Width: 67.000 mm
Gift of Mrs M. Greg in memory of Thomas Greg F.S.A
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Pilgrim sign of St Thomas Becket
Medieval, 13th century
Thomas Becket (?1118-1170) was Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered on 29 December 1170 by four knights who violated the sanctuary of Canterbury Cathedral as agents of their unwitting king, Henry II (reigned 1154-89).
A cult sprang up immediately, Becket was canonized in 1173, and Canterbury quickly grew to be the most important pilgrim centre in England and one of the four greatest in Europe. Souvenirs were sold at shrines as evidence that pilgrimage (often for penitential reasons) had been achieved. Canterbury produced a larger variety of pilgrim signs than any other shrine in Europe.
This example shows the body of Thomas lying beneath his shrine. The decoration on the shrine is meant to represent jewels which were offered to the saint and encrusted the feretory (area in a church in which reliquaries are kept) that contained his bones. The largest, central boss on the shrine might denote the most acclaimed gift made to St Thomas. In 1179, Louis VII of France presented a ruby in honour of the saint. It was considered to be priceless, and the largest jewel in existence. Other examples of the same design feature an angel pointing to the ruby.
The relics of St Thomas were translated (moved) from his tomb in the crypt to a rich, new shrine in 1220. It is likely that this type of sign was made to celebrate the event.
B. Spencer, Pilgrim souvenirs and secular (London, Stationery Office, 1998)