Mystery of incorrect window discovered after centuries, as British Museum promises to tell a real-life tale as dramatic as Game of Thrones, writes Nick Benson.
It’s not surprising that pilgrims have travelled to Canterbury Cathedral for hundreds of years just to stand in awe of the magnificent medieval stained-glass windows depicting the miracles of Thomas Becket.
However, what may be surprising is if anyone has been able to decipher the narrative of the stories in one particular window, as experts recently discovered some its panels have been in the wrong order for centuries, causing havoc to the narrative structure.
As far as mistakes go, this might be considered a pretty major one. However, experts are now looking to put things right, so that the panels of the window, which was made shortly after the saint’s death, are returned to their original order.
The blunder was discovered amid preparations for a British Museum exhibition on Becket, which promises to tell visitors “a real-life tale as dramatic as Game of Thrones”.
The exhibition’s centrepiece will be the aforementioned medieval stained-glass window, on loan from Canterbury Cathedral.
Experts recently analysed the glass under a microscope and believe the panels were mixed up as they were hastily reassembled following restoration work in the 1660s.
The panels of this window are now being reassembled in the correct order, which will enable visitors to follow the stories, involving the curing of a man known as Ralph the Leper and the tale of Eilward of Westoning, who was castrated and blinded as punishment for theft. However, when Eilward drinks Becket’s diluted blood he regains his organs and sight.
The latter story is believed to be the earliest known depiction of castration in medieval art.
The window is one of the seven surviving famed Miracle Windows, from the 12 created in the early 1200s to surround Becket’s now-lost shrine in Canterbury Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel. The shrine was destroyed in the 16th Century, under the orders of King Henry VIII.
A masterclass in medieval artistry, the window coming to the British Museum is the fifth in the 12-part series and measures over six meters in height.
The forthcoming exhibition marks the first time one of these windows has been lent and the first time the glass has left the cathedral since the windows’ creation 800 years ago. It will also be the very first time the window can be seen up-close at eye-level.
Leonie Seliger, director of Stained Glass Conservation at Canterbury Cathedral, described the Miracle Windows as “medieval versions of graphic novels illustrating the experiences of ordinary people”.
“They greeted the pilgrims at the culmination of their journey to Becket’s shrine with images that would be reassuring and uplifting,” she explained. “The window that will be shown at the British Museum is only one of seven that remain, and they are one of Canterbury Cathedral’s greatest treasures.”
In one of the most shocking chapters of medieval history, Becket, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his death on 29th December 1170, was brutally murdered inside Canterbury Cathedral by four knights loyal to his friend-turned-foe King Henry II.
The gruesome death sent shockwaves across Europe and is still considered one of the most scandalous acts of sacrilege in English history.
Within days, miracles were being attributed to Becket – many connected to the healing power of his spilt blood – and little more than two years after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III, on 21st February 1173.
His martyrdom had a profound impact on the power dynamics between Church and State for hundreds of years, culminating in King Henry VIII ordering the obliteration of Becket’s legacy in 1538, calling him a traitor to the crown.
However, Henry failed in his quest, as Becket’s legacy continues through to this day, with many more members of the British public soon to hear of his miracles thanks to the UK’s first major exhibition on his life, death and legacy, which is opening at the British Museum this spring.
Originally due to open in October 2020 but delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the exhibition, titled Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, marks 850 years since Becket’s murder and charts over 500 years of history, from his remarkable rise from ordinary beginnings to one of the most powerful figures in England, through to his enduring but divisive legacy in the centuries after his death.
The story will be told through an array of over 100 stunning objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.
As well as the inclusion of the Miracle Window, which will mark the first time in over 350 years that visitors will be able to view the panels as they were meant to be seen, Becket’s story will also be brought to life through an array of objects including precious reliquaries, jewellery, pilgrims’ badges and sculpture from the British Museum collection.
Some spectacular loans, which make up almost half of the objects on display, include objects which may have even been owned by Becket himself, such as manuscripts from Trinity College and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge that he is thought to have commissioned or was given.
There will also be a single surviving wax impression made from Becket’s personal seal matrix – lent by the National Archives – providing a tantalising glimpse of his personality. An illustrated manuscript containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket, from the British Library, will also show visitors one of the earliest known representations of the murder.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, described Becket as “one of Europe’s most enduring and controversial figures even today”, but noted that his story has never been told on this scale in a UK exhibition before.
He pointed out that the British Museum holds some of the world’s greatest medieval objects and is “uniquely placed to tell this shocking chapter in history”. He also expressed his thanks to those who are contributing loans, including Canterbury Cathedral for its loan of the Miracle Window.
Lloyd de Beer, co-curator of Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint, pointed out that Becket’s story is as gripping and exciting as some of today’s most popular TV series.
“The violent death of Thomas Becket is the ultimate true crime story,” he said. “It’s a real-life tale as dramatic as Game of Thrones and we’re going to lead visitors through every twist and turn of this remarkable plot. There’s drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution and, ultimately, a brutal murder that shocked Europe.”
Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint runs from 22nd April to 22nd August 2021 in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum.
For more information see: www.britishmuseum.org/becket
Picture: The stained glass of the southern side of Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England. These windows are known as the ‘miracle windows’ and depict the healing miracles that are said to have taken place at the tomb of St Thomas Becket in the Crypt between 1170 and 1220. (David Iliff).