British Museum to host major exhibition on life and death of Thomas Becket

It will mark the 850th anniversary of his murder.

The British Museum will host the first-ever major UK exhibition on the life and death of Thomas Becket as part of a year-long programme marking the 850th anniversary of his murder, it has been announced.

Becket2020 will see venues around the country host a range of events to commemorate the death of the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The shocking crime will be explored through performances, pageants, talks, film screenings and religious services, culminating in the exhibition, which will open at the British Museum in October.

An alabaster sculpture of the murder (British Museum)

The Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered in front of eye-witnesses on December 29 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights with close ties to his former friend King Henry II.

Becket was quickly canonised a saint by the Pope and his shrine at Canterbury became a major centre of European pilgrimage before being destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in the early years of the English Reformation.

He is recognised as a saint and martyr by both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church.

The public display will be the first time Becket’s life, death and legacy has been explored in a major exhibition in the UK, according to the British Museum.

It will feature more than 100 objects associated with Becket, including manuscripts, jewellery, sculpture, stained glass and paintings, including artefacts from the museum’s collection and loans from the UK and around the world.

It will follow Becket’s rise from London merchant’s son to Archbishop, as well as his journey from a revered saint in death, to a traitor in the eyes of Henry VIII, more 350 years later.

Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the exhibition at the British Museum, said: “The story of Thomas Becket’s life, death and legacy has all the hallmarks of a Game of Thrones plot.

“There’s drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe.

“These events had repercussions that have echoed out through time and we’re delighted to be telling this important story for the first time in a major exhibition.”

Meanwhile, the Museum of London will display a selection of their collection of the pilgrim badges collected by Londoners who flocked to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury for more than 300 years and often returned with a badge as a keepsake.

One of the pilgrim badges (Museum Of London)

In June, the community project  the Becket Pageant for London will centre around a new 70-minute stage-work, set against the backdrop of the medieval Guildhall Yard.

The event will seek to re-imagine the only known Becket pageant, performed in London in 1519.

In addition, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will preach at Southwark Cathedral in December 2020 in commemoration of Thomas Becket’s final sermon, which took place at the same site shortly before his death.

The Cathedral will also host an art installation by artist Michelle Rumney during Lent.

Outside of London, a major new production of TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, about the assassination, will be performed for the first time in Canterbury Cathedral in October as a joint initiative with The Marlowe Theatre.

The cathedral will also host a special choral evensong service to commemorate Becket’s martyrdom on December 29 2020 while The Beaney museum will host a community creative project focusing on mental and physical health and wellbeing called Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer.

Canterbury’s fifth annual Medieval Pageant and Trail in July will commemorate Henry II’s pilgrimage to Canterbury to perform penance for his association with the murder of Becket.

Thomas Becket (title tbc) will be at the British Museum from October 15 2020 until February 14 2021.

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