The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket
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Willem Vrelant
Flemish, Bruges, early 1460s
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
10 1/16 x 6 13/16 in.

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Thomas Becket (about 1118-1170), chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, devoutly prays before the altar in Canterbury Cathedral while three knights approach him from behind, one with his sword raised menacingly. Becket had been a trusted friend of Henry II, King of England, but they became entangled in a quarrel over the rights of the Church. That dispute ended bitterly in 1170 when a group of Henry's knights, incited by their king's anger at the archbishop, killed Becket at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was officially proclaimed a saint within three years, and was heralded as a hero who had defied a tyrant for the Church. He remained one of the most popular English saints until Henry VIII, during the Protestant Reformation, desecrated his shrine, destroyed his bones, and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. The erasures on the page below this illumination were almost certainly a result of Henry's decree. They indicate that the book was in England after 1532, when Henry VIII broke with Rome.