Two cathedrals, two branches of the same dynasty, a scandal and a murder. It sounds like the plot for a history novel, but it’s the real story behind the connections that link two seemingly distant islands: Sicily and Britain. As one branch of the Norman clan crossed the English Channel, another was breaching the Straits of Messina. Both arms engulfed their respective cultures, assimilating their finer points, but remaining resolutely Norman at heart.
The link between the two shines through the story of Thomas Becket. He was born into a wealthy London family and was educated in Britain and France. Acting as an agent for Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury and England’s highest Prelate, he was sent to Rome and Bologna on various occasions. His rise through the ranks was noticed by King Henry II and the two formed what would prove to be a fateful bond.
On Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry named Thomas the new Archbishop. This step was the start of a deep fracture in their relationship as Becket took to his new role with unexpected vigour. Gone was the royal courtier with an eye for pleasure, instead he adopted a combative approach to the Church’s relations with the Monarchy. The tipping point was finally reached when the King presided over a series of assemblies at Clarendon Palace; the outcome, known as the Constitutions of Clarendon, was the Archbishop’s downfall. Thomas refused to agree to any lessening in ecclesiastical power or weakening in links with Rome. Accused of contempt of royal authority, he walked out of his trial and escaped to the continent.
Becket was joined by other exiles and so begins his connection to Sicily. Many of these exiles had fled to the island seeking a new life at the Norman court of Guglielmo II. Thomas was to write and thank the King personally for extending such a welcome. Sicily already had a coterie of Anglo-Norman residents including the clerics Richard Palmer and Walter of the Mill. Palmer was also to offer support to Becket in his hour of need and was instrumental in orchestrating marriage negotiations between Henry’s daughter, Joanna of England, and Guglielmo – the traditional dynastic marriage proposed by aristocratic houses.
Political machinations, though, were overtaken by events. Thomas had returned from exile and was hoping for some kind of resolution to his disputes, but he was to be disappointed. Whether or not King Henry ever uttered the immortal words, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”, it is certainly true that the words he did speak were interpreted by some as a call to arms. On the 29th December 1170, four knights slid through the shadows of Canterbury’s monumental cathedral to challenge Becket. His refusal to accompany them led to his brutal murder; whilst the monks chanted vespers from the Choir, he breathed his last at the foot of the stairs.
Joanna’s marriage to King Guglielmo was put on hold and the cult status of heroic martyr was quickly conferred on the former Archbishop. He was canonised in 1173. Henry was forced to admit his role in Becket’s demise and did penance at his tomb. It is, however, to the great cathedral of Monreale near Palermo that we must turn for Europe’s first depiction of Saint Thomas. His Byzantine-style icon, set in its golden background over Monreale’s high alter, watches us benignly, bible in hand. His image is a serene one, far from the final scenes of his life.
Sicily’s powerful Anglo-Norman community was quick to adopt Saint Thomas à Becket for themselves; his influence also being felt in Marsala, where the cathedral took his name. The modern-day Canterbury Cathedral experience is in direct contrast to Monreale. The northern charm of the building takes a darker turn when approaching the site of the murder: twin swords hang from the arms of a jagged cross, both pointing menacingly inwards as if Becket was still prostrate below the points of his assassins’ weapons.
The Archbishop’s tale has had a long afterlife: Chaucer’s pilgrims were on their way to Thomas’ Shrine, Tennyson wrote on the theme and T S Elliot immortalised the unfortunate cleric in his play, Murder in the Cathedral. So often it is life that imitates art but Beckett’s story has given birth, not only to art and literature, but a mutual history involving these two island nations.
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards