December 29 is the saint’s day of the English martyr Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by knights of King Henry II. In the Middle Ages a legend grew up about the parentage of the saint, a legend that was credible enough even in the 19th century when Charles Dickens recounted it in his A Child’s History of England.
Once upon a time, a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert À Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord. This lord, who treated him kindly and not like a slave, had one fair daughter, who fell in love with the merchant; and who told him that she wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country. The merchant returned her love, until he found an opportunity to escape, when he did not trouble himself about the Saracen lady, but escaped with his servant Richard, who had been taken prisoner along with him, and arrived in England and forgot her. The Saracen lady, who was more loving than the merchant, left her father’s house in disguise to follow him, and made her way, under many hardships, to the sea-shore. The merchant had taught her only two English words (for I suppose he must have learnt the Saracen tongue himself, and made love in that language), of which London was one, and his own name, Gilbert, the other. She went among the ships, saying, “London! London!” over and over again, until the sailors understood that she wanted to find an English vessel that would carry her there; so they showed her such a ship, and she paid for her passage with some of her jewels, and sailed away. Well! The merchant was sitting in his counting-house in London one day, when he heard a great noise in the street; and presently Richard came running in from the warehouse, with his eyes wide open and his breath almost gone, saying, “Master, master, here is the Saracen lady!” The merchant thought Richard was mad; but Richard said, “No, master! As I live, the Saracen lady is going up and down the city, calling Gilbert! Gilbert!” Then, he took the merchant by the sleeve, and pointed out of the window ; and there they saw her among the gables and water-spouts of the dark, dirty street, in her foreign dress, so forlorn, surrounded by a wondering crowd, and passing slowly along, calling “Gilbert, Gilbert!” When the merchant saw her, and thought of the tenderness she had shown him in his captivity, and of her constancy, his heart was moved, and he ran down into the street; and she saw him coming, and with a great cry fainted in his arms. They were married without loss of time, and Richard (who was an excellent man) danced with joy the whole day of the wedding; and they all lived happy ever afterwards.
Professional historians who don’t like to leave a good story alone have pooh-poohed the legend, but what do they know? The triptych above shows the Saracen maid’s baptism and marriage and her rocking the cradle of the infant Thomas.