‘Blessed Martyr Thomas, restore my son to me’: Children and Families in the Miracles of St Thomas Becket

Lydia McCutcheon
Opening page of the miracle collection of Benedict of Peterborough from Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.14.37, f. 1r. Photo: author

On the 7 July 1220 the body of Archbishop Thomas Becket was translated in Canterbury Cathedral from the depths of the crypt into the newly constructed Trinity Chapel. The chapel’s glazing programme created an illuminated, technicolour display of the miraculous accounts of Saint Thomas’ power and presence from beyond the grave. The inspiration for these windows is believed to be the written collections of the Christ Church monks, who recorded testimonials of Canterbury pilgrims visiting the tomb. The miracle windows provide indispensable evidence of the nature of the cult of St Thomas and medieval pilgrimage, but also of the lives of ordinary men, women and children. The representation of children and families within the windows, which were on prominent display, encouraged medieval pilgrims to see themselves as candidates for the aid of the martyr.

Thomas Becket martyrdom

On the 29 December 1170, Becket was violently murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. His death followed a near decade-long dispute with Henry II over ecclesiastical rights, following his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. Eyewitnesses, including a cathedral monk, wrote that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, people were already mopping up his blood from the church floor as holy relics (Benedict of Peterborough, Passio S. Thomae Cantuariensis). In the months following Becket’s death, a number of the laity testified to the healing power of St Thomas through intercession and experimentation with this collected blood at home. Thomas Becket was canonised in 1173, less than three years after his death.

Pilgrimage & miracle collecting

From Easter 1171, local and international pilgrims came in their droves to visit the site of his death, pray at his tomb in the crypt, and make a votive offering. They could also obtain the ‘water of St Thomas’, the martyr’s heavily diluted blood, to drink or wash with as a treatment for a wide variety of ailments and injuries. Two monks assumed the responsibility of recording the testimonials of pilgrims visiting his tomb: Benedict of Peterborough, who recorded between 1171 and 1173, and William of Canterbury, from mid-1172 into the late 1170s. Their collections are colourful accounts of St Thomas’ intervention in the lives of the faithful which testify to the posthumous power of the saint.

Miracle windows

The miracle windows consist of a series of twelve stained-glass windows in the ambulatory of the Early Gothic Trinity Chapel, eight of which still contain medieval glass. Ten windows depict miracles from one or both of the textual collections, in sequences of between two and nine panels; the other two once showed Becket’s life and martyrdom. The programme was glazed in the reconstruction of the East end of the cathedral, following a devastating fire in September 1174. Built to house the shrine of the martyr, the Trinity Chapel became the centre of pilgrims’ devotion in the cathedral, following the translation of St Thomas’ body from the crypt in July 1220.

Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel, nII, nIII, nIV. Photo: author

Children & families

There are at least eleven examples of stained-glass sequences where familial relationships play a significant role in the narrative — representing around twenty percent of the figured panels in the original scheme. These stories show the variety of Canterbury pilgrims in the first decade of Becket’s cult. The involvement of family and household members as well as the ill, injured and disabled lends these stories an emotional resonance and tenderness. Children are easily distinguished from adults in the glass by their small statureand, in the case of boys, their beardless faces (Image 3). The miracle collections and windows portray parent- child relationships as loving and compassionate, with parents often interceding with the saint on behalf of their children. For example, the FitzIsulfs obtain the water of St Thomas to cure their young son (Image 4), and Juliana of Rochester’s father leads her to the shrine to restore her sight.

Above: The FitzEisulfs, having obtained the water of St Thomas from passing pilgrims, give it to their son to drink in an attempt to heal him. Photo: author
Left: A father embraces his young son. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel, sVI 14. Photo: author

In the examples of adult affliction, the practical concerns of being unable to work and the burden of their care may play a more central role. When the family lacks compassion, the circumstances of the individual’s suffering becomes ever more pitiful to the viewer. In such cases, the patient is even more at the mercy of the saint, as in the story of Richard Sunieve, who was ostracised after contracting leprosy. Only after being cured at Canterbury is he reunited with his household.

Where children are in harm’s way, families abandon their kin, and households drive away those with infectious diseases, hope is found in the miraculous workings of St Thomas. The cathedral windows provided visual testimonies of the saints’ willingness to perform miracles for the benefit of men, women, children. In this way, Canterbury pilgrims were encouraged to see themselves and their household as eligible for the miraculous aid of the martyr.

Note: Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.14.37 and window nIII from the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral are currently on display in the British Museum as part of the Thomas Becket exhibition (Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, 20 May 2021 – 22 Aug 2021).

Lydia McCutcheon recently completed an MSt in Medieval Studies at the University of Oxford. Her master’s dissertation explored the representation of families in the miracle windows of Canterbury Cathedral and the ‘Miracles for St Thomas Becket’. She is currently part of the editorial team of the Medieval Art Research website, which promotes events and publications in the field of medieval history of art. Lydia will begin an MA in Heritage Management at Queen Mary University of London and Historic Royal Palaces in September 2021. Follow on Twitter @McCutcheonLydia.

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