This is the final object of those I photographed in the British Museum and it’s my favourite. It’s a tiny reliquary, about 6¼” tall, 6″ wide and 2¾” deep. I like it for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s just beautiful. Despite its age the colours shine and sparkle. Secondly, because it’s enamelware from Limoges, which I don’t come across very often. Thirdly, because it’s about Thomas Becket, who was an important English saint in the Middle Ages.
I first became aware of the enamelware produced in Limoges when I was doing research for my novel Beloved Besieged, part of which is set in the town. My Pinterest board for the novel is full of pictures of enamelled objects made there and it’s beautiful stuff.
Enamel is a type of glass fused onto metal. The metal was usually copper, but it could be silver or gold. The metal between the pieces of enamel was gilded. This type of object was produced mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. About forty similar caskets made to contain relics of Thomas Becket still survive.
Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on 29th December 1170 in his own cathedral by four knights who had been sent, or believed they had been sent, by Henry II to strike him down. Having risen from fairly humble beginnings to become Chancellor, Becket was made archbishop of Canterbury. Since it was Henry II who had raised Becket to prominence, he naturally assumed Becket would side with him in the constant struggle between medieval kings and the pope about the authority each had over the king’s subjects.
The archbishop did not support the king and was exiled. They were reconciled and the trouble began again. Hearing the king utter the infamous words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (possibly in medieval French, Norman French or even Latin, but definitely not English) the four knights rushed off to Canterbury and did their king’s bidding.
Becket was canonised in 1173. Henry II made a very public penance, and he and his descendants were very energetic in promoting the murdered archbishop as a saint. His relics were sent to churches and monasteries all over Europe in reliquaries like this one. The shrine at Canterbury drew pilgrims from many countries, becoming the fourth most visited shrine in the Middle Ages, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.
Pilgrims didn’t just visit the shrine, they also bought ‘Canterbury water’. It was holy water mixed with a drop of Becket’s blood and was said to cure many illnesses and disabilities. Sold in ampoules it could be taken back home if the sick person was too ill to make the pilgrimage on their own behalf. The monks also sold badges to pilgrims as reminders (souvenirs) of their pilgrimage.
Becket was an important saint for English pilgrims, as demonstrated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were on their way to Becket’s shrine. Many pilgrimages ended at Canterbury, but others continued on to Dover, with pilgrims crossing the English Channel in the next stage of their journey to Rome, Compostela or Jerusalem. It was not always safe enough to travel further afield, though, and many had to be satisfied with Canterbury.
The saint’s murder was a popular motif in medieval art and the British Museum also has an alabaster panel depicting it. The image on the reliquary is of two of the knights attacking Becket in front of the altar. It dates from the early thirteenth century, about 40 years after the event. At this time Limoges was part of the duchy of Aquitaine, whose dukes were the Plantagenets, which explains why so many Becket reliquaries were made there.
Henry II’s descendants took their devotion to St Thomas seriously. They were always stopping off at Canterbury to visit his shrine. Edward III once walked from London to Canterbury as a pilgrim. In 1343 he gave a golden ship to the shrine after he had been saved from a storm. Edward of Woodstock, his eldest son, is interred there.
All my photograph does really well is show you how tiny the reliquary is. Here’s a better photograph of its front.
Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson
The Perfect King – Ian Mortimer