A jewelled and enamelled casket depicting medieval England’s most infamous murder is going on display at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton. The Becket Casket, made in about 1180, held relics of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered in 1170 by knights who had Somerset and Devon roots and were followers of King Henry II.
The precious object is being loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) and will be displayed at the Museum of Somerset from Saturday 30 January to Saturday 2 April.
The Becket Casket was made in France and is elaborately constructed of wood covered in gilt-copper and enamel. It depicts Becket and his murderers, including their ringleader, the Somerset landowner Reginald Fitzurse of Williton. They attack the archbishop with swords and an axe while two priests raise their arms in horror. The casket also shows Becket’s burial and the raising of his soul to heaven.
Becket rose in favour with King Henry II and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. But his friendship with the king did not survive, and on 29 December 1170 he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. There was outrage throughout Europe and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage.
Relics of Becket were immediately in great demand and some were housed in caskets. The Becket Casket is thought to be the earliest that survives, and is also one of the largest and most elaborate.
Steve Minnitt, Head of Museums for the South West Heritage Trust, said: “Thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum this stunning object will be exhibited in Somerset for the first time.
“The casket has special significance for the West Country. Three of the four knights involved in Becket’s murder had close West Country associations. Richard le Breton, who struck the fatal blow, held land at Sampford Brett and Reginald Fitzurse was a landowner in Williton where he lived for a time. William de Tracy was feudal baron of Bradninch, near Exeter.”
Beth McKillop, Deputy Director and Director of Collections at the V&A said: “The Becket Casket is one of the great treasures of the V&A, a magnificent example of the medieval enameller’s art. It is usually on display in our Medieval & Renaissance Galleries which tell the story of European art and culture from 300–1600. We are pleased that it is travelling to the Museum of Somerset as part of our work in taking our collections of art and design to as many places as possible.”
To accompany the exhibition the Trust will be running a series of related events. They include a talk by Professor Nicholas Vincent titled ‘Becket’s Murder: The Somerset Connection’ on 3 February, and another by the art historian Dr Claire Donovan on 10 March: ‘The Becket Casket: picturing the murder of Thomas à Becket’. Both will take place at the Museum of Somerset.
Entrance to the museum is free, including visiting the Becket Casket exhibition. Tickets for events cost £10 and can be booked via Ticket Source www.ticketsource.co.uk/themuseumofsomerset or by calling the museum on 01823 255088.
The Museum of Somerset is part of the South West Heritage Trust, an independent charity committed to protecting and celebrating Somerset and Devon’s rich heritage.