Medieval history fans will know all about Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury killed at Christmas by four knights. The head of the English church had fallen out big time with King Henry II and paid the ultimate price. But how many people know anything about the illustrious sister of Thomas Becket – Mary? This medieval woman was a leper healer and powerful religious figure. Yet who’s heard of her today?
Shamefully I hadn’t. And I say shamefully because she was running a leper colony in the 12th century not far from where I grew up in north east London. Mary Becket – or Mary a’ Becket if you prefer – was the Abbess of Barking.
This wasn’t just any old convent. Barking Abbey was the richest and most powerful convent in the country at a time when the church called the political shots. And she used her position to tackle the leprosy pandemic then terrifying England.
Mary Becket – leper healer and powerful abbess
Mary has been somewhat overshadowed by her way more famous brother, Thomas. He was a friend of King Henry II – a rather hot-tempered monarch – who rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The king hoped that he would be compliant to the royal whims.
But Thomas boldly defended the power of the church. An exasperated king wondered out loud how much longer he’d have to put up with such clerical insolence. Four of the king’s knights took that as their cue to pop down to Canterbury and dash the brains of the archbishop with their swords all over his altar – at Christmas.
The whole of Christendom was appalled by what they saw as a murder sanctioned – even commissioned – by King Henry. The pope wasted no time declaring Thomas a saint just to rub some salt in Henry’s political wounds. The king, seeing he was losing the PR battle quite badly, allowed himself to be whipped at the tomb of Thomas. He also handed over Barking Abbey to the sister of his one-time friend, Mary.
Mary Becket sets to work on the leper issue
Like brother, like sister – Mary wasn’t about to accept this as a token appointment. She took over an abbey that was already five hundred years old. A venerable institution on the outskirts of London with a large community of Benedictine nuns. Mary took full advantage of her new found power and influence.
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Mary set about enlarging the Hospital Chapel of St Mary the Virgin at a place called Ilford – that was within her jurisdiction. Just to poke the king in the eye she added “and Saint Thomas of Canterbury” to the chapel’s name. And then threw open the doors to ever more lepers. Many of these would have been nuns or servants of the convent who had succumbed to this very infectious disease.
There was no cure for leprosy at this time. Antibiotics were centuries in the future. So, Mary Becket use the abbey’s resources to bring as much comfort as possible to these medieval lepers rejected by their families and communities.
Incredibly, the chapel is still there. Ilford is just a typical suburb of London now. And you’d never believe this medieval gem was in its midst. But there it is. Defiant and open to visitors. It’s only been closed in 2020 because of…..a modern pandemic!