There’s the Rub: Thomas Becket in Medieval Manuscripts

There’s the Rub: Thomas Becket in Medieval Manuscripts

By Sian Witherden, Resource Description Librarian

Gold leaf, intricate borders, elaborate illuminations—St John’s College MS 82 has it all. This devotional book, produced c.1475, is one of the most visually impressive medieval manuscripts in the library’s collection. Even after five centuries, many of the pages look as if they have barely been touched:

Left to right: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 82, fol. 30r; Oxford, St John’s College, MS 82, fol. 13v; Oxford, St John’s College, MS 82, fol. 26r

The same cannot be said, however, for one of the suffrages early in the book. A suffrage is a short prayer to a particular saint—in this case, Thomas Becket. The text has been almost entirely erased, and part of the historiated initial has been rubbed out too. (If you aren’t sure what historiated initials are, check out our previous blog post on decorative features in medieval manuscripts).

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 82, fol. 22r

What happened here? Why was this page defaced? Did other manuscripts meet the same fate?

To answer these questions, we need to have a closer look at the saint whose suffrage was targeted. Thomas Becket, also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury and Thomas à Becket, was born in London c.1120. Becket was a close friend and ally of King Henry II, and in 1162 the monarch appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. However, their friendship soon came under immense strain, with Henry II and Becket clashing over the relationship between Church and Crown. Becket spent six years in exile in France, but the situation was still fractious when he returned to England in 1170. On the 29th of December that year, four of the King’s knights beheaded Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

Stories soon emerged of miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, and he was declared a saint just three years after his death. Relics of St Thomas became highly desirable, and were often contained in elaborate reliquary caskets. One such reliquary, now in the Ashmolean Museum, can be seen below (c.1200). Becket’s murder features prominently in the design; the action is frozen at the precise moment when one of the knights strikes the archbishop.

AN2008.36 Reliquary casket of Saint Thomas Becket
Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Over time, pilgrims flocked to Canterbury Cathedral in huge numbers. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late fourteenth century, famously imagines a group of pilgrims telling stories on their way to Becket’s shrine. St John’s College Library is fortunate to have a copy of the Canterbury Tales printed by William Caxton in 1483. It contains hand-coloured illustrations of Chaucer’s pilgrims, including this image of the Knight on horseback en route to Canterbury.

Oxford, St John’s College, b.b.21, fol. 122v

Pilgrims could take away various souvenirs from Canterbury Cathedral including the ‘Water of St Thomas’. This liquid—supposedly a diluted form of Becket’s blood—was believed to cure various ailments when applied to the skin or even consumed. The miracle windows in Canterbury Cathedral emphasize the healing power of the saint’s water. Dating from the early thirteenth century, the panel below depicts a leper named Ralph bathing himself in the Water of St Thomas in a successful bid to cleanse himself of the disease.  

Image reproduced courtesy of the Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

At the time of writing, it is possible to see this panel (and others) at a special exhibition in the British Museum to mark the 850th anniversary of Becket’s death. Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint is open to the public until the 22nd of August 2021. This exhibition offers a unique and exciting opportunity to see a Miracle Window from Canterbury Cathedral up close.

When the Miracle Windows in Canterbury Cathedral were created, Becket’s popularity was booming. However, Becket’s cult would later come under attack during the Reformation, a religious reform movement that swept across Europe in the sixteenth century.

In 1533, King Henry VIII broke away from Rome, separating the Church of England from Papal authority. Under the Reformed faith, the cult of saints became a key source of controversy. Reformers argued that worshipping saints (especially via images and relics) was idolatrous and superstitious. Thomas Cranmer, a key figure in the English Reformation, had serious doubts about the authenticity and healing powers of the famous ‘Water of St Thomas’. Becket was additionally problematic because he had refused to acknowledge royal supremacy over the Church. The popularity of such a rebellious archbishop did not complement Henry VIII’s new title of ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’.  

In 1538, Becket’s shrine was dismantled. In the same year, a royal proclamation declared that Thomas Becket was no longer to be called a saint, that images of Becket should be taken down, and that his name should be ‘razed and put out of all the books’ (as quoted in de Beer and Speakman 2021, p. 224).

With this context in mind, we can have a closer look at the defaced suffrage to Thomas Becket in St John’s College MS 82:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 82, fol. 22r

The historiated initial evidently once depicted Becket’s beheading, not unlike the Ashmolean reliquary casket we saw above. Now, however, the knights’ weapons hover over a spectral gap. The surrounding text has been almost entirely erased. Particular attention has been given to obscuring the rubrication (i.e. the heading in red), which would have named Thomas Becket.

This manuscript was produced in Flanders c.1475 but it was intended for an English audience. It seems that an English reader from the sixteenth century followed the Royal Proclamation of 1538 wholeheartedly, erasing the text of Thomas Becket’s suffrage and obliterating the saint’s body from the accompanying image.

The erasure of Thomas Becket from MS 82 was hardly an isolated incident. Several books on display at the aforementioned British Museum exhibition suffered a similar fate, and there are further examples of the phenomenon in St John’s College Library:

Left: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 187, fol. 116r. Top right: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 293, fol. 7v.
Bottom right: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 208, fol. 6v

All three of these manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century. The image on the left is another Suffrage to Saint Thomas Becket. Interestingly, though, only Thomas’s name has been erased here, meaning that the rest of the prayer is still legible.

The remaining two examples are from calendars at the fronts of devotional manuscripts produced in England. Both calendars once recorded Thomas Becket’s Saint’s day on December 29th, i.e. the day of his murder. In both cases, however, the Saint’s day has been erased. Fortunately for us, the vandal of MS 293 has left the gold-leaf initial intact.

An even more interesting erasure occurs in St John’s College MS 131, a Psalter and Hours of the Virgin produced c.1475. Thomas Becket’s name was evidently erased from the calendar at some point after the royal proclamation of 1538, but a later hand has reinstated the missing saint in black ink.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 131, fol. 6v

Who did this? It is impossible to say with certainty, but it seems highly likely that this intriguing reversal is associated with the Weston family, who owned the manuscript in the late sixteenth century. We know that the Westons paid close attention to the calendar in this book, as they used it to record important dates such as the births and deaths of family members. For example, the note in the margin below indicates that William Weston died on the 21st of November 1596:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 131, fol. 6r

More importantly still, the Westons were recusants—i.e. they refused to attend Reformed church services. William Weston (d.1596) was the son-in-law of John Story (d.1571), a Catholic martyr. William’s son Edward Weston (d.1635) was a Catholic priest and writer. It is easy to see why a member of the Weston family could have wanted to reverse the Reformation erasure of Saint Thomas Becket in this book.  

The calendar in MS 131 was not a static text. Most obviously, it evolved and expanded over time to encompass various births, deaths, marriages, and other significant events relating to the Weston family. Moreover, this calendar was a site of religious negotiation converging around the name Thomas Becket.

To a modern observer, the erasure of Thomas Becket’s name and image from highly ornate medieval manuscripts can seem perplexing or even shocking. However, by setting this phenomenon in context, we can learn much about the religious climate in which the books were read and revised. To put this another way, erasures can in fact be a crucial part of a manuscript’s history. Somewhat paradoxically, text that is missing can have a lot to say.

Of course, we are not condoning the vandalism of books! It is quite ironic that what we forbid our students from doing today is often what we find most interesting in books from the past…

FURTHER READING:

de Beer, Lloyd, and Naomi Speakman, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint (London: British Museum, 2021).

Benson, Larry D., and F. N. Robinson (eds.) The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c.14001580, 2nd edn.(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

Hanna, Ralph. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Jordan, Alyce, A. ‘The “Water of Thomas Becket”: Water as Medium, Metaphor, and Relic’, in Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott (eds.), The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing, and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 479–500.

Koopmans, Rachel, ‘ “Water mixed with the blood of Thomas”: Contact Relic Manufacture Pictured in Canterbury Cathedral’s Stained Glass’, Journal of Medieval History 42:5 (2016): 535–58.

Lock, Julian, ‘John Story (1503/4?–1571)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (this entry published online and in print in 2004).

Marshall, Peter, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Milward, Peter, ‘Edward Weston (1565?–1635)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (this entry published online and in print in 2004).

ONLINE RESOURCES:

‘Erasing Becket’ (British Library Blog; 9 September 2011), at
https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/09/erasing-becket.html  

‘Thomas Becket and the Materiality of an Absence’ (Bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance Scholar; 30 April 2021), at
https://bonaelitterae.wordpress.com/2021/04/30/thomas-becket-and-the-materiality-of-an-absence/amp/?__twitter_impression= true

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