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Episode 90. Thomas Becket in London

Thomas Becket was one of the most powerful figures of his time, serving as Royal Chancellor and later as Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1100s. After his assassination he became Patron Saint of London all of the way up to 1532 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under the reign of Henry VIII. 

To tell us more about the man, the myth and the Becket Pageant for London is James Winterbotham, Historical Consultant for the Becket Pageant for London.


Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain(Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).


Saint Thomas Becket at the British Museum Blog Header
St Thomas’s Water Stained Glass

Useful Links:

Saint Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket: a life and death in badges

City of London Common Seal

Becket Pageant for London, Guildhall Yard, London EC2V 5AE

Friday 17 and Saturday 18 June 2022.

  • Livery Crafts Fair: 11am – 4pm. Free entry.

  • “London’s Turbulent Son”: performances 12 noon-2 pm and 4 pm-6 pm both days.

Watch the Pageant for Becket video


Thomas Becket Show Notes:

Thomas Becket was one of the most powerful figures of his time, serving as Royal Chancellor and later as Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1100s. After his assassination he became Patron Saint of London all of the way up to 1532 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under the reign of Henry VIII. 

To tell us more about the man, the myth and the Becket Pageant for London is James Winterbotham, Historical Consultant for the Becket Pageant for London.

James Winterbotham

James read Medieval History at Cambridge University and History of Art at the Courtauld Institute in London. His career in the City has also included living in Paris and New Delhi. He became Consort when his wife was Master of the Skinners Company in 2015-6, and he sits on the Skinners’ Company History Committee. They live in London and Suffolk. He continues to research widely in the medieval and modern periods with a focus on local history.

James Winterbotham: In about 2018 our whole nation was set up called Becket 2020, and that was going to celebrate his 900th birth /  850th anniversary of his martyrdom and 800th anniversary of his translation to this Canterbury shrine nationally.

So it was all organised by York University and London thought that they should do something. Particularly because Becket was born in London and he styled himself throughout his career, Thomas of London. And after his martyrdom, he was adopted as the patron Saint. So he became a very central figure in medieval London’s view of itself. And it just so happens that in 1519 there are records in the account books of the Skinners’ company of a pageant that was laid on for Becket for the 400th anniversary of his birth. 

The 1519 pageant was part of what’s called the Midsummer watch, which was an annual summer event originally as a show of force by the city, marching through the city from west to east and back over time it became a great sort of Midsummer celebration. So you had all sorts of entertainment and you also had pageants, which I, we think in those days were largely floats with ‘tableaux vivants’ scenes, which weren’t necessarily scripted, but they were scenes that were acted. And so in the case of the 1519 pageant, what you have is a bill for someone who played the goaler of Gilbert Becket, who was Thomas’s father, someone who played the Sultan and then various other people. 

And so chairman Emmeline Winterbotham could take all these pieces and say what story they were telling? And you get back to the myth of Becket. And she worked out that a lot of it was around Becket’s ancestry. Gilbert Becket was a London merchant. He became sheriff and he had a house just opposite Tesco on Cheapside. And that’s where Becket was born in 1120 and Becket’s father had supposedly been on crusade. And on crusade he saw the Sultan’s daughter who had fallen in love with him, enabled his escape by giving his seven, the keys to the prison.

And then he came back to London and she followed him. So this is the myth that Thomas, his mother, wasn’t just an ordinary normal lady. She was the daughter of a Sultan from. Yeah, Arabia. So this gave Thomas a lot more stature; these were all elements that must have gone into the 1519 pageant.

And so Emmeline has woven those into a more modern musical show, which begins with Gilbert Becket’s father in the holy land and ends with the martyrdom. In Canterbury and then the pilgrims Chaucer appears and off they go to Canterbury on pilgrimage. So that’s the that’s the origin of the project.

And I think the other thing that was important about the 1519 pageant is that it was a huge community. All the Guildhall from the livery companies were involved. They had choirboys from the local school from Simple’s quite a school involved. And you clearly, bits and pieces.

Came together from different parts of the community. And that’s something that, I mean has also tried to organise. So the costumes are being made by a group of soldiers from all over the city. Some of the workers, some are residents and they’ve all been organised by this fantastic costume maker, Sasha care in her professional studio.

There are giant puppets. One of which has been made by consulting with the community is, do you know what the spirit of London looks like as a puppet? And then making this 15 foot tall puppet, which will appear in the parade. 

Could you do a school singing in the show? As well as from other local schools. And there are, as well as a core of professional actors, there are about 30 actors from the community, some of who have hardly acted before. And they’ve all been brought together. This has been an extraordinary effort to try and bring all this together.

And it’s going to be something. Pretty unique. I haven’t done anything like it in the city for 500 years. There was this great tradition of open air entertainment in the city, going back to pre-reformation dates. And interestingly Henry the eighth, at the reformation I mean he saw this sort of vibrant, traditional, it was a Catholic tradition of.

Because it was around the London saints and so forth. So he shut it down and obviously the cult of Becket was virtually erased. Literally you find manuscripts with his name scribbled out. So they were quite ruthless in really erasing Becket’s London history.

St. Thomas’ hospital was named after St. Thomas and they switched it to Thomas the apostle because after the reformation, Becket, wasn’t the flavour of the month. That tradition of open air celebration, you still have it with the Lord mayor’s show,

but it’s very specific and it’s also in the middle of winter, which makes it a bit of a challenge. It can be quite cold watching it. 

 We do have people who work in the city and we do have people who live in the city and lots of people contributing in all sorts of ways. The story of Becket would have been well-known to an audience in 1519.

It’s not so well known to a modern audience. So there’s a lot of good history there. It’s very much a family show. There’s a bloody murder at the heart of it. 

Hazel Baker: You surprise me

James Winterbotham: but there’s a lot of fun in it. There’s some great songs which we hope people are going to walk away humming and singing this.

And now the other thing she’s done around the. And so now they’re building a 600 seat amphitheatre in Guildhall Yard, incidentally, right over the Roman amphitheatre. So there’s a nice link there that over the first formal entertainment space in the country there’s a 600 seat theatre that they’re building for the two days for the performance.

But around that. Because of Becket’s links to the city trades. So we think his father was a merchant. Becket himself was quite key in the early guild movement. His signature is on the first of all the Guild charters, which was the weavers charter in 1260, I think possibly 1263. It’s got Becket’s name on it.

And this is the first chart of the first Guild to that, that we know of which is really exciting. So to reflect that. There’s going to be a craft fair, which will be a free entry. 18 livery companies are going to be showcasing various of their crafts in some ancient, some modern. And of course the livery companies have come a long way since the middle ages.

Some of them still do what they did before. The cutlers will be there still doing cuttling and the masons. But of course, some of the others have moved on. So the Horners, who used to make horn cups and are now very focused on plastics. The fan makers now work with jet engines.

So now that they live, we companies are very proud of their heritage, but they’ve also moved on. So there’s going to be a livery craft fair around the show so that, so you can wander into that at any time and learn a little bit about the. specific history of the livery companies of London as well. So it’s nice to have that educational aspect to it.

And another piece of that is that the livery movement was central to the growth of apprenticeships. And of course that’s very much a modern concept. So there will be a bit of a display about modern apprenticeship and what the city is doing. The modern apprentice movement. So a lot of different themes were put into this one event over two days. There’s lots of education, but lots of entertainment. 

There’s even specially brewed Becket beer, which will be available to buy on the day. 

Hazel Baker: Excellent. There you go. Sold already. So for those listening across the globe, and are thinking.

“James Hazel, who is this Thomas Becket you’re talking about?!” Please do share a little bit about who he was and why he is important to London. 

James Winterbotham: The historical Thomas Becket was the son of a Norman couple Gilbert and Matilda who probably came to London around the turn of the 

11th, 12th century Gilbert was a merchant. He became sheriff and he was quite, quite a sort of significant figure in London. Becket was born in 1120 and Cheapside probably went to school at one of the London grammar schools. Went to Merton priory. And then got a job working for a chap called we didn’t yet meaning eight Pence.

So who are we going to work for as an accountant? We think he then after a spell in Paris he was spotted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobold became an archdeacon and worked in Theobald’s office . And did quite a lot of diplomacy, I think on behalf of the church and, this was around the 1140s, 1150s the end of Henry I’s reign, the anarchy, king Stephen and the Empress Matilda.

 He was a man of great skill, obviously, but very much a self made man. Working for Theobald of Canterbury, he was spotted or possibly Theobold suggested to Henry II that Thomas might be a useful man to have alongside. And so he was recruited by Henry to become chancellor.

So he then moved from Canterbury to London as Henry the second chancellor. And after Henry’s COVID. And became a pretty key figure in the reestablishment, a Royal authority after the English civil war and the anarchy of the 11 40s and 50s And when Theobold Archbishop of Canterbury died It looked like a great opportunity to combine Henry II’s desire to reform the English administration to with getting more control over the English church.

So he appointed Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury at the same time as being Chancellor; the idea was that this would reestablish Royal authority over the church. So Thomas kept wearing both hats for a few years until the point at which there were a series of disputes.

Jurisdiction now at what point did church jurisdiction end and Royal jurisdiction end or vice versa? And there was a notorious issue of what’s called the criminalist clerks that the clergy were protected by church law and therefore they were safe from the King’s law.

And there was a case of a clergyman who had murdered someone and the church punished him with I think it was, he was banished and had to say a few hail Marys, but yeah, that was it. So this became quite a sort of core celeb between the church and the state.

As Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas came down for the church and the historical Thomas is quite difficult to read. what was it that made this man who was by all accounts? A very well. Very successful administrator and quite wealthy. What made him become this very aesthetic churchman and

there’s almost nothing in the historical record. Give you a sense of what happened and why, other than a genuine combustion and perhaps, converted, often the most radical. He then started throwing a bit of weight around excommunicating people left, right and centre.

So he excommunicated the Bishop of London who Was always his rival because the Bishop of London thought that London should be the Archbishop brick, not Canterbury. And he said Thomas left England in, I think in about 1165 and spent five years abroad. Possibly hiding from Henry II, it’s not entirely clear why he was away for so long.

And he came back in 1170. There was the possibility of a reconciliation with the king but it didn’t happen. And Henry famously uttered his phrase and they will have no one with me of this turbulent priest, the four knights. Though they understood his meaning , off they went to Canterbury. And so the rest is history.

 Even for the middle ages it was a scandalous event. They pushed their way into the cathedral and murdered him on the steps of the of the chancel. There’s a lot of. Historical record of the martyrdom. Because he became the most popular saint of the Middle Ages, there are many saints’ lives written about him.

Many of the people around him were very scholarly so there was John of Salisbury William Fitzstephen , and these were all well-educated Clark’s Fitzstephen wrote a really interesting life of Becket, the first few pages of which are the most wonderful description of London in 11 70 so you, you w almost one of the most valuable legacies of Thomas for London is this description of London written by his, biographer. It’s, if you don’t know it, it’s worth finding a copy and reading it. Straight after his death the.

miracles seem to occur. So people gathered up his brains, they gathered up his blood. They hid his body from the nights and miracles started happening and within, I think, three years in record time, he was canonised by the Pope and became probably the most famous European centre of the middle ages.

Henry II admitted defeat and got made pennants by. He went to Canterbury and he called on his knees. Ben kneed up to the author at Canterbury to apologise. So this was a great victory and, as a historical figure, you say what was Becket doing?

He was playing a power game. And it was a power game that required him to pay the highest cost. But it was a gamble that paid off and the church became extremely powerful. It set back many of the reforms that Henry II wanted to achieve in late 12th century England.

Looking at it from a 21st century perspective. What Henry was doing was really quite reasonable and Becket was setting back their modernization by centuries. Looking at it from the middle ages. Becket was protecting the. church. That’s a historic figure. And then for London, so he became the patron Saint of London.

 There’s a wonderful seal in the museum of London. Which shows it’s got some pull on one side and Becket on the other side with the Londoners underneath him and then the city, either side the spires of the churches with the logo Becket protect us which he did for many years.

And London was everything. At odds with with wild authority they had a particular place in, in, in English, English politics. And I think they saw someone who stood up to royal authority as someone who Londoners could identify with. And so there’s that spirit of defiance, which again, there’s a spirit of defiance against Covid. London is bouncing back. London is not going to be a dead city. It’s a living city and it’s going to celebrate the fact that we’re now open for business.

 So I just went back to Thomas. There were various hospitals which were founded in his name. So the site of his birthplace became the hospital of the Knights of St. Thomas. It then was sold to the masses, but the reformation is now tall in Cheapsideside. I mentioned St Thomas’s hospital, south of the river.

He had a shrine in London. Which of course was the starting point for many pilgrims. And so the wealth of that pilgrimage trade contributed hugely to the wealth of London and the the funding of London bridge the there’s a medieval book called the Liber ALbus, which describes the sort of civic ceremonies of London.

1400 and Becket is at the heart of all those. The Lord Mayor proceeds from Becket’s birthplace up to St Paul’s, where his father is buried in the abandoned church yard. And then and there’s one, there was a wonderful chapel that has gone now of course, with the fire with a great dance of death on the walls that then processes back.

And the great conduit at Cheapside runs with red wine to signify, perhaps the blood of Thomas. That he was a central part of this, of the civic ceremonial of London, right up until 1532. And what’s nice about the pageant is that the 1519 pageant is, right at the end of that period.

So it shows it’s still very much alive that sort of that worship of this great, powerful medieval saint. 

Hazel Baker: And why do you think Henry VIII wanted to get rid of Thomas in particular? Because as you mentioned, there are books where there are just great, big red stains raising any mention of Thomas Becket whatsoever.

Why he seemed to be absolutely resolute in really targeting Thomas in particular. 

James Winterbotham: I think it was a couple of things, Thomas represented someone who defied Royal authority, he stood up to the first or the second Henry. And so I think, not only was he a symbol of all that Henry VIII didn’t like.

About the Catholic faith that he was also a symbol of defiance against the king. And actually, if you look at London’s ceremonials, Henry VIII stepped in to take control of these London festivals. He made London put on a massive pageant for the combination of Anne Boleyn.

And so basically bankrupted the city and tax the cities so heavily that they couldn’t afford to put pageants on afterwards. He was putting the squeeze on London, certainly. And I think. Was both a symbol of defiance and a symbol of the old religion, which had to go.

And heads were knocked off statues names, scrubbed out of books or and link between Becket and London has been virtually lost which is w which is a shame. And it’s something that the city felt perhaps would be a good chance to put, and so among other things, as well as telling everyone that the city is open for business, as well as bringing the open air theatre back into the city, there’s a little bit of history that’s coming back as well.

So that’s going to be good. 

Hazel Baker: Good. Fantastic. We’ve covered the man. We’ve covered the myth. We’ve covered London from 1519. And also we have covered London coming back full on caffeine for the modern day pageant. Tickets are available online, 

James Winterbotham: James? Yes, they are. Yes. It’s only for performances over two days. At the end of it, there’s going to be a  parade which nods to the original pageant parade with giants. 


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