Trinity Lends to Thomas Becket Exhibition

Trinity College has loaned three manuscripts to the exhibition ‘Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint’ which opens at the British Museum on 20 May 2021. 

Detail from B.5.5, f.130v of an archbishop (possibly Becket).

Thomas Becket was murdered on 29 December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. From relatively humble beginnings he had risen to serve as Royal Chancellor and then as Archbishop of Canterbury. Initially an ally of Henry II, his dispute with the King over the power of the Church led to him spending several years in exile in France, and ultimately to his murder by four knights allied to the Crown.

Becket was canonised within a few years and the site of the martyrdom at Canterbury Cathedral became a major centre of pilgrimage for the next 350 years until the shine was destroyed in the 1530s.

Trinity owns a large number of manuscripts from the Benedictine Cathedral Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, which were presented to the College by two of its Masters in the Elizabethan period, Thomas Nevile and John Whitgift (who also served respectively as Dean and Archbishop of Canterbury). Among these are several books which were prepared for Becket himself during his years in exile and then assimilated into the Cathedral library after his death.

Thomas Becket spent several years in France. As a teenager he travelled from his native London to study in Paris for about three years. He was taught the liberal arts, which provided him with an ideal grounding for a career in administration. He would also have come under the influence of some of the greatest theologians of the day, whose systematic exegesis of Scripture allowed for a thorough and newly rational understanding of all the books of the Bible. On his return to London a few years later he was therefore well prepared both for a position in the royal court and for high office in the Church.

Thomas soon came to work as a clerk in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. In this position he gained a direct insight into high-level negotiations at court, as well as a taste for luxury. Theobald supported his further development by sending him to Bologna to study law, as well as to Auxerre and to the papal curia in Rome. By 1154 he had become Archdeacon of Canterbury, and shortly afterwards he was additionally appointed Chancellor by the new King Henry II.  

Detail of ornamented letter L in blue, red, gold, green and white
Detail from B.5.5, f.3v

Trinity College Manuscript B.5.5 is a glossed book of the Gospels which was commissioned by Becket in the final phase of his earthly life. When Theobald died in 1161, the king was keen that Thomas should succeed him while remaining his Chancellor. Thomas was at first reluctant to take the position, but soon after being enthroned he went against the king’s wishes and relinquished his court position. This conspicuous betrayal led to a prolonged and heated debate over the relative authority of church and crown. On 2 November 1164 he fled across the Channel in fear of his life, and would spend the next six years in exile in France. 

Thomas spent the first 18 months of his exile in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny, outside Sens, where he was joined by a number of his clerks. It has been assumed that this manuscript was produced in Pontigny, though more recent studies have preferred to associate it with Paris, or with the Abbey of St Colombe at Sens, where Thomas and his household moved in late 1166. Although he did not write his name in this book, we can identify the scribe as Roger of Canterbury, who included his name in a colophon to a glossed book of the Twelve Minor Prophets also prepared for Becket and now in Trinity (MS B.3.11). A third manuscript prepared by Roger of Canterbury at the same time is a Glossed Pentateuch now in the Bodleian Library (MS Auct. E. inf. 7), and three other glossed manuscripts copied for Becket and now at Trinity are MSS B.3.12, B.3.30 and B.4.30.

B.3.11, f. 143r. Glossed Minor Prophets, with colophon naming Rogerus Cantuariensis.

Although Roger of Canterbury’s careful planning of the Gospels B.5.5 is exemplary in every respect, the manuscript is raised to the heights of luxury to which Becket had become accustomed by the extravagant illumination which was added by some of the most accomplished French artists of the day. Each of the four Gospels, together with general prologue, is afforded an elaborate initial letter stretching the full length of the page and coloured in blue, orange, red, pink, green and gold, with foliate spirals combining with dragons, lions, other hybrid beasts and men dressed as warriors, wrestlers and musicians. 

Single folio with ornamented initial I containing 5 roundel images
B.5.5, f.130v

The initial I which opens the Gospel of St John (In principio erat verbum: In the beginning was the Word) seems to include a portrait of Thomas himself. The initial includes 5 roundels with portraits, the central image being Christ in a mandorla holding a book. The upper two roundels show St Paul and St Peter, and the bottom picture is of a youth holding a book, presumably either St John with his Gospel or perhaps the scribe or artist himself. Between this youth and Christ is a portrait of an archbishop, clearly identifiable by his bishop’s mitre and crozier and his archiepiscopal pallium, the Y-shaped vestment worn over his blue chasuble. All of these figures are unusually lifelike, with heavy modelling to the faces in brown and grey highlighted in white pigment. Is it too speculative to assume that this could be a portrait of Archbishop Thomas Becket, painted from life by an artist who was personally acquainted with him during his period of exile?

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint runs from 20 May to 22 August 2021 at the British Museum.