The Bruce Dynasty, Becket and Scottish Pilgrimage to Canterbury, c.1178-c.1404

The Bruce Dynasty, Becket and Scottish Pilgrimage to Canterbury, c.1178-c.1404

By Michael A. Penman

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.32 (2006)

Robert the Brucebeing crowned - statute at Edinburgh Castle - photo by Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons

Robert the Brucebeing crowned – statute at Edinburgh Castle – photo by Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: This paper seeks to question the assumption that the outbreak of prolonged Anglo-Scottish war in 1296 brought an abrupt decline in Scottish interest in St Thomas, his shrine at Canterbury and the great abbey dedicated to him in Scotland at Arbroath. A survey of Scottish devotion to Becket after 1296 reveals that in fact the interest of the monarchy and certain sections of Scottish society intensified. For the two Bruce kings, devotion to Becket developed a double importance although in very different political contexts. For Robert I (1306-29) St Thomas, Canterbury and Arbroath served as both a focus of personal faith and of strategic observances in the struggle against England. However, for David II (1329-71), captured in battle against England in 1346, such observances also became a central feature of attempts to persuade his subjects of the value of closer Anglo-Scottish relations: David’s reign was marked by a surge in pilgrimage to Canterbury by Scottish royals, nobles, clerics and ordinary lay folk. Had David lived longer and/or produced a Bruce heir, continued Scottish devotion to Becket might have formed the basis of far more amicable Anglo-Scottish relations than would be the norm under Stewart kings of Scots after 1371.

Introduction: Historians have long been aware of the widespread popularity of Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, and its principal shrine of Archbishop Thomas Becket (d. 1170), as a site of pilgrimage and as a figure of veneration for non-English subjects in the later Middle Ages. The intensity of human traffic towards the martyr’s tomb from several regions of north-west Europe after 1170, and the foundation of numerous monastic houses, smaller churches, hospitals and altars to facilitate liturgical devotion to St Thomas in many of these lands, have already been detailed by modern scholars. This was clearly a pattern of entreaty of saintly intercession which was sustained well beyond the initial late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century flurry of miracula and hagiographical writing associated with Becket and Canterbury. Moreover, although the records of Canterbury Cathedral and the English Crown are weighted towards evidence for upper class interaction with this saint and shrine, there is sufficient data, too, to allow historians and archaeologists to envisage a continuing stream of devotion by the lower social orders of England’s neighbour realms in addition to, of course, the ordinary devout people of Canterbury’s own hinterland and the wider English kingdom.

It should, then, come as little surprise to identify a remarkable degree of sustained Scottish interest in this famous pilgrimage venue and the potentia of its chief saint. Indeed, modern scholars have already detailed the profound interest shown in Becket by Scotland’s Crown, leading nobles and churchmen, during the reigns of William I (1165-1214), Alexander II (1214-49) and Alexander III (1249-86): this was a period, really, of relative peace between Scotland and England, though often uneasy. This Scottish devotion to St Thomas centred not only upon periodic pilgrimages to Canterbury itself but also the foundation and support in this period of a major monastic house dedicated to the martyr saint, at Arbroath in coastal Angus (Forfarshire). Moreover, this upper class Scottish observance of Becket was matched by the devotions of lesser Scots: this is suggested by the discovery of two thirteenth-century ampullae of Becket’s shrine oil – water mixed with his blood and brains – in excavations at Perth in central Scotland.

Click here to read this article  from the University of Stirling

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