The Top of St. Thomas Becket’s Skull

The martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket has a been a popular subject for artists from the middle ages to the 20th century, but one detail of the murder stands out in a few depictions. These show the top of the saints skull being shorn off by the first blow, like so:

Master Francke, 1424.




Carrow Psalter, 1250.

Medieval art was partly representational and partly narrative, meaning the depiction of people and events was in a unique zone between literal and symbolic. Lopping off the top of a bishop’s head, complete with mitre and tonsure, was a symbolic act of defiance against his authority and holiness. The horror of the crime is being emphasized: this was God’s anointed, and in striking at him they struck at God Himself.

But … was there more to this than symbolism?

Indeed there was, because a man named Edward Grim wrote this influential account of the slaying:

The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.

This may sound like colorful bit of hagiography, but Grim, a clerk from Cambridge, was an eyewitness to the murder, allegedly wounded attempting to intervene (“by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this”). He went on to write the Vita S. Thomae (Life of St. Thomas), from which this passage comes. The account is a little odd, because it sounds like the top of Becket’s head was cut off twice, but there’s a level of Grand Guignol detail here that suggests something more than hagiographical license. Anyone musing on the color of brains in blood has probably seen the actual thing up close.

We should be able to settle the issue easily enough by examining Becket’s remains, the most revered English relics of their age, but oh wait, Henry VIII had them destroyed. He really was a right old monster.

Holy martyr St. Thomas Becket, pray for us. 

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