A Clash of Saints: Saint Cuthbert versus Saint Thomas Becket

Two mighty saints, one hailing from the north and the other from the south, but whose power and influence was greater? Our Open Treasure Gallery Attendant, James Taylor explores this ‘clash’ of saints in our latest blog post.

Throughout the 12th century the priory at Durham had grown in status and power to become one of the pre-eminent cult centres and pilgrimage destinations of Medieval England. However, on December the 29th 1170 A.D Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury was brutally murdered by four knights in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. The murder and subsequent canonization of Becket as a saint saw the already influential Canterbury gain an even greater importance from the late 12th century onwards. When his shrine was opened during the Easter of 1171 the event drew great crowds. Within twenty years of his death over 700 miracles associated with the saint had been recorded. How then did the community at Durham respond to the emergence of this popular and powerful new cult centre?

Image credit: The life or the ecclesiasticall historie of S[t]. Thomas Archbishope of Canterbury (W2/X-3-32), printed in 1639, sourced from https://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/

Whilst there is not a complete consensus, the national importance of the cult of St. Cuthbert does seem to have been a concern to the community at the time. Reginald of Durham produced the ‘Libellus de Admirandis Beati Cuthberti Vertutibus’ in the second half of the 12th century. It is a lengthy collection of Cuthbert’s miracles written in two phases. The first phase was pre-Becket’s death whilst the second was written post death and is clearly a response to the emergence of a rival cult.

The first example involves a noblewoman who was bled frequently however something went wrong and she was almost half dead from gout and lumbago. Three friends drew lots to see if they should seek help from St. Edmund, Thomas or Cuthbert. They drew St. Cuthbert at which point her health improved allowing a journey to Durham where she was subsequently cured (Crumplin, 2004: page 275).

There are a number of these ‘competitive’ miracles where Cuthbert’s supremacy over other saints is shown through the drawing of lots. However Cuthbert’s supremacy over Becket is made even more explicit in the next example.

A cleric in the service of Becket and then the Archbishop of York was ill with vomiting, blood-loss and gummed eyes. He went to St. Thomas’ tomb at Canterbury and prayed for fifteen days. Despite this devotion he was not cured and was not purged of all his sins. He fell asleep at the tomb where Thomas appeared to him in a dream telling him to go to Cuthbert. The man protested saying Thomas was the greatest, however Beckett replied that whilst the man had benefited from him to be fully cured he must seek Cuthbert’s help. The cleric went to Durham and was cured at Cuthbert’s tomb (Crumplin, 2004: page 275).

St Cuthbert wall painting, image by David Wood

This miracle reflected the power of Cuthbert in two ways. Not only was St. Thomas unable to heal a man who had worked for him in life but he explicitly states that Cuthbert is the greater saint. Whilst Becket undoubtedly has the power to heal it is only by the power of Cuthbert that particularly difficult illnesses or sins are cleansed.

The reaction of the Durham monks is often characterised as an attempt to revive a cult whose popularity is under threat and whose influence is waning. However these miracles feel more like a reminder from an older statesman to a young newcomer – new and exciting is no match for experience and hard won wisdom.


Crumplin, S., 2004. Rewriting history in the cult of St Cuthbert from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. PhD. thesis, University of St Andrews.

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