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Heads Up: a Becket pilgrim badge

Picture This… January 2020

Author: Lucy Splarn, Canterbury Cathedral


Each pilgrim souvenir carries its own unique story: the story of what it represents, who made it, purchased it, saw it and left it, and then who found it again. In January’s Picture This, we turn our heads to St Thomas Becket’s most popular design in Canterbury’s collection of pilgrim souvenirs, which depicts a front-facing, bust-length portrait of the saint.

Canterbury Cathedral was a major site of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages as a result of the cult of Becket. He was the 38th Archbishop of Canterbury and became one of the most popular saints in Europe. It was his martyrdom in the Cathedral on 29th December 1170 that encouraged crowds of pilgrims from England and well beyond to visit his shrine. By the twelfth century, it was common practice for individuals to purchase their own personal souvenir when reaching their pilgrimage destination. The majority of badges (also referred to as ‘signs’ by contemporaries) were made from lead-alloy and do not exceed the size of an index figure. They were quick to manufacture and cheap to produce, which meant they were affordable for all. Becket badges evolved from ampulla (small containers of watered-down Becket’s blood to be worn on a string around the neck) and they were typically attached to a hat or a staff. These signs not only represented the pilgrim’s experience, but also expressed the wearer’s status as a pilgrim and indicated the location of their pilgrimage. Such signs could also act as a silent unified language for those who could not communicate in their native tongue during their travels. These tiny tangible objects offer an insight into the devotional habits of ordinary pilgrims.

While there survive many badges of saints from all over medieval Europe, Becket had an exceptionally large range of souvenirs which have been discovered in cities in (but not limited to) the present-day United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway. The majority of badges are found in riverbanks and there are a number of badges within the Canterbury collection that were extracted from the River Stour which runs through the city.

The collection of pilgrim souvenirs held by Canterbury Museums and Galleries contains many different religious and secular designs. Badges include depictions of the Virgin and Child, St Catherine’s wheel, the Black Prince’s feathers, birds and trees. However, by far the largest number are of designs associated with Becket. The diverse Becket designs within the collection include pairs of Becket gloves, the letter ‘T’ (which represents the initial of ‘Thomas’), multiple heads encapsulated in a six-star or square frame, a Becket bell, and a martyrdom scene. Amongst these surviving designs, the one most frequently found is that of the decorated mitred head badge.

The head badge chosen for this article, shown above, from the Canterbury collection, follows a typical template depicting a bust-length portrait of Becket; he faces the viewer wearing a jewelled mitre with a decorated cope around his shoulders. His oval eyes, prominent nose and upside-down horseshoe moustache are all typical stylistic features of the head badge, which vary in size and quality within the collection. This particular fifteenth-century souvenir measures 53mm in height by 28mm in length and would have been an instantly identifiable image of Becket. The high survival rate of this design suggests that they were in popular demand.

These head badges not only illustrate Becket’s face but they also represent the head reliquary that contained the remains of the saint’s severed skull, once located in the Corona Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral and destroyed during the Reformation. The decoration on the cope and mitre both represent the jewels that covered the reliquary, while the stoic, almost blank, facial expression invites pilgrims to project their own feelings onto the holy face. Pilgrims would have left the Cathedral with a lasting impression of the bejewelled reliquary and those in possession of this badge had a visual memory of it. Ultimately, Becket badges depicting the head reliquary were desired tokens of his special sanctity.

Images reproduced courtesy of Canterbury Museums and Galleries.

Further reading:

Blick, Sarah, ‘Comparing Pilgrim Souvenirs and Trinity Chapel Windows at Canterbury Cathedral: An Exploration of Context, Copying, and the Recovery of Lost Stained Glass’, Mirator (2001), 1-27

Lee, Jennifer, ‘Beyond the Locus Sanctus: The Independent Iconography of Pilgrims’ Souvenirs’, Visual Resources 21 (2005), 363-381

Spencer, Brian, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1998)

Lucy holds an MA in Medieval and Early Modern Studies from the University of Kent, and works at the Cathedral as an Archives and Library Assistant. She completed her Masters thesis on Becket pilgrim badges.

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