A popular legend about the parents of Thomas Becket (1118–1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, is retold by Charles Dickens in 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 window [sic]; 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. (p. 61)
Several other literary works refer to this story. For example:
Lewis Morris's "Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen," in his Songs of Two Worlds (second series, 1874), is a narrative poem on this subject.
Agatha Christie's They Came to Baghdad (1951) also references this legend. Christie's protagonist is Victoria Jones, an intrepid if incompetent typist who leaves London for Baghdad in order to track down a young man named Edward. Her previous interaction with Edward has consisted only of a brief conversation in a park, but she fancies herself in love. Finding herself in Baghdad with a grand total of four pounds and seventeen shillings to her name, she ponders her situation:
With a sense of annoyance she realized that she was quite unaware of Edward’s last name. Edward—Baghdad. Very much, Victoria reflected, like the Saracen maid who arrived in England knowing only the name of her lover “Gilbert” and “England.” A romantic story—but certainly inconvenient. True that in England at the time of the Crusades, nobody, Victoria thought, had had any surname at all. On the other hand England was larger than Baghdad. Still, England was sparsely populated then. (p. 160)
A more recent retelling is Leon Garfield and John O'Brien's 1991 children's book, The Saracen Maid.
Biographers, however, note that this story has no factual basis. W. H. Hutton writes:
Later centuries, seeking to cradle their hero [Thomas] in wonders, told that [Gilbert] Becket was a knight who had been on Crusade and his wife a Saracen princess, who had followed him alone to England knowing only the words Gilbert and London: but the story belongs to three centuries after his birth. (pp. 2–3)
Three centuries after his birth indicates that the legend dates back to the turn of the fifteenth century. What is the earliest reference to this story? Is there a Middle English hagiography of St. Thomas Becket that includes it? Or is it alluded to in some other work from the era that we know of?
- Christie, Agatha. They Came to Baghdad. 1951. Ebook. New York: Harper, 2011.
- Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England. 1851–1853. London: Chapman and Hall, 1906.
- Garfield, Leon (author), and John O'Brien (illustrator). The Saracen Maid. 1991. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
- Hutton, William Holden. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. London: Pitman, 1910.
- Morris, Lewis. "Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen." Pp. 135–144 in Songs of Two Worlds: Second Series. London: Henry S. King, 1874.