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Decorated First Letter, in Life of St Thomas Becket

Decorated First Letter, in Life of St Thomas Becket

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1180

Shelfmark: Cotton MS Claudius B II

Item number: f.2v

Genre: Manuscript

On 29 December 1170, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered by four knights in the cathedral. He was killed because he would not make concessions in his dispute with King Henry II. Soon declared a saint, he developed a following throughout Europe and his image was depicted on all types of church-related objects. John of Salisbury, a distinguished scholar and friend of Becket, wrote a Life of Becket, including his account of the murder, which he witnessed. This manuscript has a copy of it and Becket's letters, which Prior Alan (later Abbot of Tewkesbury) had collected. Its pictures of his martyrdom are some of the earliest images, made at Canterbury before the development of standardised depictions.

John of Salisbury's 'Life of St Thomas Becket' begins with its first letter expanded to the height of the page and decorated with delicate vine ornament inhabited by a population of small animals. The following lines of letters are written in capitals. The grand opening expresses reverence for the saint and his status as a martyr of Canterbury.

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