Has Thomas Becket's treasured 'little book' been found?: Part Two

While the match between the entry in the 1321 inventory of cathedral relics and the note in the psalter was exciting, the note's wording also contained a puzzle.

The book was "once that of N, archbishop of Canterbury [and] eventually came into the hand of Thomas Becket", it says. So who was N?

There is only one earlier archbishop whose name begins with N - Nothelm, in the early Eighth Century. And there is no way, de Hamel says, that this manuscript dates from that period. Judging from its style, it's generally thought to have been made in Canterbury around 1000.

But de Hamel had an idea - perhaps the Elizabethan who annotated the psalter had mistaken the medieval AE - a combination of A and E - for an N? Sometimes they can look similar, he points out.

Has Thomas Becket's treasured 'little book' been found?: Part one


As it happens, the first two archbishops of the 11th Century both have names beginning with AE - Aelfric and Aelfheah (commonly known as Alphege) - and de Hamel argues that the psalter belonged first to one and then the other.

There are clues that point towards this conclusion, he says, including two curious additions to the text.

One is a litany of saints added to the end of the book, at roughly the same time the rest of the book was made, in which the names of two minor saints, Vincent and Eustace, appear in capital letters. This has previously been taken to suggest a connection between the psalter and the abbey of Abingdon, on the River Thames south of Oxford, which held important relics of both saints. De Hamel now suggests it is because the book belonged to Aelfric, who had been a monk at Abingdon, and possibly abbot before he became archbishop in 995.


The second edition consists of religious texts to be read in memory of Alphege, archbishop from 1006 to 1012 when he was beaten to death by Danes at Greenwich. The simplest explanation for this, de Hamel argues, is that the psalter belonged to Alphege and became associated with his cult after he was canonized in 1078.

Alphege is recorded as joyfully reciting the psalms while in Danish captivity. Could it be, de Hamel asks, that he was holding this book when martyred? That would certainly have made it a relic in the eyes of the medieval church, he says, justifying the jeweled silver-gilt binding.


So there are now two candidates for the N mentioned in the inscription - Aelfric and Alphege.

Alphege appears to have been particularly important to Becket, who "in some way adopted Alphege as a patron saint" de Hamel says. Becket's sermon in Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day 1170, just days before he was murdered, was on the death of St Alphege. And according to two contemporary accounts of the archbishop's death, one by an eyewitness, his final words were to command his soul into St Alphege's care. 

When de Hamel told this story in a lecture to the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2017, Anne Duggan was in the audience and asked a question about the "little book" she had long wondered about.

In his biography of Becket, Herbert of Bosham says the archbishop told him "to take care of a particular book of his, lest when his flight was known to other people, it might be destroyed in the plundering" (using the translation in de Hamel's book). He goes on to say that although Becket was "rightly indifferent to possessions" - actually he was renowned for his extravagance - "there was at least one little book that he cared about".

The psalter could have been it, Duggan suggested.

De Hamel can be seen on the video of the lecture listening with wide eyes and an open mouth. "I feel a shiver going down my spine," he says. Becket was probably already thinking about martyrdom, he adds, and the "evocative association with this martyr's book must have mattered to him enormously".

In his book, he comments: "It may have been his most intimate possession. He probably took it to bed." 

Drawing on his deep knowledge of medieval manuscripts, de Hamel tells a gripping tale, extrapolated from tiny clues. But is it true?

"I wasn't there when Becket died," he tells the BBC, "and all the narrative constructed here [in the book] is like a detective story drawing on multiple strands of evidence, which all converge at the same and simplest conclusion. You must decide, gentlemen of the jury, whether you are convinced."

He says he's certain that this is the psalter listed in Canterbury's 1321 inventory of valuables and that the monks accepted it as having been Becket. Not a shred of evidence has led him to doubt that they were right, he says.

The idea that it belonged to Aelfric and Alphege is supposition but "overwhelmingly likely" he adds, and it is even more likely that Becket thought it was Alphege's.

"Fascinating hypothesis" is the verdict of de Hamel's successor as Parker librarian at Corpus Christi College, Dr. Philippa Hoskin.


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But Eyal Poleg, who left his coffee and rushed with de Hamel to the Parker library to gaze excitedly at the psalter, advises caution.

"I think the only thing we can say for certain is that in the 14th Century this is seen as the psalter of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. I think that's where we start and that's where we stop."

There's no evidence that it actually was Becket's psalter, he says, and he's not persuaded that it belonged to Aelfric or Alphege. Also, he doesn't think it was necessarily regarded as a relic of St Thomas of Canterbury. (As he remembers the initial after-lunch conversation, he and de Hamel were talking about sacred texts in elaborate bindings - referred to in Latin as textus - and both remarked that they only knew of one that was a psalter, leading to the sudden realization.)

Another expert with doubts is Prof Alexander Heslop of the University of East Anglia. He believes the psalter's capital letters were based on designs created by a master scribe, Eadwig Basan, who is not known to have been working in Canterbury until a few years after Alphege's death.

None of this necessarily means that de Hamel's theory is incorrect, though if Heslop is right Aelfric and Alphege may have to drop out of the picture.

"When you're a medievalist, you're kind of in the dark, and you're grasping for things, you're hoping to find something to hold on to," says Lloyd de Beer, curator of the British Museum's forthcoming exhibition on Becket, delayed by the pandemic to the spring. "And the thing about Christopher's work, because he writes so beautifully, and you read such a kind of compelling story, is that he really brings you very close to this history."

De Beer hopes more efforts will now be made to accurately date the manuscript.

"There's just still some work to be done, but that's what's great about Christopher, he's throwing out all these big ideas and the best kind of scholars leave those trails."


During his six years in exile in France, Becket's negotiations with Henry II, mostly carried out through intermediaries, succeeded in papering over some of the cracks in their relationship, but there had been no kiss of peace before Becket re-crossed the Channel in early December 1170. Some of those close to him warned him not to do it; others pointed out that martyrdom might be a positive outcome.

Becket massively increased the danger on the eve of his departure by suspending or excommunicating three bishops who had taken part in the coronation of Henry's son, Henry the Young King, who was now serving as co-ruler. It was this that precipitated the events of 29 December.

Christopher de Hamel believes the archbishop may have read the psalter the night before four barons broke into the cathedral to arrest him and - when he refused to go - killed him with sword blows to the head. He even wonders whether Thomas was holding the psalter when he died, though he acknowledges that none of Becket's contemporary biographers mention this.

Vespers in the cathedral was coming to an end when the attack occurred in the north transept - it would have been out of sight of the worshippers in the nave, but they would have heard everything. One of the fully armed barons stood guard to prevent anyone coming to Becket's aid.

People began scooping up his blood almost immediately, in the expectation that it would work miracles - and these soon began to be reported. Canterbury then became for 300 years one of Europe's main centers of pilgrimage, a fact that the British Museum will emphasize with "extraordinary" loans from across the continent.

In time, the east end of the cathedral was rebuilt in pink-tinged stone around a shrine to Becket, also in pink stone with a golden canopy. The psalter, in its jeweled binding, would have been carried in procession to the altar nearby.

But like everything connected with Becket and his cult, the shrine was destroyed on Henry VIII's orders in 1538. Officials smashed two stained glass windows that must have depicted the life of Becket, says Anne Duggan, but left others intact, probably because they didn't realize they contained images of the martyred archbishop. Some of the fragments of stone from the shrine were re-used in Canterbury and have been gathered up over the years.

Apart from that, all that remains are the 146 parchment leaves of the psalter, and they will go on display in the British Museum, along with one of the surviving fragments of rose marble.

"The discovery of this book at Corpus Christi college really provides a kind of tangible connection to Becket's cult in the Middle Ages at Canterbury," says Lloyd de Beer. "And considering that almost nothing survives, that's a really exciting thing."


Parker Library facts:

A clause in Matthew Parker's bequest insists on an annual audit and says that if six large manuscripts or 12 small ones are found to have been lost the entire collection passes to Gonville and Caius College, and from there, if further manuscripts are lost, to Trinity Hall college. (None have yet been lost.)
The library includes the Sixth Century Gospels of Saint Augustine, which is taken to Canterbury to swear in all-new archbishops, and the original of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle.
It also has another of Becket's books, his copy of John of Salisbury's Polycraticus and Metalogicon. As with many of Becket's books, his name, where it was written on the front flyleaf, was erased in the 16th Century. "I suspect that I handled it more often than Becket did," de Hamel writes.
The psalter is sometimes referred to noncommittally as "the Becket psalter", meaning "the psalter that has the note in it that says it is connected to Becket", says librarian Philippa Hoskin. 

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