|Thomas Becket returning from exile shortly before his murder|
The subject of numerous writings and artistic creations throughout christendom, this stubborn, complex, driven man became a saint (canonised in February 1173 by the Pope) and almost brought Henry II (also a stubborn, complex and driven character) down with him and only some astute diplomacy, some wonderfully stage-managed showmanship of penance, and a huge dollop of luck saved Henry II from excommunication and overthrow.
A shrine was built to Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Opened in July 1220, its first year's takings came in at over £700 - seven times the equivalent that a baron of medium income would pay to come into his inheritance. Martyrdom was indeed a lucrative business for the Church.
The event led among many other artistic creations to a British treasure known as The Becket Leaves. The Leaves area four separate surviving vellum fragments of a much larger, now lost work of an illustrated life of Thomas Becket. The leaves surfaced in Belgium in the first half of the 19th century as part of the library assembled by Jacques Goethals-Vercruysse following the French Revolution. The library was presented to the city of Courtrai after his death, but the leaves were kept by a collector and held in the family until 1986 when they were then offered for sale at auction by Sotheby's.
|A sick Becket's family is forced into exile by a furious Henry II|
The text narrates Thomas Becket's life story and the drawings illustrate it and give us a wonderful snapshot view of 13th century life - of clothes and culture and moments in history, including the coronation of Henry II's 15 year old son and heir also named Henry, and of the father serving the son and paying him honour at the coronation feast in Westminster. Thomas Becket had refused to crown the young man of course and had tried to ban anyone else from doing so, but the coronation had gone ahead under the auspices of the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. There is a very likely apocryphal story that while serving his son, King Henry remarked that it was unusual for one king to serve another, to which his son swiftly replied that it was not so unusual to see the son of a count serve the son of a king!
|The coronation of Henry the Young King, who is then served by his father.|
What a pity the rest of the work no longer survives - or if it does, it is missing in a collection somewhere. It would be glorious to see, but at least we have these few existing pages.
Seasons Greetings to all