Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was hacked to death in Canterbury Cathedral 850 years ago and has been studied ever since, so it was generally assumed that everything that could be known about him was already explored. However, a curious discovery has been made recently.
Becket lived for some years in exile following increasingly serious accusations by King Henry II that could have resulted in a verdict of treason. As he was fleeing the country, Becket sent his closest friend and confidant, Herbert of Bosham, to gather as much as he could from Canterbury – including something that was very special to him: a certain little book.
“The implication is that it was a book that was very important to Becket, and that Herbert would know what it was,” the leading Becket expert Professor Anne Duggan says. “It’s quite interesting that he doesn’t tell us – so there is a mystery there. It wasn’t a law book, it wasn’t a gospel, it was a little book – a codicella.”
Dr. Christopher de Hamel and Dr. Eyal Poleg had lunch together in the summer of 2014. de Hamel was the librarian of a college in Cambridge, and Dr. Poleg was a medieval historian. Over lunch, de Hamel remarked that he’d always found it a bit strange that items belonging to saints, like clothing or even hair, were regarded in the Middle Ages as relics, whereas the books that they had owned weren’t.
Poleg contended that he knew an example and searched online for a list made in 1321 of treasures held in Canterbury cathedral. In Latin Ploeg read out loud: “Item, a binding with the psalter of St Thomas, bound in silver gilt, decorated with jewels…”
De Hamel says that at that moment, he had “one of those sudden heart-stopping shivers of recognition that make our lives as historians worthwhile”.
A series of clues and extrapolations then lead to de Hamel’s assertation that a 1,000 psalter in the library of the college was highly likely to be the missing book. Dr. Poleg and de Hamel excitedly brought the manuscript itself out of storage, where de Hamel showed Poleg a 500-year-old note at the end of the book matching that of the description Poleg had read out from the inventory over lunch.
“This psalter, in boards of silver-gilt and decorated with jewels,” it began, “was once that of N, archbishop of Canterbury [and] eventually came into the hand of Thomas Becket, late archbishop of Canterbury, as is recorded in the old inscription.”
The discovery is not yet completely certain and might never be. However, de Hamel’s knowledge of medieval manuscripts, coupled with his detective work that draws on multiple strands of evidence, is compelling.
- The psalter, known as MS 411, can be viewed page by page on the Parker Library On the Web.
- You can listen to Christopher de Hamel talking about Becket and the psalter with Andrew Marr on Start the Week (December 2020).
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