Many students will by now have revelled in the exhibition of medieval illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but may have missed the recent discovery of an eleventh century psalter which almost certainly belonged to Saint Thomas à Becket, and which he may also have been holding at the moment of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
The psalter has been in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge for many years, and its association with Becket was discovered by chance. Christopher de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts, was chatting with a colleague, and remarked on the fact that while in the middle ages objects associated with saints were generally revered, the same was not true of manuscripts owned by saints. His colleague said that he knew of one exception, and directed de Hamel’s attention to a very early description of a psalter which Becket was reputed to have been holding when he was struck down. De Hamel recognised the manuscript described as one held in the Parker Library, and the various connections fell into place.
The psalter in question was probably made for the eleventh century Saint Alphege, also martyred, in his case by the Danes at Greenwich; it would have passed into the hands of Becket, who held Alphege in particular esteem, and after Becket’s death was placed on his shrine at Canterbury. How it then filtered down to a library in a Cambridge college is anyone’s guess, but given that those libraries are among the most efficient and durable cultural filter-fish in the world, lying for centuries with their baleen-plates agog, it is perhaps not that surprising.