Archbishop Thomas Becket, a non-royal Brit in the Middle Ages known for being murdered at Canterbury Cathedral and being the inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, had escaped from Northhampton Castle with servants and guides. He had been put on trial for not working alongside the government and, instead, fully advocating for the rights of the church.
After arriving in Kent and exiling himself to France, he confidently sent one of his closest friends, a scholar by the name of Herbert of Bosham, back to Canterbury to collect his things and send them to another church. In particular, he wanted Herbert to find 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,’ says Anne Duggan; ‘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.’
Though most saint’s clothing in the Middle Ages were considered holy relics, their books were not considered to be of any value, according to Dr. Christopher de Hamel, a librarian at the Corpus Christi Cambridge campus. He believed this until the summer of 2014, when he met with the medieval historian Dr. Eyal Poleg. Poleg read off a list from 1321 of treasures held within the Canterbury Cathedral, one being an ‘Item, a binding with the psalter of St Thomas, bound in silver gilt, decorated with jewels….’ De Hamel put two and two together, realizing it was likely Becket’s “certain little book.”
At the library on campus, De Hamel brought out a 1,000-year-old psalter, AKA book of Psalms, with a note which had been added 500 years ago.
‘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.’
Though most didn’t believe the little book existed, because it had not been written in with any of Becket’s other belongings beforehand, it had been kept in a storage room meant for valuables or on St. Thomas’s shrine, the location where Becket was later killed.
De Hamel points out that the book didn’t originally belong to Becket, but instead was passed down to him by someone with the initial ‘N’ During the Middle Ages. N and the medieval AE would commonly be mistaken for one another when skimmed over. Two archbishops before Becket went by the names of Aelfric and Aelfheah.
A list of saints appears in the psalter with two saint’s names capitalized: Vincent and Eustace. Historians see this as a connection between the psalter and the abbey of Abingdon, which also possesses holy relics of both Vincent and Eustace. De Hamel believes the little book had belonged to Aelfric, who was either a monk or an abbot at Abingdon before becoming an archbishop.
An addition was added on in the psalter about Alphege, an archbishop who was beaten to death by Danes. De Hamel says that Alphege recited psalms jovially while imprisoned by the Danes, which could be believed that he was holding the little book when he was killed, immortalizing it into a holy relic. He was also important to Becket. His Christmas Day sermon, only a few days before his death, was on the anniversary of Alphege’s death, and his final words were to entrust his soul to Alphege.
Herbert of Bosham wrote in his biography of Becket about retrieving the little book for him so that, ‘lest when his flight was known to other people, it might be destroyed in the plundering.’ This leads De Hamel to believe that Becket knows the little book has links to martyrdom and that he will gain it if he has this book in his possession when he is killed.
All of this is more hypothesis than fact. Most things during the Middle Ages were destroyed and the representation of Becket within the cathedral was destroyed by King Henry II’s men. Professor Alexander Heslop says that the capitalizations could have also been based on designs by a master scriber named Eadwig Basan who did not work in Canterbury until a few years after Alphege’s death. Though this does not make De Hamel’s theory incorrect, it may have to remove the idea of the book’s ownership from Alphege and Aelfric. Lloyd de Beer, the curator of the Becket exhibition at the British Museum states that, ‘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.’
‘I think the only thing we can say for certain,’ states Eyal Poleg, ‘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.’