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.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

The Vestments of St Thomas of Canterbury

Today is the Feast of the Translation of St Thomas of Canterbury, commemorating the placing of his relics in their new shrine in the cathedral on this day in 1220, and recalled every subsequent half-century in the medieval period by a Jubilee.

This year the 859th anniversary of his martyrdom is belatedly being celebrated with a major exhibition at the British Museum as well as events st Canterbury.

For all the efforts in 1538 to destroy the cult of “Bishop Becket” relics survive across Europe of the “holy blessed martyr”, including a number of vestments associated with him. The blood stained tunic or surprise/Roche the was wearing when he was killed survives in Sta Maria Maggiore in Rome, and there are or were plans for it to come to this country as part of the commemoration events.

At Sens cathedral in France, where the Archbishop spent a significant part of his exile in the years 1164-70 are a number of items traditionally associated with St Thomas. They have been copied not only for Canterbury Cathedral but also, in the case of the chasuble, by vestment makers for a wider ecclesiastical market.

These have often been engraved and photographed.

Vestments of Thomas Becket

The Sens vestments if St Thomas of Canterbury
Image: medievaldeathtrip.com

The New Liturgical Movement has an article from 2012 with more detailed photographs by Geneva Kornbluth which can be seen can be seen at 12th Century Vestments of St. Thomas à Becket, Treasury of Sens Cathedral

I reproduced the substance of that article, including the photographs, in a post on this day in 2012, which also includes material about a mitre traditionally linked to St Thomas and which is now in the care of Westminster Cathedral. This can all be seen, together with other observations at Relics of St Thomas of Canterbury

John Julius Norwich recounts in The Kingdom in the Sun that when the vestments were still used on the feast of St Thomas at Sens the tallest priest available had to be celebrant and often then the vestments had to be pinned up such had been the height of the saint in life.

Further afield, and less well known until recently is a chasuble preserved in the diocesan museum at Fermo in the Marche in Italy. This is also traditionally associated with St Thomas, although as the links below suggest it may be a memorial item rather than one actually worn by the Martyr. Whatever it’s history it is a remarkable textile that was over fifty years old at the time of the 1170 murder and a witness to the cultural riches available across the Christian-Islamic frontier.

The Wikipedia article about it can be read at Fermo chasuble of St. Thomas Becket
and there is a review article from Medieval Histories of a book of essays on it which can be seen at The Chasuble of Thomas Becket

There is another New Liturgical Movement post which has relevance here. It is about the practicalities, the dos and don’ts, of vesting in a conical chasuble and can be seen at How to Properly or Improperly Wear a Conical Chasuble

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