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Richard III & Henry VII, Stained Glass Window

Richard III & Henry VII, Stained Glass Window

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Barnard Castle

Ruins of Barnard CastleBarnard Castle, located on the north bank of the River Tees, is a market town in County Durham which grew up around - and was named for - the castle.

Barnard Castle: This is what remains of a Norman and 14 th century castle granted to Richard in 1475 as part of the Neville inheritance. Richard probably undertook some building here as his boar badge can be seen on the slab over an oriel window which was once part of the Great Chamber, now approached by a flight of modern steps on the inside of the curtain wall just south of the Round Tower. In the northeast section of the curtain wall is the Brackenbury Tower, named after Sir Robert Brackenbury. Unfortunately, the castle fell into ruins after Richard's death. The castle is now managed by English Heritage.

Church of St Mary, Barnard CastleThe Bowes Museum collection includes the carving of a boar which was rescued from a cottage in the town when it was demolished.

Church of St Mary: Richard founded a chantry here at the same time as the one at Middleham. He also paid for extensive works within the church. The chancel arch bears corbels with portrait heads of Richard and Edward IV. On the outside of the church, there is a carved boar beside the east window of the south transept.

Richard III, his mistress, and his illegitimate children

Much has been written in fiction, and in some non-fiction, about the love between King Richard III and his wife, Anne Neville. But what if it isn’t true? What if Richard’s mistress was the great love of his life?

Richard had two illegitimate children whom he acknowledged: John of Gloucester and Katherine Plantagenet. The identity of the mother or mothers of these children is a mystery. She is not named in any historical record. Historian Rosemary Horrox has suggested that her name was Katherine Haute, who received a grant from Richard in 1477 of 100 shillings per annum for life. She was the wife of James Haute, whose mother Joan Woodville was a cousin of the queen, Elizabeth Woodville. The reason for the annuity is unknown, but the fact that Richard’s daughter was given the same name, Katherine, has led to the suggestion that she could have been the mother of his child.

Another woman who was given an annuity in March 1474 was Alice Burgh. She received £20 per annum from Richard at Pontefract for ‘certain special causes and considerations’. It would be helpful if the reasons for these awards were not so obtuse. But as John of Gloucester was also sometimes named as John of Pountfreit (the Latin name for Pontefract) there could be a connection, but it seems more likely that she was a nurse as Alice later received another allowance for being a nurse to Edward of Warwick, the son of the Duke of Clarence. However it strikes me that £20 is the equivalent of 400 shillings, four times the amount given to Katherine Haute. It puts Katherine Haute’s annuity into context. Would Richard really have given her only a quarter of what he gave a nursemaid if she had been the mother of his children?

We may not know much about the mother or mothers of John and Katherine but we do know a little more about them from contemporary records.

  • John was knighted at York by his father on the 8th September 1483 as part of the celebrations to mark the investiture of Richard’s legitimate son, Edward, as Prince of Wales.
  • A patent dated 11 th March 1485 granted to ‘ our dear bastard son, John of Gloucester’ of the offices of Captain of Calais, and of the fortresses of Rysbank, Guisnes, Hammes, and Lieutenant of the Marches of Picardy for his life. The patent also describes John as having ‘liveliness of mind, activity of body, and inclination to all good customs (which) promise us, by the grace of God, great hope of his good service for the future’. It is in the initial notice of this appointment to the Captaincy of Calais that John is referred to as John de Pountfreit Bastard, giving us the clue to his birthplace.
  • A warrant to deliver clothing to ‘the Lord Bastard’ dated two days before on 9 th March 1485, almost certainly refers to John and not to Edward V as has sometimes been suggested.
  • We know that John survived his father because Henry VII made him a grant on 1 st March 1486: ‘to John de Gloucester, bastard, of an annual rent of £20 during the King’s pleasure, issuing out of the revenues of the lordship or manor of Kyngestonlacy, parcel of the duchy of Lancaster, in co. Dorset’. (Those of you who have been following my history of the de Lacy family will be delighted to note that John’s annuity came from the revenues of Kingston Lacy in Dorset which had once belonged to Henry de Lacy.)
  • George Buck claims that John was executed in 1499 around the time of the executions of Perkin Warbeck and Edward, Earl of Warwick. He says: ‘There was a base son of King Richard III made away, and secretly, having been kept long before in prison.” He quotes the Grafton Chronicle as his source, but I can’t find it so I don’t think it can be relied upon. And if John had been kept in prison would he have been granted an annuity?
  • Although John disappears from public records after 1499, it is possible that he lived on. He may even have had children, which is an interesting concept because it would mean that Richard III may have some direct descendants still living!

Katherine Plantagenet:

  • One thing we know for sure about Katherine is that she married William Herbert, Earl of Huntingdon. On 29 th February, 1484 he covenanted ‘to take to wife Dame Katherine Plantagenet, daughter to the King, before Michaelmas of that year’. This covenant does not really give us a clue as to her age as marriages were often arranged for children, but it’s probable that she was in her early to late teens. Richard agreed to bear the whole cost of the marriage and undertook to settle manors, lordships, lands and tenements to a value of 1000 marks per annum on them and the ‘heirs male of their two bodies’. This was a sizeable sum and it is thought that Richard wanted to reward William Herbert for his support.
  • Lands to the value of 600 marks were given to the couple on the day of their marriage. The remainder of the lands, worth 400 marks, would pass to them after the death of Lord Thomas Stanley. During his lifetime they were to have an annuity of 400 marks drawn from the revenues of the lordships of Newport, Brecknock and Hay. These manors were ones which had been confiscated from Margaret Beaufort and given to her husband, Lord Stanley.
  • The marriage took place before May 1484 when a grant of the proceeds of various manors in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset was made to ‘William Erle of Huntingdon and Kateryn his wif’. On 8 March 1485 a further grant was made to the Earl and Katherine his wife of an annuity of £152 10.10 from the issues of the King’s possessions in the counties of Carmarthen and Cardigan, and from those of the King’s lordship of Haverfordwest.
  • Nothing more is known about Katherine. There is no record of any children from the marriage and it is thought that she may have died young as at the coronation of Elizabeth of York, Earl Huntingdon is described as a widower.

In my novel By Loyalty Bound I suggest a new name for the mother of Richard’s illegitimate children: Anne Harrington. Although this is also based on speculation as the other names are, there is some circumstantial evidence that she may have been his mistress.

Firstly, she was in the right place at the right time. Anne’s grandfather and father, Thomas and John Harrington, were killed at the Battle of Wakefield, fighting alongside Richard’s father, the Duke of York, who also lost his life. Because Thomas died first and his son John died later (possibly the following day) from his injuries, the Harrington lands, which included Hornby Castle in Lancashire, passed from John to his two young daughters excluding John’s brothers James and Robert Harrington. The wardships of Anne and Elizabeth Harrington were given by the king, Edward IV, to Lord Thomas Stanley who then had the right to marry them to husbands of his choosing – men who would become owners of the Harrington lands. Considering this to be unfair, James Harrington took possession of his nieces and fortified Hornby Castle against the Stanleys who tried to take it by force by bringing a cannon named the Mile End from Bristol to blast the fortifications. But it seems that the Harringtons had the support of the king’s youngest brother. A warrant issued by Richard, Duke of Gloucester on the 26 th March 1470 was signed ‘at

Hornby Castle today is a newer building than the one Anne and Richard would have known.

Hornby’. This evidence places seventeen year old Richard and fifteen year old Anne together in a castle that was under siege. Is it possible that these two young people were attracted to one another?

Secondly, Richard’s illegitimate son was named John – which was the name of Anne’s father. His daughter was named Katherine. This name does occur in the Harrington family. It is also worth noting that in the church of St Wilfrid at Melling near Hornby, there was a chapel that was originally dedicated to St Katherine. But perhaps more telling, there was a chantry chapel in the medieval church of St George at Doncaster founded by John Harrington (Anne’s great uncle) and his wife Isabel where they were buried. It was dedicated to St Katherine and there were stained glass windows depicting members of the Harrington family and asking for prayers for their souls. Is it possible that Anne named her daughter after a favourite family saint?

Thirdly, John of Gloucester was probably born at Pontefract Castle, which is very close to the Yorkshire lands of the Harrington family at Brierley.

James and Robert Harrington were both in the service of the Duke of Gloucester and were with Richard at Bosworth. If Richard had been successful he was planning to re-open the debate about Hornby with a view to returning it to the Harringtons. Given the close connections between Richard and the Harrington family it is not impossible that Anne may also have had a close relationship with him.

There is no evidence, but neither is there evidence for the other names suggested. If it were true it would add an extra dimension to the enmity between Richard and Lord Thomas Stanley who was instrumental in his defeat and death at Bosworth – and may also account for why the name of Richard’s mistress has been lost to history.

Richard III & Henry VII, Stained Glass Window - History

By Nathen Amin

Merevale Abbey is situated in the heart of England and located just a few miles away from where the Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on a hot summer’s day in August 1485. It was recorded that Henry Tudor and part of his army encamped on the abbey grounds the night before the battle.

The small abbey was founded on the site in 1148 by Robert de Ferrers, 2 nd Earl of Derby. The early history of the Cistercian abbey was uneventful and it appears to have been only played a moderate role in the locality as opposed to some of the larger, wealthier abbeys of the period. It seems that the abbey rarely houses more than ten monks. Nonetheless Edward I stayed at the abbey in August 1275 whilst Edward III was recorded as being at Merevale in March 1322.

In August 1485 the abbey played a significant part in English history when the army of Henry Tudor approached the gatehouse. Henry had landed in Wales after a fourteen year exile abroad and had come with the intention to usurp the English crown from Richard III, who in turn had taken the crown from his young nephew Edward V. Henry’s army had travelled down Watling Street from Shrewsbury and with a requirement for refreshment and recuperation targeted Merevale’s Cistercian abbey as the ideal resting spot.

It is possible that it was at Merevale that Henry Tudor fatefully met with his stepfather Thomas Stanley. The Stanleys intervention the following day on the side of Tudor rather than Richard III is often seen as the decisive moment of the battle. Was a plan hatched by the men whilst they were in the abbey grounds? A later observer remarked ‘it was a goodly sight to see the meeting of them’ whilst Tudor’s biographer Polydore Vergil would later write that Tudor and Stanley took each other by the hand ‘and yielding mutual salutation’ entered into ‘counsel in what sort to arraigne battle with King Richard’.

The Parish Church, formely part of the Abbey

Later evidence hasbeen used to support the theory that Henry’s army stayed at Merevale Abbey. As king Henry issued a warrant reimbursing the abbey with 100 marks having ‘sustained great hurts, charges and losses, by occasion of the great repair and resort that our people coming towards our late field made, as well unto the house of Merevale aforesaid as in going over his ground, to the destruction of his corns and pastures’. Payments were also made to other settlements in the region, including £24 20s 4d to Atherstone, £20 to Fenny Drayton and £13 to Witherley amongst other townships.

Furthermore in September 1503 the king returned to Merevale whilst on progress and visited the abbey. He commemorated his great victory by sanctioning a new stained glass window depicting his favoured saint, Armel. The decision to use a saint that was very personal to him as opposed to a national symbol like George suggests Henry felt a deep connection with Merevale and wanted to convey his appreciation for the role the abbey played in his victory. The small figure of Armel can still be viewed in the South Aisle of the Gate Chapel, a rare depiction of this saint in England. Another place the saint can be viewed is in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey where a statue of Armel is located close to the magnificent tomb of the king. On 30 October 1511 Henry Tudor’s son and successor Henry VIII paid a visit to the abbey with his wife Queen Katherine of Aragon.

Artistic Impression of Merevale Abbey

Despite this close connection with the Tudor dynasty Merevale Abbey was nonetheless dissolved on 13 October 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII and gradually fell into ruin. The surrender of the house was signed by Abbot William Arnold who was compensated with a pension of £40. Sub-abbot John Ownsbe and four of the monks received £5 6s 8d with three other monks received £5 and one other monk receiving only 3s 4d. The monastery and the lands were put into the possession of the Lord Ferrers two days later.

Today the only remaining part of the Abbey still used for religious service is the former Gate Chapel, which is now utilised as the parish church. This church contains a sizable degree of stained glass of historical significance, including a Jesse window often considered to amongst the most important in Britain. The window has been dated to around 1330 and was presumably original positioned inside the abbey proper. It contains a tree linking ten kings and prophets. Elsewhere is the aforementioned stained glass window depicting St Armel, placed there by Henry Tudor after he had become king.

Abbey ruins (Part of the Abbey Farm B&B estate)

The remainder of the abbey ruins can be found on private land, namely grounds owned by the Abbey Farm Bed & Breakfast. The remains are thought to primarily be those connected to the north and south walls of the Refectory, including a full moulded doorway.

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The fabric of the Bacton altar cloth, which may have once been part of one of Queen Elizabeth I's court dresses, is going on display after extensive conservation work. Credit: © Historic Royal Palaces/ St Faith's Church

The Vyne's Henry VIII stained glass window restored

Eighteen 16th Century windows have been re-installed at The Vyne in Sherborne St John, owned by the National Trust.

They were restored to combat corrosion caused by condensation.

Henry VIII stayed at the house with his first and second wives Catherine and Anne Boleyn.

At the time, The Vyne was owned by William Sandys, who was his Lord Chamberlain.

It is hoped the glass, which is in the chapel of the house and took six months to restore, will now last another 500 years.

A scaffold viewing platform will remain in place until 16 March allowing visitors access to the windows.

"To stand up there, nose-to-nose with a young Henry VIII in stained glass, to see the level of detail and the glaziers' marks, is truly amazing," Kathryn Allen-Kinross, collections manager at The Vyne, said.

Originally, they are believed to have been created for the nearby Holy Ghost Chapel by Flemish glaziers.

However, it is thought they were removed and hidden during the English Civil War to protect them and later re-appeared in the chapel at The Vyne.

Henry VIII's sister Queen Margaret, who married James IV of Scotland when she was 13, is also depicted in the stained glass, along with cherubs and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Catholic Persecution under Elizabeth

The persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England intensified. Statues along each side of the Upper Church testify to the men and women of the district who stayed loyal to their ancient faith and who became martyrs.

Swithin Wells was an Elizabethan gentleman living in a house near St Etheldreda’s. He put his house at the disposal of priests and mass was regularly said there. On November 8th 1591, Father Edmund Gennings, a 24 year old priest, was saying mass when the house was raided by the arch priest hunter, Richard Topcliffe, and his men. Ten people hearing the mass were arrested and later sentenced to be hanged.

Father Gennings was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Swithin Wells was arrested on his return to the house and at his trial was found guilty of harbouring a priest and was hanged outside his own front door.

Margaret Ward learnt of a tormented priest in the notorious Bridewell Prison. Having befriended the jailer’s wife, she managed to smuggle a rope into the cell. The priest let himself down to the river below in the middle of the night to where a waterman John Roche had a boat waiting for him. The priest escaped but Margaret and the boatman were arrested. Margaret was strung up so that only the tips of her toes touched the ground when she was flogged. Then she and John Roche were hanged at Tyburn.

In 1620, the Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, a face so loved by the artist El Greco, moved into Ely Place. The Bishop’s Palace was his residence and mass was again allowed to be said in St Etheldreda’s, because an ambassadorial residence and grounds are considered part of the country they represent.

To hear mass was still punishable by death for English Catholics but despite the dangers they flocked to St Etheldreda’s. It was written at the time that more persons were drawn to mass at Gondomar’s little private chapel in Holborn than anywhere else.

The Yorkist Kings &ndash Royal Murderers?

In 1455 the Wars of the Roses broke out when Richard Duke of York challenged Henry's right to the throne. The subsequent story of the building of the Chapel and the Wars of the Roses are closely intertwined. For the first 11 years of unrest, building continued under Henry's patronage, even though the annual grant of £1000 from the king's family estates, the Duchy of Lancaster, became irregular and then ceased altogether. Then, in 1461, Henry was taken prisoner.

On hearing the news the workmen packed up and went home a half-cut stone, it is said, lay where they left it and was eventually used as a foundation stone for the neighbouring Gibb's building in 1724.

After 15 years of building, the foundations of the Chapel had been laid and the walls rose irregularly from east to west. A white magnesian limestone, from quarries at Tadcaster which belonged to the College, was used for much of this early phase and the upper limit of this, most clearly discernible in the buttresses (see photo below), marks approximately the level the building had reached by 1461.

Henry was murdered in the Tower of London on 21 May 1471. He had inherited two great kingdoms (England and France) from his father, and lost them both. He had, however, founded two of England's greatest colleges.

The new king, Edward IV, passed on to the College a little of the money that Henry had intended for his Chapel, but very little building was done in the 22 years between Henry's imprisonment and the death of Edward IV in 1483.

Work began again through the generosity of Richard III, who was later to be popularly depicted as a sinister hunchback. Richard gave instructions that 'the building should go on with all possible despatch' and to 'press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed'. By the end of his reign the first six bays of the Chapel had reached full height and the first five bays, roofed with oak and lead, were in use.

Europe’s greatest martyr: how Thomas Becket rose from the dead

On 29 December 1170, four of King Henry II’s knights murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket inside Canterbury Cathedral, scattering his blood and brains across the pavement. The killing, 850 years ago, marked the end of one of the most brilliant, divisive careers of England’s Middle Ages. Yet, in many ways, it was also a beginning.

News of Becket’s killing spread quickly and, in a matter of months, he had been transformed into one of the most famous martyrs in Christian history. Becket was canonised a mere three years after his death, while, within a decade, Canterbury monks had recorded 703 miracles related to the slain archbishop, and tens of thousands of visitors had flocked to the cathedral to venerate his remains. Supported by the circulation of new liturgies, miracle stories, sacred objects and holy relics, the cult of Becket soon dominated the landscape of Christendom, from Trondheim to Tarsus and Rochester to Reykjavik.

As we mark the anniversary of Becket’s killing, there’s never been a better time to explore his extraordinary life – and afterlife to ask ourselves how a merchant’s son born in Cheapside nine centuries ago can, today, still draw thousands of pilgrims to the site of his death and burial.

Listen: 850 years ago, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was brutally murdered in his cathedral. Dr Emily Guerry explains what happened next, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

Due in part to the sensational story of this death – and the swift process of his canonisation – historians today know more detail about Becket (from his dietary habits to his mood-swings) than perhaps any other English person who lived during the Middle Ages.

Thomas Becket was born in c1120, on the feast day of the Apostle Thomas (21 December), to a merchant named Gilbert Becket and his wife, Matilda. He studied in London and Paris, returned to England with a number of powerful social connections, and, by 1145, he had entered the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Becket quickly became one of the prelate’s favourites, and he often helped with important negotiations, including those concerning the royal family and their ongoing dynastic disputes.

Soon after the coronation of Henry II on 19 December 1154, the new king appointed the trustworthy and capable Becket as his royal chancellor. The two men became close friends, and although Becket was still technically Henry’s servant, the king showered him with gifts: Becket wore the finest clothes at court, he travelled with a dazzling entourage, and he had unobstructed access to the royal treasury.

For those who would go on to write biographies of Becket, the flashy outward appearance of the future saint was mere performance. This truly ascetic man, they suggested, was just biding his time, pretending in splendour.

After the death of Theobald, Henry championed the appointment of Becket to the vacant see (seat of authority) of Canterbury, and he was consecrated on 3 June 1162. In his new capacity as the highest-ranking prelate in the kingdom and a ‘vicar of Christ’, Becket now claimed a direct authority from God and the pope, totally independent and separate from the Plantagenet crown. From that day onwards, the relationship between the royal master and his former servant would be forever changed – and highly strained.

Within a year, the two most powerful men living in the British Isles entered into aggressive, public conflicts over ecclesiastical jurisdiction. To enforce obedience, Henry presided over the Council of Clarendon in January 1164 and demanded Becket’s loyalty, claiming that he (not the church) had the authority to punish criminous clerks. Becket refused to concede. Before long, Henry used his royal power to strip Becket of land and money, and Becket used his ecclesiastical power to excommunicate the king’s closest friends and supporters. Later that same year, as relations between archbishop and king deteriorated further, Becket left for France, where he spent six years in exile, living at Sens and Pontigny. He returned to Canterbury in December 1170.

Grim recollections

Five eyewitness accounts of Becket’s martyrdom survive, and each of these biographers (or rather hagiographers) paints a dramatic portrait of his gruesome death. The most influential version of events was written by an injured bystander named Edward Grim, a clerk from Cambridge who nearly lost an arm during the assault.

Just days before, four knights – Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret – had crossed the English Channel together, after staying with the king at Bur-le-Roi in Normandy for Christmas. They had overheard Henry II voicing his frustration with Becket, and it is from this explosion of royal resentment that the colloquial phrase (of spurious origin): “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” derives.

The knights evidently interpreted the king’s outcry as a directive and hastened to Canterbury, arriving at the cathedral on 29 December. They entered the precincts in the late afternoon, confronted Becket in his archiepiscopal palace, and tried (but failed) to arrest him without force. They then rushed out and returned with weapons.

In the meantime, the Canterbury monks encouraged Becket to take sanctuary inside of the cathedral (some of the sources report that he had to be dragged there) while Vespers was taking place the monks were singing and (as it was Christmas) the townspeople were present for prayer. It would have been around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a time of darkness in the Kentish winter, and they proceeded from the archiepiscopal palace along the monastic cloister into the north transept. It was here that Becket – dressed in black robes – took his final footsteps.

Moments later, the conspirators charged through the church door, now wearing armour and carrying swords. Grim reports that they cried out: “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?” They were now joined by a subdeacon named Hugh of Horsea, who would be remembered as ‘Mauclerk’ for the nasty part he played in the murder. The choir and people fell silent, and Becket proclaimed: “Here I am. Not a traitor to the king, but a priest,” emerging from a pillar situated between the altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Benedict.

The assailants now hurled threats at the archbishop and manhandled him, attempting to remove him from the church. Becket clung to the column. In the midst of this, the archbishop called FitzUrse a pimp, an insult that infuriated the knight, who drew his sword. Knowing that the hour of his death was at hand, Becket composed himself, bowing his head and praying.

FitzUrse struck at Becket’s head and sliced open the top of his skull, nearly chopping off Grim’s arm in the process. A second blow struck Becket’s head again, and a third blow caused him to fall to his elbows and knees, with his brain exposed. Grim relates that from this prostrate position, Becket prayed in a low voice: “For the name of Jesus Christ and the well-being of the church, I am prepared to embrace death.” The fourth blow, dealt by Le Bret, severed his skullcap and caused the tip of this knight’s sword to shatter.

Grim describes this horror using memorable, allegorical language: “The crown… was separated from the head, so that the blood white from the brain, and the brain equally red from the blood, brightened the floor with the colours of the lily and the rose, the virgin and mother, and the life and death of the confessor and martyr.”

The final strike came not from a knight but the clerk, Hugh, who “put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and – horrible to say – scattered the brains with blood over the pavement”. Pleased with his work, Hugh exclaimed: “Let’s be off, knights. This man will not get up again!”, and they left the cathedral. Not even in Game of Thrones could such violence and malice co-mingle in so sacred a context.

Profane crime scene

The king’s men had turned Canterbury Cathedral, founded by Saint Augustine in the sixth century, into a profane crime scene – and the monks and people of Canterbury stood together in absolute shock. The townsfolk used their clothes as rags to mop up the blood others dipped their hands in it, collected it in their own vessels for safekeeping, and rubbed it around their eyes.

These actions might strike the modern-day person as odd but, in the Middle Ages, this ritualistic behaviour signified something extremely important: the archbishop of Canterbury had just transformed into a martyr, and his blood could serve as a powerful and miracle-working relic.

According to William FitzStephen, a friend of Becket’s, a miracle took place that very night when a certain man in Canterbury placed a cloth soaked in Becket’s blood in water, and then gave this to his ailing wife. She drank the mixture and was cured. This would be the first of many miracles related to the cult of Becket. It initiated a special, site-specific ritual practice of drinking ‘The water of Saint Thomas’, a holy combination of flecks of Becket’s blood mixed with water, prepared by Canterbury monks, and offered – often in ampullae – to Canterbury pilgrims as a curative drink.

Meanwhile, the terrified monks hurried to bury Becket before the knights could subject his body to further desecration. They turned him over and tried to fit his severed cranium back on his head. One eyewitness named Benedict of Peterborough remarked that the archbishop’s face looked peaceful and perfect – except for a single line of blood that stretched diagonally across his left cheek to his right temple. In a number of miracles, in which Becket would visit people in their dreams, the saint appeared with this same line across his face it became an uncanny signature of his saintly identity.

When Henry II heard the news of the assassination, he was afraid. Contemporary historians relate that the king had no intention of this murder, nor any idea that it would take place. However, Henry admitted to strongly disliking the archbishop, so he called himself a sinner and asked for forgiveness.

On 21 May 1172, Henry admitted – swearing upon a book of the Gospels – that he was to blame for inadvertently causing the death of Becket. Part of his penance would include donations in Becket’s name, and the restoration of property and positions to his friends and family. On 12 July 1174, Henry agreed to an act of almost unparalleled royal humiliation to express his shame. He removed his crown and walked barefoot in humble clothes from St Dunstan’s Church through the West Gate and through the streets of the city of Canterbury, leading his own penitential parade to the cathedral. He then spent that night fasting by the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, trembling and sobbing.

Gothic masterpiece

On 5 September 1174 – less than four years after Becket’s death – tragedy once more struck Canterbury Cathedral, when a fire ripped through its east end. Far from diminishing the building’s status, however, this event would elevate it to the status of one of Europe’s most sacred sites – and help explain why the cult of Becket proved so alluring to so many people for so many years.

Over the 14 years following the fire – first under the stewardship of the French architect William of Sens, and then (after William fell 50 feet from scaffolding), directed by a monk named William the Englishman – Canter-bury was transformed into a Gothic masterpiece. The walls were vaulted with pointed arches and flooded with colourful glass the experience of the space was enhanced by maximising height and light and the building’s most sacred site, the Trinity Chapel, was overhauled because, as Gervase of Canterbury observed, “a chapel of Saint Thomas was to be built there”. William the Englishman also directed the construction of the Corona chapel to house the top of Becket’s skull, which he completed in 1184.

With the new Gothic fabric in place, the stone walls would be filled with the vivid stories of Becket’s miracles, illustrated in the c1180–1220s stained glass surrounding the Trinity Chapel. If the ambulatory around the shrine was a highway for the traffic of pilgrims, then the windows were the billboards, advertising Becket’s miracle-working power.

This traffic came to a crashing halt in 1538, when Henry VIII ordered – as part of the dissolution of the monasteries – the destruction of Becket’s relics and shrine. Most historians agree that Becket’s bones were burned and the ashes scattered, though some claim that they were shot out of a cannon, or thrown into the river Stour. Others maintain, with limited evidence, that they could have survived in some secret place (and assume that a skeleton unearthed in 1888 in the crypt might actually be that of the saint).

A glittering ruby once affixed to the shrine – thought to be a gift of King Louis VII of France, which was admired by countless pilgrims – is said to have been converted into a ring by Henry VIII, which some scholars believe he wore on his thumb.

Resurrected and retold

But not even a figure as formidable as that of Henry VIII could totally extinguish interest in Becket. After a protracted silence – and with a little help from playwrights like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and actors such as Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton – the archbishop’s story has been resurrected and retold. From the enduring appeal of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Becket’s martyrdom continues to captivate the public imagination today.

This was evidenced in 2016, when what was purported to be a fragment of Becket’s elbow was ‘returned’ to the cathedral for a brief visit by its guardians in Esztergom, Hungary in a ceremonial procession. In the near future, a fragment of a vestment he once wore, now venerated in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, will return to Canterbury, on loan for an exhibition.

Even though Becket’s body has been absent from Canterbury Cathedral for nearly five centuries, his presence can still be seen and felt today. Eagle-eyed visitors can spot the former outline of the Trinity Chapel shrine and in the visible indent of the paving stones, left behind by the imprint of countless curved knees pressed – again and again – into the marble. Suspended from the central vault of the crypt, an evocative sculpture by Antony Gormley (pictured below), installed in 2011, hovers above the former location of Becket’s body.

But perhaps the most meaningful, physical legacy of Becket at Canterbury is the Gothic cathedral itself, erected to enable the archbishop to become a major martyr, to explicate his power in art and architecture and facilitate the experience of devotion for pilgrims. If Becket’s body – and severed ‘crown’ – once served as the battery for an encounter with the holy, then the Gothic design of the cathedral is a machine charged with meaning.

Just look closely whenever you next visit Canterbury and you’ll see some trace of the saint whose blood and brains once covered the floor, and whose spirit and story gave solace to so many people.

Emily Guerry is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Kent. She is a co-organiser of the conference Thomas Becket: Life, Death and Legacy, due to be held online in April 2021

A major exhibition, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, is scheduled to run at the British Museum in 2021

You can view reconstructions of Becket’s shrines on the web resource The Becket Story

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  1. Stanfeld

    I started reading with a skeptical attitude, but in the end I was delighted - the author is simply magnificent!

  2. Bartholomew

    I don't realize

  3. Destrey

    I heard something like that, but not in such detail, but where did you get the material from?

  4. Kashicage

    So it is not far from infinity :)

  5. Galatyn

    Yes abstract thinking

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