WHAT we know of Herbert of Bosham we owe to two chief causes. The first and fundamental is the role that the self-dramatising Herbert played in the even greater drama of Thomas Becket. From this in turn springs the second cause for our knowledge of Herbert: the Victorian fascination with Becket. It was as a minor satellite of Becket's stardom that Herbert attracted an editor, John Allen Giles. In turn, it was Giles’ edition of Herbert's works, published in 1845–46, that first brought Herbert to wider attention. Even now, it is Giles’ edition as pirated by the Abbé Migne for volume 190 of his Patrologia Latina (1854) that still serves as the principal port of entry for modern scholars interested in Herbert's career. Even today, it is Giles’ edition with its many failings and omissions that continues to determine Herbert's reputation in our post-Victorian age. In what follows, I hope to subject both Giles and his edition to a degree of scrutiny. To understand Giles and his work, nonetheless, we must begin not with Giles himself but with the wider Victorian reception of Thomas Becket.
Becket mattered to the Victorians in ways that have only recently begun to be appreciated. As a bone of contention, left over from the great ossuary that Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformers had made of such remains, Becket could not be ignored by any historian of the Catholic Middle Ages. To a majority of writers, from the 1530s through to the 1790s, he remained nonetheless a divisive and for the most part indigestible medieval relic. To declare oneself in favour of St Thomas was to side unequivocally with a Catholic or crypto-Catholic cause, with a love for saints, relics and ritual. Such was the case, for example, with the Jesuit scholar Thomas Stapleton, author of the Tres Thomae published in 1588 as parallel lives of St Thomas the Apostle, St Thomas Becket and St Thomas More.3 To declare oneself against Thomas, by contrast, was to stand proudly for Reformation, King, country and the established Protestant church. Those in the first camp were inclined to refer to ‘St’ or ‘the Blessed’ Thomas. Those in the second, to ‘Becket’. In either case, Thomas himself remained combustible stuff.