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Murder of St. Thomas Becket/Execution of Thomas of Lancaster : South Newington, Oxfordshire (Oxford) c.1330-1340

Photo:T.Marshall Murder of Thomas Becket, South Newington (129KB)

The painting of the murder of Becket is badly damaged, but it remains one of the finest medieval wall paintings in England. As with all the fourteenth century work at South Newington, it is painted in oil, probably, as Tristram speculated, an emulsion of oil with some other medium such as egg tempera.

This unusual choice of materials, more often found in manuscript painting, but far from common even there, is testimony to the considerable expertise of the painter. Reading from the extreme right, an outstretched arm and hand with part of a sword is the edge of a painting of the Beheading of Thomas of Lancaster (see below). Immediately to the left of this is a vertical strip of painting which belongs, I think, to an earlier subject - there is something that might be the end of an angel’s wing in the upper part of the strip, with, below, some rectilinear details suggesting a construction or framework of some kind. Then comes the murder of Becket, with, furthest right, an altar covered with an elaborate red-and-green cloth in a trellis pattern.

Behind the altar is what is left of the figure of Edward Grim, Becket’s chaplain, dressed in a white alb. He holds a book and his right arm is extended across the altar, on which stands a chalice. He is probably trying to fend off the first blow, as accounts of the murder claim that he did.
Thomas, fortunately clear although he tends to merge with the background now, kneels before the altar, hands extended in prayer. He is vested for Mass and the sword that struck his head is still embedded in it. This sword is held by a knight in a blue surcoat standing just left of centre; Reginald Fitzurse, said to have been the first to strike, has evidently already done so. Murder of Thos. Becket, detail, heraldic bear, for FitzurseFitzurse, standing directly behind Thomas, can be identified by the heraldic punning bear on his surcoat. This is rather indefinite now, but the standing (heraldically statant) bear is facing to the right, on all fours with head lowered, directly below Fitzurse’s sword-belt. Its body is now effectively bisected at mid-torso by a sharply tapering spear-like area of plaster where pigment has gone. Murder of Becket, Sth. Newington, detail, one of the Four Knights (44KB)

The remaining two knights are further left, the second from the far left wearing a light yellow ochre surcoat, and the other, the most nearly complete of the four, at the extreme left (detail, right), shown in the act of drawing his sword. Sizeable areas of him are missing, but his legs, his right arm and hand drawing his sword, his bent left arm and hand steadying his scabbard and most of his head with its chain-mail coif are all visible.

Had Henry V111 of England, who ordered all images of and references to Becket expunged from his realm, known about this painting he would of course have had it destroyed. Had he known about its companion piece, the Execution of Thomas of Lancaster, another political rebel against his king, he would have been still further incensed. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was beheaded within sight of his own castle at Pontefract in 1321 for leading the rebellion of the northern earls against Edward 11, and only his royal blood saved him from the full horror of a traitor’s death. The painting of his execution is below at the left, and the juxtaposition of it with the murder of Becket must surely be deliberate. Lancaster kneels at the right, in an attitude very similar to Becket’s own, while the executioner at the left raises his sword for the death-stroke. Execution of Thomas of Lancaster, South Newington (83KB)

The connection between the two extends further than a mere coincidence of Christian names. Lancaster was buried close to the high altar of the Cluniac priory at Pontefract, and miracles were reported at his tomb. Calls for his beatification, all of them unsuccessful despite the appellation ‘Blessed’ regularly bestowed on him, soon followed and in 1343 a chantry, dedicated to St. Thomas¹ was built and a licence for masses to be said there obtained.

Later chroniclers and historians were far less sympathetic to Lancaster, seeing him as a selfish and devious man who deserved his fate, but the connection between his life and death and those of Thomas Becket was, on the evidence of the South Newington paintings, established in some medieval minds at least. Mention has been made on the page for the Virgin & Child at South Newington of Thomas Giffard and his wife, who may have commissioned these paintings, and it might well be that Thomas Giffard regarded both Becket and Lancaster as his saintly patrons - one formally canonised, the other confidently expected to be.

South Newington is rich in paintings; the Annunciation is also on the site, along with St. Margaret and the Dragon and a very interesting 15th century Passion Cycle

¹ Whether to Thomas Becket himself, or St. Thomas the Apostle I am not certain

Website for St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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22/7/2003

Anne Marshall 2003