Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

St Thomas of Pontefract in the British Museum

In my post last year on St Thomas of Pontefract I referred to a lead devotional plaque about his life and death which is now in the British Museum. Through the Museum website I have now found a photograph of this remarkable survival.

Devotional panel; lead; openwork; six scenes from life of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (1277-1322); scenes arranged in two tiers under architectural canopy; tracery contains figure of God seated on rainbow with censing angel on either side; gable surmounted by Crucifixion with two headless saints on pinnacles; single figure in each of four projecting niches,  two on either side; shield with arms of England in centre.


© The Trustees of the British Museum. Department of Prehistory and Europe

Registration number: 1954,0502.1

Of English manufacture and dated to the later fourteenth century, it is described as a devotional panel, and is made from lead. I wonder if originally it would have been painted, or whether it simply had a polished finish, as with modern reproductions of pilgrim badges.

The openwork comprises six scenes from the last days of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (1278-1322). The scenes are arranged in two tiers under an architectural canopy.

In the upper register the first scene appears to show the King and two bishops; the second is the battle of Boroughbridge and the death of Thomas' ally the Earl of Hereford; the third scene shows Earl Thomas being taken by boat from the battlefield as a captive. In the lower register the first scene shows Thomas being tried in his castle at Pontefract 'on the King's record' - that is to say, the King recounted his cousin's notorious misdemeanours and the jury of peers condemned him prompting the Earl's rejoinder "Shall I die without answer?"; in the second scene he is taken to the place of execution - still known as St Thomas' Hill; in the third scene he is beheaded.

The tracery contains the figure of God seated on rainbow with censing angel on either side. Flanking the gable are figures of St Paul on the left and St Peter on the right. The gable is surmounted by the Crucifixion with two headless saints, presumably Our Lady and St John, on pinnacles; there is a single figure in each of four projecting niches, two on either side; shield with the arms of England in centre.

Height: 165 millimetres
Width: 127 millimetres

Hugh Tait, 'Pilgrim-Signs and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,' The British Museum Quarterly, Vol XX (1955-56) 40.

This piece may well be similar to the tablet showing Thomas which was set up in St Paul' s in London within a year or so of his death and which the government ordered to be removed. After 1327 the cult spread and a memorial chapel was built on the site of the execution in 1361.

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