How the savage killing of Thomas Becket is the focus of a new exhibition
- Credit: Canterbury Cathedral
A tale familiar to generations of schoolchildren, the savage killing of Thomas Becket, and its depiction in a Canterbury Cathedral window is now the focus of a new British Museum exhibition.
For several hours after his assassination the body of Thomas Becket was left where it had fallen on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral choir, his blood spilling across the flagstones.
Paralysed with shock at the enormity of the violence they had witnessed, the monks, who had been dutifully singing vespers before a crowd of worshippers, were uncertain how to act. Would the assassins return to silence them? Was the slain Archbishop of Canterbury a saint worthy of their prayers or little more than a ‘turbulent priest?’
It took one citizen who had witnessed the murder, to help them make up their minds.
He soaked a small sample of Becket’s blood into a strip of fabric, mixed it with water and rushed home to his wife who was suffering from a paralysis. With one sip of St Thomas’s Water, as it became known, she was cured.
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That night, Becket’s body was carried into the choir and placed before the high altar, his soiled clothes were removed and as word spread about the wife’s cure a crowd gathered to dip their fingers or scraps of cloth into his blood.
The life and savage killing of the archbishop on December, 29, 1170, is commemorated in the British Museum exhibitio
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n, Thomas Becket, Murder and the Making of a Saint which was due to open in October to mark the 850th anniversary of the assassination but is now planned to run from April 22 to August 22.
As one might expect there are reliquaries, jewellery, pilgrims’ badges, sculpture and paintings but the tour de force is a window six metres high and two wide which has been taken from the Cathedral and reassembled in the museum.
It tells the stories of the hundreds of people from all walks of life who flocked to Canterbury to seek a cure; accounts of how the blind saw again, the lame walked, the deaf heard and the dumb spoke. Some were even said to have risen from the dead. A victim of castration apparently had his genitalia restored.
Their experiences testify to the transformation in Becket’s reputation from a remote figure who lived abroad for many years and had a reputation for living rather too well but who, in death became renowned as a martyr, a miraculous healer, and a saint.
The assassination sent shock waves around England and Europe where Becket was a venerated figure. It outraged Popes and monarchs and in England set church against state with a ferocity that would not be ended until the reign of Henry VIII and the break from Rome in 1538.
At the heart of the tumult was the relationship between Becket and King Henry II (1133-1189), which changed from a warm friendship when Becket was Henry’s chancellor to bitter enmity when the monarch urged Becket to become Archbishop of Canterbury. That, the king reckoned, would bring the church, which owed its allegiance to the Pope, under state control.
But Becket underwent a spiritual transformation almost immediately after consecration, casting off the worldliness of his former life during which he had been notorious for his expensive life style, his love of hunting and playing that most secular of games, chess.
As one commentator put it: "With the aid of divine grace, he was transformed into another man, he put off the old man with his acts, and put on the new man in righteousness."
Becket opposed the king’s attempts to bring the church to heel. He resisted moves to end its immunity from secular prosecution, even of those "criminous" clerks who had committed murder.
So profound was the falling out that Becket exiled himself to France for several years.
After years of argument and debate between king and prelate in which compromises were made and then broken, Becket infuriated Henry by excommunicating three of his bishops. This was the last straw for the king who uttered his famous cri de coeur or – at least the one attributed to him centuries later – "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
Whatever the precise words, three of his knights galloped to Canterbury to prove their loyalty and burst into the cathedral.
The 50-year-old prelate stood his ground on the steps of the choir and even taunted them: "Have you come to kill me then?" The first blow cut deep into his head and as he lay dying, one of his assailants sliced off the crown of his head, sending his brain and blood spilling. Another attacker placed his foot on Becket’s neck and, after dipping the tip of his sword into the archbishop’s open skull, flicked fragments of brain and blood onto the floor.
At that moment, a saint was born. Within days, the sick and lame came knocking at the cathedral doors for a sip of St Thomas’s Water and as they gathered in their hundreds, two monks, Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury sat in the cathedral crypt painstakingly recording the testimony of the supplicants.
"There was no one who did not carry away some portion of that precious treasure," wrote Benedict.
By 1173 Becket had been canonised by the Pope but his body still lay in a marble tomb in the cathedral crypt – unsuitable for a saint and too confining for the pilgrims who gathered around the tomb in their scores. But there he might have stayed had it not been for a fire in 1174 which destroyed much of the cathedral.
Originally nervous about completely rebuilding the edifice, the monks were persuaded to build a cathedral magnificent enough to reflect Becket’s sainthood. Masons and glaziers were brought from France and by 1220 a new cathedral had risen from the ashes to become one of the largest churches in Europe. The tomb of Becket was laid in the new Trinity Chapel where 12 glorious windows, the Miracle Windows, told the story of the saint’s life and the accounts of the people he cured.
The series most likely began on the northwest side of the chapel where two windows depicted the life of the saint himself but only seven survive and it is one of those which has been taken down and transported to the British Museum.
Known as Window Five, it has been divided into four sections and with each one set at eye level it allows the stories of the miracles to be seen close up in a way that is impossible when the panel is in its customary position – several metres high in the chapel.
We can see the suffering and the anxiety of the afflicted and their joy when the cure is effected. The detail is such can see the style of their clothes and the signs of status, even the tell tale spots on Ralph the Leper who is shown drinking and washing in St Thomas’s Water every day for nine days before he is restored "most whole, healthy, handsome, and without a mark".
A woman with dropsy for whom all "all the beauty of the human form had been removed from all her limbs" tastes the water and leaves Canterbury "wholly slimmed down".
The expressions of the Lame Sisters – are they apprehensive or hopeful? Excited or emotional? – reflect the complaint by the younger sister that Becket cured her older sister first and "blamed the saint" for not healing her. But Becket visits her the next night and both sisters throw away their crutches.
We see Hugh a Cistercian Monk, ailing and in bed. The inscription reads: "The doctors, his father [abbot], his brother [monk], and friends despair." Benedict wrote: "Hugh trusted in the power of herbs but they did him no good."
Close to death, the contents of an ampulla (flasks made of lead used by pilgrims) containing St Thomas’s Water are poured into his mouth. "With a sudden and violent pouring out of blood, he became well."
Perhaps the most extraordinary miracle is that of Eilward of Westoning. We meet the peasant after he has been accused of stealing from a neighbour. His guilt is established when he fails his trial by water by floating – drowning would have proved his innocence – and he is castrated and blinded for his pains in a scene recorded with painful clarity. Eilward is bound and laid under a man kneeling on a plank placed across his chest to pin him to the ground. The man sticks a knife into the unfortunate man’s eyes while his tunic is drawn up and his genitals exposed whereupon another knife-wielding assailant performs the castration.
Gruesome stuff. But in the next frame Becket is depicted pointing a staff towards the poor fellow’s face. Not only does Eilward see again, the inscription explains how a gradual swelling up and regrowth of his genitals takes place.
Five bystanders look on in wonder at the triumph of phallic regeneration and in case there is any doubt, a tree grows up between his legs, to show just how successful the miracle has been. Benedict writes that Eilward "did not deny those who wished to feel them" so that they could be sure that a miracle had occurred.
The story is the longest and most detailed on view and told over an entire panel but why did a petty thief deserve such exposure?
It is certainly a "marvellous and unusual miracle", as Benedict put it, and one which might have caught the imagination of the glaziers and monks working on the windows who might have been appalled at such cruel treatment by the authorities and felt a kinship with such a harmless individual. His cure was even mentioned in the Catholic liturgy.
Curator Naomi Speakman suggests it is a commentary on the harshness of the king’s secular justice and a reminder that Becket was not just a religious figure of international renown, and as such the defender of the rights of the church, but also a defender of the common man.
Lloyd de Beer, co-curator of the exhibition likened the death of Becket to a crime story, "a real-life tale as dramatic as Game of Thrones... with drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe".
But Eilward’s plight, and the experiences of the men and women on Window Five tells a more human story, with images and testimony which reflect an extraordinary movement of compassion, faith, hope and healing.
Thomas Becket, Murder and the Making of a Saint is due to open at the British Museum in May
How to move twelve square metres of stained glass
The windows had to undergo a thorough risk assessment before specialists could remove it panel by panel from the Trinity Chapel. Luckily restoration work was carried out in the 1970s so there was a precedent. A protective external colourless window was put in place in the 1980s to protect the ancient frame from the elements and will fill the gap while the window is on display.
Each panel will be cleaned of 40 years of dust and fitted into a metal frame which has been placed on the floor of the cathedral and which is an exact replica of the panels of the window – precise to the millimetre. The frame will be used when the window is returned after the exhibition.
To make viewing easy for visitors to the British Museum Window Five will be split into four sections which will be set at eye level. Very few people have ever been close to the top panel which tells the story of Eilward.
During the work for this exhibition it was realised that at least one panel had been replaced in the wrong position when work was carried out in 17th century. Until now the very top panel which tells the story of Eilward showed a man on horseback with his arms raised apparently leaving Canterbury. This makes little sense to the story of the castrated man and is now believed to be Ralph the Leper. The Latin word lepra can now be clearly seen.
Eilward, it seems, has been mixed up in Ralph’s miracle. Experts now believe, though the debate continues, that a strange image of a man emerging from a reliquary casket is Eilward seeing a vision of Becket. The two panels have been swapped for the exhibition to bring a chronological sense to the story.
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