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17.12.11, Webster and Gelin, eds., The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, c.1170-c.1220

17.12.11, Webster and Gelin, eds., The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, c.1170-c.1220

The cathedral city of Canterbury is currently preparing to celebrate the octocentenary of the translation of Becket's relics in 2020. This collection of essays edited by Paul Webster, a specialist in kingship and royal piety, and Marie-Pierre Gelin, an expert on the iconography and liturgy of Canterbury Cathedral, is therefore timely. They have brought together contributions that cover diverse topics relating to the patronage and appropriation of Becket's cult in the first fifty years following his murder. The emphasis is very much on the career of the archbishop as a saint, rather than as an ecclesiast or royal official. The geographical focus is not confined to England but encompasses wider British links and explores the Plantagenet world, both in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Following a preface that provides an overview of the various contributions, the book begins with a detailed historiographical introduction to Becket and his cult by Paul Webster. This essay lays firm foundations for the rest of the volume as Webster sets Becket the saint in his wider European context of royal-ecclesiastical relations and highlights the ways in which studies of Becket the man and archbishop have differed from those of his post-mortem career. Although the main chronological focus is the first fifty years of the cult, Webster also considers the problems presented by an archiepiscopal royal opponent during the Reformation period.

The relationship between Becket as saint and the Plantagenet rulers is introduced by Anne Duggan, whose long career has involved editing the archbishop's letter collection. Her essay demonstrates the spread and importance of the cult in Europe in the crucial first half-decade following Becket's murder. She discusses how the Plantagenet dynasty turned the disastrous events of 29 December 1170, which had a profoundly negative effect on royal prestige and relations with the papacy, to something more positive that saw Becket move from being an agitator to a protector of Henry II and his descendants. The other significant point to draw from Duggan's contribution is the importance of Becket's own networks and those of the Canterbury monks that allowed speedy dissemination of the news of his murder. This allowed the community to seize the initiative in presenting their narrative, not only to the papacy, but other religious communities and courts in Europe.

Marie-Pierre Gelin's essay presents a discussion of the liturgy and iconography of Becket within Canterbury Cathedral Priory and picks up on a theme discussed briefly in Duggan's paper: the speed at which liturgies were created to commemorate the archbishop. Gelin's argument is rich in detail, particularly in her use of the iconographic programmes of stained glass commissioned by the monks during the rebuilding of their cathedral in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Here, Becket's life and cult are tied into, and related back to, earlier archbishops: the reformer Dunstan and martyr Alphege. Traditionally, scholarship has argued that Becket's cult overshadowed that of his predecessors, but Gelin demonstrates that similarities in the depiction of Becket, Dunstan and Alphege, as well as the incorporation of the pre-conquest archbishops in the Trinity Chapel windows, helped to revitalise their cults. These schemes, along with the liturgies, allowed the monks to create an idealised version of the atemporal archbishop who protected his church or suffered persecution and who espoused monastic virtue, creating a sense of continuity with the community's past. The reader senses that, while Becket was preeminent, Dunstan and Alphege were certainly not forgotten.

Iconography is also the theme of Alyce A. Jordan's essay--the final contribution to this volume--in which she considers the place of Becket in stained glass windows from the cathedrals of Coutances and Angers in the heart of Angevin continental lands with comparative evidence from Sens and Chartres. Jordan's approach is to combine traditional art-historical approaches with critical theory, specifically post-colonial theory and frontier studies in a process she calls, following Madeline Caviness, "triangulation" (172). In other words, her study is a theoretically informed discussion of the interpretation of Becket's life in regions that passed from Angevin to Capetian control following the loss of Normandy in 1204. Jordan uses the inconographic schemes in Coutances and Angers to explore how Bishops Hugh de Moreville and Guillaume de Beaumont negotiated their links to both the Plantagenet dynasty and their blood relationships with Becket's murderers. The Beaumont family was also related to the Scottish king, William the Lion, who was captured following his involvement in the 1173-74 Great Rebellion against Henry II. As such Jordan ably demonstrates the interconnectedness of the Angevin world, though her suggestions that the Angers windows in particular might celebrate the class loyalty of Henry's knights is less supported by the evidence.

Continental links to Becket's cult and the ways in which these were promoted form the core of the contributions from Elma Brenner, Colette Bowie and José Manuel Cerda. Brenner discusses Becket as a patron of leper houses in Normandy, looking at Mont-aux-Malades, just outside Rouen, and Aziers, halfway to Le Havre, both of which were dedicated to St Thomas. Becket was a saint especially associated with healing. Although leprosy was incurable in the middle ages, his martyrdom provided a paradigm through which to express commonality of suffering between the archbishop and the lepers at a time when the disease was seen very much as a vocation by the Church. This paper also illustrates some of Becket's network during his lifetime, as the prior of Mont-aux-Malades was his friend and this house became a key site of the martyr's memory in Normandy. Bowie and Cerda focus on the dynastic marriages of Henry II's daughters and how these served to help promote the cult of Becket in other parts of Europe: Saxony through the marriage of Matilda to Henry the Lion (Bowie) and Castile through Leonor's union with Alfonso VIII (Cerda). Both of these essays reveal the difficulty in trying to determine the extent of women's patronage when the evidence is very sparse. What they do show is the influence that both Matilda and Leonor were able to exert on husbands and courtiers in order to further Becket's cult and the idea of the saint as the protect of the Plantagenets, not just within England, but beyond to include dynastic connections. This is particularly stressed by Bowie through her consideration of the patronage of Matilda and Henry's son, also called Henry, of Becket's cult in Brunswick cathedral. Becket was added as a patron of the church and of the duchy of Saxony as a whole. As with Gelin's essay, Bowie also makes links back to the Anglo-Saxon past in linking Matilda's promotion of Becket to her predecessor Edith's (daughter of King Æthelstan) support for the cult of St Oswald.

Michael Staunton presents a survey of the large range of chronicles written in the wake of Becket's death, highlighting the additional material each included and how some, for example Liber Eliensis, were extended to include an account of his murder. Particular consideration is given to Ralph Diceto, Gervase of Canterbury and Gerald of Wales in order to understand the links between the actions and legacy of the saint and how they related to the chroniclers' own times. These included on-going struggles between the kings and their churchmen seen through the lens of persecution. Staunton discusses the use of the cult as satire to mock some of Becket's immediate successors, for example Baldwin of Forde and Hubert Walter, as well as other prelates, notably Geoffrey of York and Hugh of Lincoln. Authors such as Gervase, Gerald, and Ralph compared the tribulations of these ecclesiastical figures with the suffering of Becket in order to mock their pretentions to his status. This is a significant point and one that would have benefitted from further discussion and development.

Paul Webster's own contribution draws on his work on King John's piety. It examines the legacy of Thomas Becket and its significance for relations between the king and the papacy against the background of the interdict placed on England. Webster presents a detailed analysis of the use of biblical metaphors drawn from the Old Testament used to characterise John's reign and those of the other Angevin kings as tyrants. This is a theme that is particularly evident in the writing of Stephen Langton and John of Salisbury. Webster highlights the contradiction between John's support of the religious houses founded by his father, Henry II, as part of his penance, and his determination to defend the rights of the crown in relation to ecclesiastical appointments. It is only when he climbed down, surrendering his lands to the pope, that his critics' tone softened: instead of warning, the biblical metaphors they used now drew on ideas of redemption with reconciliation reaching its conclusion with the second coronation of Henry III. Whereas previous papers discussed linking Becket with the cathedral community's past, here archbishops like Stephen Langton sought to make connections with the saint in the present.

This collection serves to integrate the cult of Thomas Becket into the wider social and political contexts of medieval Europe through the lens of Plantagenet devotion, promotion and appropriation. Its scope, however, is much wider and there is plenty here for readers who are not primarily interested in saints' cults. The contributions have much to add to discussions of female patronage and dynastic politics, the tools medievalists use to interrogate their sources, and the role of material culture, all through the careful piecing together of fragmentary evidence.