Our recent conference on Herbert of Bosham, secretary, confidant and biographer of Thomas Becket, was a great success with fascinating papers on the making of Herbert’s manuscripts, his Hebrew scholarship and his letters, on his relationship with Becket, and his connections with the court. The final paper of the conference, by organiser Michael Staunton, was on ‘Herbert and History’, which focused on Herbert’s conception and writing of history but his title also pointed to a clear theme running through the conference, namely how history has treated Herbert, his texts and his manuscripts.
There was much discussion of the discovery and loss of the manuscripts of his works, many of which are extant only in single witnesses, and of the role played by 19th-century librarians and editors in his posthumous reputation, notably the frighteningly prolific J. A. Giles, a Victorian clergyman and scholar who set up a printing press in his own house and trained local girls in typography in order to keep up with the stream of translations and editions of classical and medieval texts that poured forth from his pen.
The conference was accompanied by an exhibition of manuscripts. The Parker Library contains a number of important manuscripts relating to Becket and his circle since Matthew Parker was very interested in his martyred archiepiscopal predecessor, despite (or because of) Becket’s defiance of royal authority over ecclesiastical matters. As secretary, Herbert was responsible for writing many of Becket’s letters, but he also put together a collection of his own letters. The single surviving manuscript of his Epistolae, a fourteenth-century copy, is MS 123 in the Parker Library.
Herbert also produced a life of Becket called the Thomus (a pun on Thomas/tomus) which has been condemned by one modern biographer of Becket as ‘rambling and verbose‘. All the conference speakers agreed that Herbert never used one word where ten would do but as an eyewitness to many of the events he describes, Herbert’s account has been praised for its honesty by Becket’s most recent biographer, John Guy. In addition to manuscripts containing several extracts from Herbert’s life of Becket, the Parker Library also contains the only surviving copy of a Middle English verse life of Becket, written by a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury named Lawrence Wade. Wade’s poem, written in 1497, testifies to the continuing devotion to the saint, particularly at Canterbury. Wade also acknowledges Herbert’s Thomus as the major source for his own work:
Wade’s prologue begins, ‘Here begynnyth the lyff off Seynt Thomas [bekett] off Cantorbury archbysshopp, translatyd in to our vulgar tonge owt off a boke callyd Thomys, by a brother of Christis Church in Cantorbury’. Less than fifty years after Wade’s hagiographical poem was written, the monastery at Christ Church was dissolved and Becket was condemned as a traitor. His controversial status during the Reformation is hinted at by the crossing out of ‘Seynt’, which is regularly seen in references to him in both manuscripts and printed books.
During the Reformation re-evaluation of Becket, this volume was owned by another of his successors as archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who, like Becket, lost his life amidst royal and ecclesiastical power struggles and was acclaimed a martyr by some and a traitor by others. Rather poignantly, his signature (‘Thomas Cantuariensis’) can be seen above the rubric on the opening leaf of the manuscript.