Treasures of London – St Thomas Becket pilgrim badges…

The Museum of London is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic but we run this story in the hope you’ll be able to visit soon.

This pilgrim badge depicts the scene of Becket’s martyrdom. An inscription at the base of the badge reads ‘THOMAS MA’ (meaning ‘Thomas Martyr’). Becket is on his knees in front of an altar with a number of knights attacking him. Behind the altar stands the figure of Edward Grim, a clerk who tried to stop Becket’s murder. One of the knights carries a shield with two bears’ heads on it, identifying him as Reginald Fitzurse (through the visual pun on the Latin ‘ursus’, meaning ‘bear’). Fitzurse was the knight popularly believed to have struck final blow that killed Becket. PICTURE: © Museum of London.
Pilgrim badge in the shape of a bust of St Thomas Becket wearing a mitre and inscribed ‘T:H:O:M:A:S’. PICTURE: © Museum of London.

The Museum of London contains a large collection – in fact, it’s said to be the largest in the UK – of pilgrim badges relating to the commemoration of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, who was brutally murdered in 1170.

Produced largely in Canterbury (possibly some in London), the lead-alloy badges were worn, typically on a hat or staff, by pilgrims as a means of commemorating their pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

They came in various shapes and sizes. Many simply depict a bust of Becket’s head wearing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mitre (see picture right).

But others are more elaborate and depict the full-length figure of the archbishop, scenes of his martyrdom at the hands of King Henry II’s knights (see picture above) and even the elaborate bejewelled shrine housing St Thomas’ remains that was erected in about 1220 in Canterbury Cathedral (the endpoint of the pilgrimage).

The museum also has small tin ampullae which were created to hold “Canterbury Water” or “St Thomas’ Water” – water into which drops of the martyred archbishop’s blood were dripped before it was blessed – which was given to pilgrims to take home as a kind of “cure all”.

The collection of badges can be seen when the museum reopens. Keep an eye out for the reopening at www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

2 thoughts on “Treasures of London – St Thomas Becket pilgrim badges…

  1. “Mine eyes have seen the murder…” and read your text.
    Being a bit aged (71) my eyes are not as sharp as they used to be – true.
    Still I am so daring as to admit that I just can’t see those “four knights” you are referring to.
    No matter how often I look and count – I only can see THREE of them.
    Do you think you might help on an elderly fellow citizen? Thank you very much!

    – Dieter Wagner

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