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The Becket Window

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


The Becket WindowThe oldest stained glass in the Cathedral is located in the Lucy Chapel (on the right hand side of the Cathedral as you enter). It is known as the Becket Window because it depicts, prominently, the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and its history is one of remarkable survival.

The glass in the tracery (the top part of the window at which the stone curves in, above the straight sides of the main panel) dates from the early 14th century. The tracery is very important in dating stained glass, and it is largely because of this distinctive style that we can place the age of the Becket window at around 1320, approximately 20 years before the glass in the Latin Chapel, including the Annunciation window.

The glass has been moved and returned twice that we know of: it was moved from the Lucy Chapel to the North Transept at some stage, then to be returned during the restoration in 1870-6. The glass was then removed again during WW2 due to fears that Oxford would be bombed and the glass lost. Luckily Oxford was never bombed during the war: some speculate that this is because Hitler had intended it to be his new capital, and after some delay the glass was restored to the window of the Lucy Chapel in 1952.

Many London churches were not so lucky, and a great number of stained glass windows were damaged or destroyed during the Blitz. When the tracery glass was restored in the 1980s, it was decided that the main panels (the three large sections in the lower part of the window) would include fragments of medieval glass taken from London churches which were bombed. Thus this window represents a kind of survival: the Christ Church glass of the tracery which remained safe and the medieval fragments which have been recovered and re-deployed in the lower panels.

Detail of the martyrdom of Thomas BecketAnother of the most striking features of this window, historically speaking, is its depiction of St Thomas the Martyr. Because of the circumstances of Becket’s martyrdom, he came to represent anyone who had a grievance with the crown, a point not missed by Henry VIII. Henry condemned Becket in 1538: a time shortly after he had broken from the Church in Rome and during which the last thing he wanted to contend with was revolt as he sought to establish the English Church.

As part of this same proclamation, Henry ordered all images and pictures of Becket to be destroyed. Miraculously this depiction at Christ Church survived because Becket’s head was replaced by a pear-shaped piece of clear glass. In 1981 this glass was finally replaced with a more accurate representation of the original, though the plain flesh-coloured glass makes no attempt to estimate the details of Becket’s features.

It is generally assumed that the glass in the original lower panels of the window was destroyed around the same time as Becket's face was removed, leading some to speculate that the main panel contained a larger, even life-size, figure of the Saint.

The survival of the medieval glass and the survival of this early image of Becket’s martyrdom make this window a remarkable and important historical landmark. If you get chance to see it up close in the Cathedral, I advise you to make the most of it!


Related posts:

The Annunciation Window

Pen Portrait: Thomas Becket


With thanks to Jim Godfrey for the use of his research and Reference File.