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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 angels 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, Beckets 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. Fitzurse, 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 Fitzurses sword-belt. Its body is now effectively bisected at mid-torso by a sharply tapering spear-like area of plaster where pigment has gone.
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 traitors 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 Beckets own, while the executioner at the left raises his sword for the death-stroke.
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|
© Anne Marshall 2003