How can the life and cult of Thomas Becket be traced through material culture? This was the question at the heart of the ‘Locating Becket’ workshop, sponsored by CHASE, and held at the British Library, British Museum and Courtauld Institute of Art on Tuesday 6th December 2016. Curators and scholars gathered first at the British Library to examine a number of manuscripts connected to Becket’s life and cult, including Cotton Claudius B II, with the earliest representation of Becket’s martyrdom (below). This fairly stable iconography could be followed in later manuscripts, including the (very bloody) Huth Psalter (Add MS 38116 ), a 15th-century Book of Hours from Rouen (Harley 1251), and in two seals attached to Ch. 17353 and Harley Ch. 44 C 33.
Becket’s martyrdom, from Alan of Tewkesbury’s letters, British Library Cotton MS Claudius B II, late 12th century. Image in the public domain.
An early collection of Becket’s miracles was also examined (Egerton MS 2818), as well as the early fourteenth-century ‘memorandum book’ of Prior Henry Eastry (Cotton Galba E. iv), which includes an inventory of Prior Eastry’s interventions, an extensive inventory of the sacristy, and an inventory of the library. Finally, we looked at the early fifteenth-century customary of Becket’s shrine (Additional 59616), with extensive instructions for the celebration of his feast days, which is bound together with two copies of his lives which seem to have been kept at the shrine and read to pilgrims.
The afternoon was spent looking at the British Museum’s extraordinary collection of pilgrims’ badges, ampullae, reliquaries and other objects related to Becket, including the impression of the 15th-century seal of the Mercers Company (below), which shows Becket on a ship, returning from exile.
Impression of a Mercers’ company seal matrix, after 1462
Below is a full list of the objects consulted at the British Museum:
1836,0610.32, ca. 1320-1450, Becket bust, purchased from Cureton.
1855,0804.70, ca. 1250-1350, Becket contained within a T, found Thames 1845, previous owner Chaffers, then Cureton.
1855,0724.5, head of Becket between two raised swords contained within an octofoil frame, ca. 1320-1450. Purchased from William Edwards.
1856,0701.2036, ca. 1300-1350, bust of Becket between a nine point star, inscription SANCTVS.THOMAS, found 22nd August 1850, purchased Charles Roach Smith.
1856,0701.2031 and 2032, two badges in the form of Becket’s bust, ca. 1320-1450, purchased Charles Roach Smith.
1856,0701.2039, ca. 1350-1400, four embossed fleur-de-lis in the form of a quatrefoil around a central boss, inscription SANTE.THOMA.OR.P.M., purchased Charles Roach Smith, previous collection Edward Wigan.
1868,0904.39, badge in the form of a kind of ship known as a cog, ca.1350-1400, donated by Franks.
2001,0702.1, Becket’s bust reliquary, ca. 1320-1375, found Billingsgate.
OA.1817, decorative sword sheath (referring to the relic of the sword tip) with Fitz Urse coat of arms, ca. 1350-1450.
2001,0702.2, Becket riding a peacock, ca. 1250-1350, found Thames Exchange.
1891,0418.21, ampulla with circular openwork tracery. The obverse of the ampulla is embossed with the standing figure of St Thomas Becket in a bishop’s mitre and chasuble, with an equal-armed cross standing out from his breast. The reverse bears a representation of his martyrdom with Becket kneeling in the centre, inscription OPTIMUS EGRORVM.MEDICVS.FIT.THOMA.BONORVM, ‘May Thomas be the best doctor of the worthy sick’, ca. 1220-1420.
1896,0501.69, the front of the ampulla depicts the standing figure of St Thomas Becket in mitre and chasuble, making a gesture of benediction and holding a crosier. The reverse shows the scene of his martyrdom with one knight faced by a kneeling Becket. The frame is filled with openwork decoration of symmetrical sexfoil and fleur-de- lis motifs and a representation of the front- and back-view of a seated Becket, depicted in episcopal garb, enclosed within a roundel. Inscription, REGENAKDVS.FILIVS HVRS:THOMAS:MARTIRIVM:FECE:FR., ‘Reginald Fitz Urse brought to pass the Martyrdom of Thomas’, donated by Franks.
2001,0702.3, chasse shaped ampulla, ca. 1250-1350, found Billingsgate.
2001,0702.6, ship-shaped ampulla (referring to Becket’s return from exile) with a high relief representation of Becket, ?ca. 1170-1250, found Billingsgate.
1880,0624.1, impression of Mercer’s company seal matrix, showing a half-figure of St Thomas of Canterbury in a ship, inscriptions, ‘sigillu : anglicor in flandria : brabancia : hollandria: zeeladia : m’cat’ and ‘s. thomas catuar’, after 1462, found Harrow.
1913,1105.3, Langdon Priory seal matrices. On the obverse is a Virgin and Child seated in a canopied niche on a corbel. On the reverse is a scene of the Martyrdom of St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral. 13th century. Inscriptions, ‘SIGILL’ . COMMVNE MONASTERII: ECCE: DE MARIE: DE: LANGEDON’ and ‘CAVSA: DOMVS: XPI: MORTEM: SIC: IRTVLIT ISTI’.
1981,1103.1, Seal-matrix: Warden of Greyfriars at Canterbury. Inscription, ‘SIG GARDIANI FRUM MINORU CANTUARIE’. Ca. 1330-1350.
Reliquaries and other objects
AF.2765, Reliquary pendant showing on the observes John the Baptist and possibly Thomas Becket on the reverse. Inscription, ‘A MON + dERREYNE’. Late 15th century, found Devizes.
1878,1101.3, Chasse depicting the martyrdom of Becket, ca. 1210, donated by Meyrick, previous collection Douce.
1852,0327.1, Henry of Blois plaques, made possibly in England, ca. 1150-1171. Inscriptions:
+ MVNERA GRATA DEO PREMISSVS VERNA FIGVRAT. ANGELVS AD CELVM RAPIAT POST DONA DATOREM;. NE TAMEN ACCELERET NE SVSCITET ANGLIA LVCTVS, CVI PXA VEL BELLVM MOTVSVE QVIESVE PER ILLUM (= ‘The aforementioned slave shapes gifts pleasing to God. May the angel take the giver to Heaven after his gifts, but not just yet, lest England groan for it, since on him it depends for peace or war, agitation or rest.’) + ARS AVRO GEMMISQ (UE) PRIOR, PRIOR OMNIBVS AVTOR. DONA DAT HENRICVS VIVVS IN ERE DEO, MENTE PAREM MVSIS (ET) MARCO VOCE PRIOREM. FAME VIRIS, MORES CONCILIANT SUPERIS. Also inscribed within the scene, HENRICUS EPISCOP (‘Art comes before gold and gems, the author before everything. Henry, alive in bronze, gives gifts to God. Henry, whose fame commends him to men, whose character commends him to the heavens, a man equal in mind to the Muses and in eloquence higher than Marcus [that is, Cicero].’)
1854,0411.2, enamelled casket depicting the murder of Becket, 13th century, purchased from William Forrest.
1890,0809.1, alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket,
Prints and Drawings
1973,0512.3.2, Ecclesiae Anglicanae Trophaea, Plate 2: the Trinity surrounded by angels in the upper section; two bishops in brocaded cloaks in the lower section, after Niccolò Circignani, etching.
1973,0512.3.25, Ecclesiae Anglicanae Trophaea, Plate 25: the martyrdom of St Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, the saint kneeling before the altar, about to be martyred by a group of soldiers with swords; scene separated from the background by a balustrade with balusters; St Thomas named archbishop by Henry II at far left; saint kneeling before Pope Alexander III seated on a throne, accompanied by two male attendants at far right, etching.
Illustration to Bowyer’s edition of Hume’s History of England, 1793
1853,1210.383, Illustration to Bowyer’s edition of Hume’s History of England; the assassination of Thomas Becket, wrestled to his knees by a gang of four knights, one raising a bludgeon above him, his mitre and staff fallen at left. 1793, etching and engraving.
1856,0607.15, Portrait of Thomas Becket, head and shoulders to left, with hands joined in prayer, wearing ecclesiastical robes, a sword wedged in his skull. 1647, etching.
The day concluded with a lecture at The Courtauld by Cynthia Hahn, ‘Like life-giving seeds: The Multiplication and Dissemination of Relics and Reliquaries‘.
This event was made possible through a CHASE Network Development Grant, with additional support from the University of Kent and The Courtauld.