Music, politics, and sanctity
: the cult of Thomas Becket, 1170-1580

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The role of the liturgy in establishing the iconographic nature of a saint was fundamental during the medieval period; to date, though, the liturgies of Thomas Becket have rarely been considered for their role in the creation of Thomas’ cult. While work by musicologists such as Andrew Hughes and Kay Brainerd Slocum, and literary scholar Sherry L. Reames has done much to establish the chronology of Thomas’ liturgies and the context of their creation, questions about the liturgies as texted, melodied, and performed statements of Becket’s sanctity remain. My thesis builds on that work while also developing its own methodological framework by locating the Becket liturgies within the political, cultural, and social histories of the institutions for which they were created. It begins with an overview of the sources, addressing their virtues and limitations (especially in terms of using manuscript sources that are not contemporaneous with composition date of the liturgies they represent), while also addressing how the interdisciplinary approach of the thesis - which incorporates analysis of textual, musical, and artistic sources - fits within current historiographical trends. The thesis emphasises performance practices at Canterbury itself and with the liturgy as a musical, audible practice, in turn, it engages with a wider range of sources, placing liturgical texts in dialogue with other non-musicological material. For example, it utilises architectural evidence at Canterbury in conjunction with chronicles and customaries to present an experiential history of Becket’s cult. Doing so will allow the exploration of the "dissemination" of liturgy beyond the textual and demonstrate how liturgy moved to new institutions already embedded with pre-set performative and spatial requirements that needed to be re-imagined in new spaces.
The thesis is divided into two parts. Part A (consisting of Chapters One and Two), discusses the creation of the offices for Becket’s passion and translation at Canterbury in the years after his death. The first chapter explores how the office was composed in 1173 by Benedict of Peterborough (d. 1193), one of the feretrarians for Becket’s shrine, and how Benedict’s place at the heart of a network of early Becket hagiographers shaped the liturgy. It then examines how Benedict’s liturgy influenced the rebuilding of the east end of Canterbury Cathedral after the devastating fire in 1174, and how the internal politics of Christ Church meant that the enlarged Trinity Chapel was built to house Becket’s cult (and his liturgy). Chapter Two’s focus is the creation of the office for Becket’s Translation by the clerical familia of Archbishop Stephen Langton during the 1220s. It explains why Canterbury appears so prominently in that liturgy; namely, after years of wrangling with the monks over where Becket should be buried, Langton desired to reconcile with the community by indicating that Becket’s new shrine was to be his permanent home. Part B examines how Becket’s liturgies were spread beyond Canterbury and follows three lines of inquiry. Chapter Three explores how Becket’s liturgy was adapted, re-imagined, and re-compiled in new institutions that required something different to the original Canterbury plan. Such an aim will not be approached diachronically but will provide snapshots of how the process of adaptation occurred at different places across the centuries. Chapter Four surveys how Becket’s liturgies were utilised as the basis for new non-liturgical music, particularly in Parisian and English motets and conductuses of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries. The final chapter explores how the Lancastrian dynasty used music to promote Becket as a symbol of England and of themselves, which was to imbue the Becket cult with new ideological undertones. The conclusion then takes a brief look at the end of the Becket cult during the reign of Henry VIII, and argues that long-standing tensions in Becket’s hagiography, beginning in the liturgies, ultimately meant he was replaced by Reformation martyrs in the Catholic imagination during the sixteenth century.
Date of Award1 May 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEmma Dillon (Supervisor) & David D'Avray (Supervisor)

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