took both into custody. The pair claimed not to have intended stealing anything; but, alas, what small case there might have been for the innocence of their intentions was not helped when, along with bur­glary tools, in their possession was found a map of the cathedral interior. The explanation offered—one which at first did little to impress police—was that they were searching for the bones of one of England’s most revered saints Thomas a’Becket.

Becket had lived in very turbulent times, but, as fate would have it, even in the afterlife, his bones would see little rest. The actions of Prescott and Pronk were simply the latest on a long list of disturbances marring the saint’s post­mortem slumber, including the highly acclaimed 1964 film starring Richard Burton as Becket.

Born in 1118 of Norman parents, Becket was blessed with a quality education, a strong presence, and, most likely, no small portion of charisma. He entered the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, who soon recog­nized his talent and packed him off to Bologna and then Auxerre to further his studies in the law. When Becket re­turned to England, King Henry II took him on as chancellor, an action that immediately made him one of the most powerful men in the country. For years, the king and his chancellor got along famously. They soldiered together in war, hunted in peace and Becket came to share his king’s passion for luxury. Thomas upheld the policies of the church but with the king it was as an advisor and a friend.

Then Theobold died. Becket was ordained at once as priest and as Archbishop and immediately took over the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. This new position, he realized, would have potential to cause a rift between him and the king. He knew no man could serve two masters at the same time. And, indeed, soon his role as advisor to the king be­came strained and diminished as he now represented a separate power. While humor may once have settled differenc­es, since Becket was now bound to the Church, it failed. It didn’t help that he chose now to dress in the austere garb of a religious man. And it certainly did not help that he took his new role seriously. One of his jobs was to collect es­tates owed to the Church that were held by his once dear friend the king. Minor conflicts soon snowballed into major ones, and by 1164 he was forced to escape to France to avoid being jailed.

Then, in December of 1170, having been led to believe that reconciliation was possible, Becket returned to Canter­bury but not for long. One day four knights rode to the Cathedral, rushed into the Chapel of St. Benedict, and charged through the handful of helpless monks. Each knight struck the Archbishop on the head with his sword and left him bleeding and near death, then made their escape.

Despite immediate care, the Archbishop did not survive his wounds. The monks, fearing that the murderers would return to steal and desecrate the body, hurriedly placed his unembalmed body in a crypt whose doors were then barred.

In life Thomas Becket had many devotees. In death, his new role as martyr furthered the devotion and many made the pilgrimage to Canterbury to pray for him. Some prayed to him. Immediately there were reports that prayers were being answered. Due to the miracles being performed, or perhaps to spite the king, Becket received a very quick ca­nonization. And the king, whom everyone suspected of playing some role in the murder, was forced to accept a very severe penance. In 1174, one year after St. Thomas Becket’s canonization, the king was publicly whipped by bishops, abbots, and monks and forced to spend a night in the crypt praying.

After resting for fifty years, Becket’s fame had not diminished although his corpse was reduced to mere bones. A magnificent new crypt was built to house his remains, such as they were. Several of Becket’s bones were subsequently given away to various dignitaries and churchmen alike. Saint’s bones, after all, were very important relics, and every church was supposed to have one or two somewhere behind or within the altar. They would be traded and even stolen from one church to another, as the greater the saint, the more likely that visitors would come to the church. In­creased visits meant increased alms. The trade was called “translation” which would come to mean the same thing as theft. The logic was that the saint would have wanted to be in a better location, so it was not stealing.

The trade in relics became a mania in medieval times. Critics of the Church claim if all the pieces of the “True Cross” were put together, they could rebuild Noah’s Ark. The bones of 100 of the 12 apostles lie in European crypts, some 38 in Germany alone. While the trade would lose the manic levels of the middle ages it is still conducted on a regular basis by the church. In research conducted for Treasures From Heaven, I bought a relic of St. Therese of Li­sieux from an Ebay seller in Ireland for less than $10 U.S. Because it would be a sin to actually sell a saint’s bones, each listing contained the disclaimer that you were actually buying the reliquary that held the bones. Tell that to a judge.

Peregrine and Risto would actually have to explain to a judge just what role they were playing. They had no inter­est, they protested, in stealing anything.

Despite the gifts of his bones, most of Becket, including his damaged skull would remain in Canterbury. The fer­vor of the Reformation would again disturb what was left of St. Thomas Becket’s earthly remains. A more vicious anti-Church Henry, this time Henry VIII, had Becket disinterred in order to be put on trial for treason. Since Becket reportedly had little to say on his behalf, the ruse was seen as one more attempt at desecration. In 1538 the magnifi­cent new tomb was destroyed and the bones of the saint burned. Or were they?

Rumors persisted that the bones had been switched with the bones of the Abbott of Evesham before the king’s agents could arrest Becket’s remains. It was the hapless Abbott, they said, whose remains were burned.

Fast forward to 1888, a certain coffin suspected of harboring the elusive saint was opened and then-modern foren­sic techniques were used to examine the remains. The skull was determined to be that of a 50-year-old man, tall enough to be the Archbishop, with serious wounds. A local surgeon W. Pugin Thornton stated that the wound to the head was more likely made by a pickaxe, although he conceded a large two-handed broad sword could have caused the damage. While two out of three wasn’t bad, the skull damage led to a raging debate in scientific papers for dec­ades to come. In 1949 the tomb was opened again, and Thomas Becket, if it was indeed Becket, was brought to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. The autopsy on an 800-year-old collection of bones would be difficult under the best of cir­cumstances, but after the 1888 internment, the tomb was allowed to collect moisture thus permitting mold to age the bones further. The result led the doctors to conclude that this group of bones was of a man older than Becket’s 52 years and the skull wounds were not compatible. The conclusion only served to further fuel the debate.

Just where the bones of the Archbishop might be has divided historians, churchmen and researchers into several camps. They may have been burned in 1558. They may have escaped the wrath of Henry VIII and might lie in some undisclosed safe location. They could be the bones unearthed in 1888. Lastly, they might have been moved into the tomb of a French Huguenot who is buried in the Canterbury Cathedral.

It was the Canterbury theory which inspired Peregrine and Risto. During the height of the Catholic persecution of Huguenots, the French Cardinal Odet de Coligny was forced to flee to England. The Cardinal lived until 1571, when he either died a natural death or was murdered by agents of the French Church for his role in attempting to get Eng­lish support for the French Huguenots. The unusual placement of his tomb in the Cathedral may have been in the se­cret hiding place where Becket’s bones survived the 1558 desecration. This tomb is plain, not adorned with jewels as was Becket’s. And it is wedged at an irregular angle between two pillars very close to Becket’s original shrine in the Trinity Chapel. Did the Archbishop and the Cardinal share a tomb? Is it possible the Cardinal’s bones were repatriated back to France? The Protestant French Church never made a request for the bones, which to some is suspicious.

This is the theory according to the Raiders of the Lost Bones, Peregrine Prescott and Risto Pronk. They claimed that Coligny’s death had been faked, that the Cardinal had actually returned to France alive and well. The story was a ruse that served two purposes: the Cardinal’s safety, and Becket’s bones had their hiding place. It also explains the re­luctance of the Church in France to request the return of the bones. The Church, said the defendants, already knows. In fact the amount of research they presented in defense of their actions was unexpected. “This is the most remarka­ble explanation that we have heard in this court,” declared the chairman of the magistrates bench. Prescott and Pronk convinced the judge that whatever they were up to, it was no mere burglary.

They were freed on probation.


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