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St Alfege, St Thomas of Canterbury, and the Canterbury Book of Psalms

St Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas Becket) was martyred 850 years ago on 29 December 2020.  Recent research by Christopher de Hamel shows that an eleventh century book of Psalms in a Cambridge library was owned by Thomas Becket and that Becket may have held on to this book at the moment of his martyrdom. Thomas Becket was devoted to St Alfege and Becket’s attachment to this book may lie in its having been owned by St Alfege. The book contains an eleventh century drawing which is likely to be an image of Alfege.  The book is currently on display at the British Museum - Thomas Becket, Murder and the making of a Saint. 

St Alfege
(picture credit: The Parker Library, Corpus Christ College, Cambridge)

Christopher de Hamel has just published a small book: ‘The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket’ (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2020).  De Hamel has looked into a psalter (book of Psalms) in the Parker Library in Corpus Christ, Cambridge (MS 411). This book had been in the possession of the Archbishops of Canterbury from the eleventh century and kept in the library at Canterbury Cathedral until Archbishop Matthew Parker placed it in his own library in Cambridge in the sixteenth century. The whole manuscript can be seen here

This book had been in the possession of the Archbishops of Canterbury from the early twelfth century and came into the possession of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Becket was martyred 850 years ago on 29 December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral and was subsequently canonized (made a saint). De Hamel presents convincing evidence that this psalter was in Becket’s hands when he was martyred. He explains that an interest in relics of the Archbishop started immediately, with people seeking out relics of his blood, his body and clothing. However the psalter appears to have been returned to the cathedral library. It appears to have been of little interest as a ‘relic’ of the saint. 

There is something of specific interest to us at St Alfege Church. De Hamel argues that this was almost certainly the psalter used by St Alfege. There is an eleventh century drawing of a man on the frontispiece and de Hamel tells us that this is most likely an early depiction of St Alfege. The picture was added between 1023 and 1078 and depicts a tall bare-footed figure wearing the diadem of a martyr. Alfege’s 12th century biographer, Osbern, often describes Alfege as bare-footed and standing in prayer. Here is the frontispiece of the book with the figure (picture credit: The Parker Library, Corpus Christ College, Cambridge).

De Hamel says that Becket’s interest in this Psalter was because of this connection to Alfege, whom he personally revered. Becket appears to have picked up this psalter when the King’s knights came to challenge him because of its connection with St Alfege. Eyewitnesses said that Becket invoked St Alfege in his final words: ‘To God and St Mary and the saints who protect and defend this cathedral, and to the blessed St Denis and St Alphege, I commend myself and the Church’s cause’ (quoted in John Guy’s Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-year old story retold, Penguin, 2013, p. 320). In his last sermon, in Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day 1170 Becket had told his congregation that ‘they already had one archbishop who was a martyr, St Alphege, and that it was possible that they would shortly have another’ (John Guy, p. 306)

St Alfege was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred (killed by Danish raiders on 19 April 1012). He was buried first in St Paul’s Cathedral but in 1023 his remains were transferred to Canterbury Cathedral. St Alfege’s shrine in Canterbury was the major focus of pilgrimage to the cathedral. Becket followed in Alfege’s footsteps as a martyr Archbishop and the cult of Becket completely overshadowed that of Alfege. After 1170 pilgrimages to Canterbury were to the shrine of St Thomas, not that of St Alfege. Both saints remain buried in Canterbury Cathedral though their shrines were destroyed in the Reformation. 
St Alfege 2
Today (29 December 2020) is the 850th anniversary of Becket's martyrdom. While the commemorations planned in Canterbury have had to be postponed, this is a good time to  remind ourselves of the links between St Alfege, the first martyr Archbishop and St Thomas.

David McEvoy
25 August 2020


David McEvoy, 28/08/2020
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