Sunday 24 December 2017

THE BECKET LEAVES By Elizabeth Chadwick

Thomas Becket returning from exile shortly before his murder
The Christmas season marks the anniversary of the murder of Henry II's Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral's transept on 29th December  1170.  It was from Henry's court in Normandy at Bur le Rois that the four knights who becameThomas Becket's murderers set out to commit their deed of slaughter.  Becket's murder on the steps of his own cathedral caused shock waves and repercussions throughout the Christian world

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.
These richly illustrated leaves had never been properly examined and other than the originals were only known from an old set of black and white reproductions published in 1885.  Interest was intense and so was the bidding which rose to £1.4 million.  The British Library could not afford such a sum, but J.Paul Getty purchased the Leaves and placed them on indefinite loan to the British Library so that they could be studied and enjoyed by those who wished to do so, rather than having them vanish again into another private collection.
A sick Becket's family is forced into exile by a furious Henry II
The leaves hold 506 lines of rhyming verse written in dark brown ink.  Many historians have attributed the work to chronicler and artist Matthew Paris and it certainly has a look of his style and circumstantial evidence points that way, but we can never be entirely sure.  The evidence points toward Matthew Paris at least have sketched out designs for the illustrations in the lost manuscript certainly.  There is a decent Wikipedia article here about Matthew Paris including illustrations from The Becket Leaves and other works so you can compare and contrast and make up your own mind.

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

No comments: