The Becket Window, Christ Church, Oxford: A New Interpretation
The Becket Window is regarded as the jewel of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and in a year when the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s death is being commemorated, the Cathedral is also marking the 700th anniversary of the making of the window. The window takes its name from the depiction of Becket in a central tracery panel, an extremely rare survival of the wholesale destruction of Becket images that took place at the Reformation. I propose to show, however, that this central Becket panel, along with other important tracery panels, may not in fact be in its original position. Furthermore, I hope to demonstrate that, by a careful examination of the design of the window, it is possible to determine where these panels might originally have been positioned. It should be stressed from the outset that this is purely an initial hypothesis, but I hope it might encourage a reappraisal of this very important medieval window.
The Becket Window (s7) (Fig. 1), is situated in the east wall of the Lucy Chapel, close to the South Transept. It is the Cathedral’s oldest stained-glass window (the style of its reticulated tracery dates it to around 1320),1 and the glass is of the highest quality, bearing comparison with any glass in the country of that date. It is also highly unusual in that, contrary to all rules of architecture, the tracery starts at a level below the springing point of the arch.
However, what makes this window truly remarkable is that it contains, in a central tracery panel (B2), an extremely rare image depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the most famous, and controversial, Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket had been murdered in his own Cathedral in 1170 by four knights of Henry II, having clashed with Henry over control of the Church. His death led to him becoming one of the most popular saints of medieval England, and his shrine one of the most important in Europe.2
At the Reformation in the 1530s, Henry VIII ordered that all images of Becket be defaced, on the grounds that Becket was not a martyr but a traitor for having opposed his King.3 As a result, virtually all medieval images of Becket were destroyed.4 The fact that the Becket Window at Christ Church contains an image of Becket, at the very moment of his martyrdom, makes this an extremely significant survival.
In 1980 the York Glaziers Trust restored the Becket panel. At the Reformation Becket’s face had been removed (presumably in order to save the panel)5 with the missing head being initially replaced by a pear-shaped piece of glass. In 1980 this was itself replaced by a head-shaped piece of modern pink glass. In doing so, Becket was restored to an approximation of his original appearance.
The Becket panel, it should be noted, is flanked by two other important saints (Fig. 2). The figure on the left (panel B1) is generally identified as St Augustine of Canterbury,6 the first Archbishop of Canterbury, while that on the right (panel B3) is the French saint, Martin of Tours. When Augustine began his mission in Canterbury in 597, he made use of an existing Roman chapel dedicated to St Martin. All three panels, it would then appear, are closely connected to Canterbury, with Becket, the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury, in his rightful place in the centre.
The fact that the window may date from 1320, the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of Becket (and a date marked by the Church as a special Jubilee year),7 has led to the suggestion that the window was made to commemorate Becket’s martyrdom. In keeping with this view it has been supposed, at least by local tradition, that a larger figure of Becket may have appeared in the centre main light of the window (1b), now missing, and that this would explain why the glass in these lights was completely removed – to comply with the order to destroy images of the saint.8
There are, however, significant problems with this theory. First, it is by no means certain that the window does date from 1320. It is also not necessarily the case that the Becket panel has always occupied the prominent, central position that it does today. Despite Pevsner’s assertion that the “glass in the tracery lights is complete and ‘in situ’”,9 it is certainly not true that the tracery glass has remained in place, untouched, since the fourteenth century.
In fact, the Becket panel has been moved at least twice. In 1862 R. J. King observed in his ‘Cathedrals of England’; “The large five-light window at the end of this [North] Transept contains a painting by van Linge, representing the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Various portions of earlier glass, however, have been inserted in the middle of the picture. In the centre light is the murder of Becket, dating early in the fourteenth century….”.10 It is not now known when the Becket panel was moved from the Lucy Chapel to the North Transept window, but presumably it was returned to the Lucy Chapel during George Gilbert Scott’s restoration of the Cathedral in the 1870s.
The whole of the glass was later moved when, along with all the other stained glass in the Cathedral, it was taken away for safe keeping during the Second World War. It was not actually returned until 1952. The Friends of the Cathedral Report for that year recorded that “The cleaning, repair and re-leading of the glass at the top of the East Window in St Lucy’s Chapel is soon to be installed.”11
The fact that the Becket panel has been moved at least twice should make us wary, I think, of assuming that it necessarily appears today in the position it originally occupied. Indeed, there are very good reasons for thinking that neither the Becket panel nor those flanking it, depicting St Augustine and St Martin, are in their original positions.
The first reason concerns the figure of St Augustine, in the panel to the left of Becket (B1, Fig 3). Fr Robin Gibbons, Director of Studies for Theology and Religion OUDCE at Oxford University, and an Honorary Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church, has recently made a very compelling case for thinking that the figure of St Augustine has been misunderstood.
It is clear that the figure is an Augustine, because his name appears at his feet: “: S(ANCTUS)/AUG(US)TIN(US)”. But which Augustine? David Farmer, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, identified the figure as Augustine of Canterbury, suggesting that it may be the earliest surviving image of him in the country.12 Peter Newton of the Centre for Medieval Studies at York, writing at around the time of the restoration of the window in 1980, also identified the figure as St Augustine of Canterbury and added that “It should be stressed that representations of St Augustine of Canterbury are extremely rare, and in this case with the inscription … is unique in English art.”13
The inscription that Newton refers to appears on either side of the Augustine figure. He transcribes it as:
ANTE OMNIA / DILIGITUR DEO
Newton translates the phrase as ‘[Augustine] loved above all by God’.14 Gibbons has argued, however, that the text should instead be read:
ANTE OMNIA / DILIGATUR DEUS
meaning ‘Before all else, let us love God’.15
Indeed, a re-examination of the inscription confirms that it currently reads:
ANTE /O(MN)IA / DILIG/[…]/T(UR) : D/(EU)S:
Gibbon’s reading therefore seems correct, and provides a very important insight, as these words make up the beginning and the end of the opening phrase of the Prologue to the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo.14 All that is missing is the middle section; ‘dearly beloved brothers’. But if we were to imagine that the inscription continues to run behind the figure of Augustine (in other words, that it is obscured by the saint) then, quite neatly, we would be left with the complete line:
ANTE OMNIA / FRATRES CARISSIMI / DILIGATUR DEUS
(Before all else / dearly beloved brothers / let us love God)
This interpretation also works in relation to the group, the ‘dearly beloved brothers’, whom he is addressing, and who sit either side of Augustine in the panel. Gibbons’ solution means that rather than a figure of St Augustine of Canterbury, this is actually an image of St Augustine of Hippo. Given that the Cathedral, when first founded in the twelfth century as St Frideswide’s Priory, was an Augustinian house whose members followed the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo, it makes very good sense. In fact, the tracery glass contains more Augustinian links, as we shall see. For now, it is worth noting that St Augustine of Canterbury was not an Augustinian and that he had no obvious connections to St Frideswide’s Priory.
Thanks to Gibbon’s insight, I believe a new understanding of the window is now possible. Indeed, I propose that by applying a logical and straightforward approach to the design of the window, it is possible to determine the original arrangement of all the tracery panels, allowing a very clear idea of how the Becket panel should properly be understood. To achieve this, it is necessary to observe that there are a number of elements of the broader tracery design (in panels that could only belong in their current positions) that may help to establish the original positions of the larger panels (B1, B2 and B3). The first element is that of symmetry.
By symmetry I mean that the left-hand side of the window is virtually a mirror image of the right. We can see this clearly in the panel at the very top of the window (H1, Fig. 4), which shows Christ in heaven, seated in majesty. He has his right hand raised in blessing, and his left hand raised showing the marks of the nail in his palm. In other words, he is showing us that he is both human and divine. For our purposes though we need only note that each hand mirrors the other.
Below him, on either side (panels G1 and G2, Fig. 5), are two censing angels on a background of twining foliage, the stems of which issue from the mouths of two dogs. Again, the angels are mirror-images of each other, as are the dogs. Below them, on either side (panels E1 and E4, Fig. 6), are two Augustinian Canons, kneeling in prayer, again they are mirror-images of each other (note that although Augustinians wore black cloaks, they are here shown wearing blue cloaks, as it was not possible to make black stained glass. This was a common practice in medieval glass making).
Now we introduce a second design element; that those figures which are not on the central axis of the window are always shown looking into the centre.
This idea holds true for the two censing angels, as well as the two Augustinian Canons. It is also true for the figures of St Blaise (panel A2) and St Cuthbert (panel A3) that appear under the Becket panel, as well as for the two royal heads (panels A1 and A4) which flank Blaise and Cuthbert. Crucially, however, this is not the case for the Augustine, Becket and Martin figures, a point we shall return to later.
For now, let us look at the two coats of arms (panels E2 and E3, Fig. 7) that appear to the inside of the kneeling Augustinian Canons, as they establish a third and final element; that of a distinction between France and England.
France and England
The coats of arms are, on the left, the arms of France, and on the right, the arms of England, as they appeared before 1340 (when Edward III quartered the lions of England with the fleur-de-lis of France).16 If the window does indeed date to the first quarter of the fourteenth century, then these arms represent Edward II and his French wife, Queen Isabella, whom he married in 1308.
The royal heads that appear lower down the tracery glass (Fig. 8), just below the level of the Becket panel, are of a queen on the left (panel A1) and a king on the right (panel A4). As they are on the edge of the window they are shown looking into the centre, and they also mirror each other. If they are indeed Queen Isabella (on the left) and Edward II (on the right), then they abide by the third rule, that the left-hand side of the window is French, and the right-hand side English. Again, this will be significant when we reach the Augustine, Becket and Martin panels.
Let us now return to the two coats of arms. Below them are two rows of grotesques (Fig. 9): small mythological figures that combine plant, animal and human features. These figures appear to be rather chaotic, but nevertheless follow a reasonably symmetrical arrangement, particularly in terms of directionality and of a broad, if not precise, form. It is also worth noting that the two wholly human figures (Adam and Eve perhaps?), in panels C3 and C4, which appear just above the Becket panel, roughly mirror each other.
We have now reached the level of the Augustine, Becket and Martin panels. So, let us take the three elements: of symmetry, centre-facing directionality, and the French-English divide, and see what happens when we apply them to these panels (Fig. 10).
First symmetry. Of the three figures, St Augustine, although he is shown in a semi-frontal pose, is the only one who appears in anything like a symmetrical arrangement, standing as he does in the centre of the group of ‘dearly beloved brothers’. Becket, kneeling in front of his assailants, looks left, whilst Martin, on his horse, looks down and to the right.17 If, however, we place Augustine in the centre, then Martin should be on his left (looking into the centre), and Becket on his right (doing likewise). With this arrangement, we have the great French saint on the French side of the window, and the great English saint on the English side. Notice also that Martin’s sword mirror-images the sword that strikes Becket’s head.
If this is the correct way to position the panels, that is if the arrangement was originally Martin-Augustine-Becket, then the lower half of the tracery glass now makes sense in term of the overall design of the window (Fig. 11). In total, five (arch)bishops are shown, with St Blaise and St Cuthbert on the lower level. Blaise and Cuthbert both have their names written across the centre of their panels (in a broadly symmetrical arrangement), whilst only Augustine (now in the centre) has his name beneath his feet. He is also the only one with an inscription running along the centre of his panel. Neither Martin nor Becket have any lettering in their panels.
If we now look at Martin and Becket, balanced on either side of Augustine, we see that they share a common theme, in that they are shown at the moment at which their great relics were created; Martin’s cut-down ‘little cloak’, or capella, which became one of the most treasured possessions of the Kings of France,18 and Becket’s ‘crown’ being sliced off, creating a relic that was kept in its own chapel at the east end of Canterbury Cathedral.19
Augustine, in the centre, now heads up a ‘trinity’ of mitred bishops, with Blaise and Cuthbert below him, and all five main panels appear balanced, in terms of artistic design. Even the horizontal lead lines of the Martin, Augustine and Becket panels match up neatly.
These then, I would suggest, were the original positions of the main tracery panels in the Becket Window. As mentioned earlier, this is just an initial hypothesis, but I hope to have shown, by developing Fr Robin Gibbon’s insight and by observing some of the broad design principles evident throughout the tracery, that it was St Augustine of Hippo who originally occupied the central place in the tracery glass. The remarkable survival of a pre-Reformation image of Becket has, I would argue, proved rather misleading. Such pre-Reformation images are extremely rare today and so perhaps it is natural to assume that they would always have been given pride of place. But, of course, in medieval times such images were very common. In the case of the Becket Window, the Becket panel appears simply to provide a famous English saint for the English side of the window.
Much work still needs to be done in understanding the iconography of the window. For example, the significance of the St Blaise and St Cuthbert figures: do they perhaps provide evidence of the patron(s) of the window? St Blaise was, after all, the patron saint of wool merchants, who were wealthy enough to pay for such a window. Nonetheless, I hope to have contributed in a small way to a conversation about this important window that will bear more fruit in the future.
All images used by permission of the Governing Body, Christ Church, Oxford.
- S. A. Warner, Oxford Cathedral, S.P.C.K., 1924, p. 35
- D. H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 378
- C. Harper-Bill, Thomas Becket, Scala, 1990, p. 40
- W. Purcell, Pilgrim’s England, Longman, 1981, p. 184
- E. W. Watson, The Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford, Raphael Tuck, 1935, p. 36
- M. Archer, S. Crewe & P. Cormack, English Heritage in Stained Glass, Oxford, 1988, p. 12
- J. Curthoys, The King’s Cathedral, Profile Books, 2019, p. 52
- None of the medieval glass from the main three lights survives and there is no evidence of their iconography. It has been assumed, at least by local tradition, that these three main lights were destroyed at the Reformation, though there is no documentary evidence to support this. Since 1980 these main lights have been filled with fragments of medieval glass taken from London churches bombed during the Blitz.
- J. Sherwood & N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire, Penguin Books, 1990, p. 78
- R. J. King, Cathedrals of England: Oxford Cathedral, John Murray, 1862, p. 17
- Friends of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford Annual Report, 1952, p. 4
- David Farmer, Lecture to Guides of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, 20/11/1991
- P. A. Newton, correspondence dated June 1981, Christ Church Archives
- Friends of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford Annual Report, 2017-18, p.17
- C. W. Scott-Giles & J. P. Brooke-Little (rev. eds), Boutell’s Heraldry, Frederick Warne, 1966, p. 86
- An alternative interpretation is that the Augustine, Becket and Martin panels are all centrally-focused compositions.
- D. MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, Penguin Books, 2010, p. 313
- W. Purcell, Pilgrim’s England, Longman, 1981, p. 181