Miracle Window

The murder of Thomas Becket at the British Museum!

Thomas Becket, what’s the story and why does he deserve his own exhibition at the British Museum?  It’s quite a story!

Born around 1120, Thomas’s parents were quite well connected and he got a good education but his father fell on harder times so Thomas got a job as a clerk and then found a position working for the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He travelled on church business, met the right people and did so well that he was recommended to the post of Lord Chancellor! He and the King, Henry ll  became close and Thomas was good at his job which included collecting revenue from landowners such as churches and bishoprics.

His next job was as Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior religious role in the country, despite having never been a priest and this is when everything changed. Thomas’s first allegiance was now to the church not the king and Henry had assumed Thomas would continue as Chancellor and help him get more control over the church but he resigned as Chancellor right away.  Disputes between the church and state increased and Henry and Thomas’s relationship worsened. In 1164 Thomas was accused of contempt of the king’s authority and was found guilty so he fled to Europe.

A compromise was found, Thomas returned but infuriated by the acts of 3 Archbishops and Bishops who took on a role reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury alone he excommunicated them.  Henry took a dim view of this and 4 knights were dispatched to Canterbury to arrest Thomas. Things got out of hand when Thomas refused to go with them, he fled to the cathedral and in the ensuing melee, Thomas was killed in this holy site on 29th December, 1170.

This story of the murder spread like shock waves throughout Europe, Thomas was seen as a martyr, then he was made a Saint in record time,  the  king had to make public penance at the tomb and Canterbury cathedral became a key pilgrimage site for centuries to come.  His cult was strong during the middle ages and people all over Europe revered him.

Now you’ve got the story, what about the exhibition?  This takes us through his life chronologically with artifacts, letter, books, and of course the famous Miracle Windows – more on these later.  The items really grab the visitor are those associated with his later life but story told leading up to this is well worth following and enjoying through books, seals and ??

The murder itself is at the heart of the exhibition and with eye witness accounts, the event is well documented.   Accounts from the time also describe miracles which occurred around the tomb almost immediately after his death.

In 1173 the Pope made Thomas Becket a saint and many beautiful caskets were made in France to hold his relics . About 50 of these remain, scattered across Europe where his cult spread. This example is one  of the largest and earliest, made within 20 years of his death.


I’ve mentioned how the cult of St Thomas spread through out Europe and one of the more striking examples is this golden reliquary from Norway dating from 1220-1250 with 2 extraordinary dragons’ heads marking out from the French designs. The bottom panel shows the moment the fatal blow is struck.

This alabaster sculpture from an altarpiece shows the moment of the murder and dates from about 1450

Henry ll had not foreseen that the death of Thomas would result in his martyrdom and then sainthood and there are conflicting accounts of whether he did want Thomas dead or just to curb his powers.  It is clear that Henry made public penance, even walking barefoot through Canterbury and undertook many pilgrimages there to Thomas’s tomb.  In this document with Henry’s Great Seal he promises to protect the rights of the  monks at Canterbury in perpetuity – political back covering or genuine regret?

The undoubted highlight of the whole show is the Miracle Window, brought here for the exhibition from Canterbury Cathedral where it has survived somehow for 800 years .  These extraordinary Medieval glass wonders depict the stories of Becket’s miracles. It has never left the cathedral before and is displayed at eye level for a better view of its details. I have to say it is breath-taking. At its home in the cathedral  it’s hard to see properly as the window is 6 meters tall and the light does not fall though it as it does here.  The colours are so intense and it is impossible to believe that this precious window dates from ?.  The British Museum has taken each of the 4 portions of the window and set them side by side so you can really see the miracle stories being told. The information panels easily take you through each tale and the whole area is somewhere to linger.

Here are the windows in the cathedral, hard to see and rather dark.

Canterbury Cathedral

Here are a couple of photos to give you an idea of this splendid sight:


Looking closer at one miracle, you can see the wonderful story telling skills of the glass makers.   This small section shows Ralph de Longville being cured of leprosy,  On the left he sits by Becket’s tomb, his limbs which are covered in sore, are bathed with St Thomas’s Water  (Becket’s blood diluted) and he is offered some to drink.  At the top he leaves on his horse, cured and on the right he returns to the tomb to  give thanks.  Can you believe this glass dates from the early 1200s, it has of course been repaired over the centuries but the skill and beauty shine out.

Miracle Window

The final section of the exhibition which really caught my eye was the incredibly grand tomb built to house St Thomas in 1220.  The unveiling was quite the event with King Henry lll and European dignitaries in attendance.  It was a no expense spared moment with the fountains in Canterbury flowing with wine!  The tomb was destroyed by Henry Vlll in another king v church dispute but computer aided reconstruction using fragments and contemporary descriptions from the time give us a picture of the grandest tomb in Christendom.  This version is from approximately 1408. A short film gives us a 360 view and one with the cover aloft.

Becket's tomb

There is so much more in this exhibition, more information can be found about this and other exhibitions at the British Museum here.

Full disclosure: I was invited to the press preview by the museum but as a member I have revisited it since.

It’s a bumper season for exhibitions in London

There are always great exhibitions worth visiting in London, often at smaller, less well known museums.  However, sometimes blockbuster shows hit town at the same time and this is one of those times. Londoners and visitors are frantically trying to get their hands on much sought after tickets for this spring’s top shows.  I’ve been away from London for 2 months on my volunteering trip to Africa (read more here) so I was really keen to catch up. Continue reading

What to do when it rains in London!

Yes it does rain in London and, despite the drought warnings we have been bombarded with lately, it has been raining for the last couple of weeks.  Gardeners and the people who run the water supply have been happy but the rest of us are looking forward to the sun shining again.  Luckily there are loads of things to do in London when the rain comes down and here I’ve listed just a few as a full list would go on for pages!

In bad weather (and good days too!) I usually head for a museum or art gallery – they are free, warm and dry and house some of the greatest treasures in the world. You can see the amazing Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles or gaze at the paintings by everyone from Rembrandt through Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet, to Jake and Dinos Chapman by dropping into the British Museum, The National Gallery and the Tate Modern.  If you are strong enough to face the queues, you can marvel at the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.

British Museum
National Gallery
Tate Modern


Natural History Museum

Travel by the underground and you’ll be sheltered from the weather and you can get around London easily and quickly. For those of you who love shopping, either head for a large department store such as Selfridges or Harrods and you’ll be there for hours, or disappear in one of the huge Westfield shopping centres in Shepherds Bush and Stratford and you can easily lose a whole day.

Westfield Shepherds Bush

On a wet evening, you can’t beat a good play or film. London’s ‘theatreland’ will delight you with the stars (at the moment we have Danny Devito and Cate Blanchett on the stage and recently had Keira Knightley and Kevin Spacey), with great musicals like Billy Elliot and Phantom and newer ones like Sweeney Todd. The National Theatre will give you meatier fare, the off West End theatres like the Donmar Warehouse give you a smaller more intimate experience and don’t forget to check out the ballet and opera too!

National Theatre

Last but by no means least are the thousands of pubs and restaurants which provide shelter from the rain and some of the top cuisines in the world and certainly the most variety.You have everything from Heston Blumenthal’s amazing Michelin starred Dinner,  Gordon Ramsay’s own top restaurant and Koffman and Ducasse through to cheap and cheerful pub food with lots of fish and chips on their menus. You can find just about any cuisine in the world and London’s food scene is immensely rich and varied so look beyond the chain restaurants and find something special and memorable. 

Hopefully these ideas will keep you dry when you visit London and you could be surprised by beautiful sunshine instead, in which case you’ll be able to find open air versions of almost everything on this list!

Bye for now.
Sue Hillman
Twitter: @itsyourlondon

Christmas is coming…..

Christmas is most definitely coming and it’s time to get out and attack that present list. London is looking beautiful with all the lights and decorated shop windows, so I’ll be posting a couple of photos each week in December and you can see for yourselves. Even better, why not squeeze in a visit to London or plan to come next year? On the left is the huge Santa’s Grotto at the massive Westfield shopping centre – shopping heaven or shopping hell, up to you! On the right is a very 60s style Carnaby Street, naturally, where peace and love are the festive theme and very much in keeping with the street’s history as the centre of groovy London.



It was World Aids Day on Tuesday and London did its bit to raise awareness with gatherings, pop up shops for fund raising, church services and the most visible sign was the London Eye which turned itself red and was a really spectacular sight. We all stopped, stared, thought about the message and took our photos.

One of the big exhibitions in town at the moment is Moctezuma Aztec Ruler at the British Museum. You can see amazing artefacts from his rule and find out his story especially the momentous year following the Spanish landing through to the defeat of his empire. I loved the turquoise mask and serpent and thought the historical explanations well written. The British Museum is one of the most beautiful buildings in London both outside and inside. The photo on the left shows the classic exterior and the other is of the amazing covered court with the historic library in the curved central building. There is so much to see in the museum that it would take a whole blog to do it any justice but its newest exhibit is a few pieces from the recent Anglo Saxon find in Staffordshire. There are gold fixings from swords dating back to the 600s AD with beautiful workmanship and inlaid garnets. It’s incredible to think someone found the full hoard of over 1500 pieces laying in the ground just a few months ago. I’m returning to the British Museum next week so will report on more of its wonderful exhibits .


My restaurant of the week is Polpo, a Venetian wine bar on the edge of Soho near Carnaby Street. It’s a busy place and they don’t take advance bookings so we had a quick drink nearby before claiming our table. They have a tapas style approach and I recommend their pork belly with mushrooms and radicchio and the wonderful roast rosemary potatoes, washed down with a good strong red wine. We stayed on beyond the lunchtime rush and it was lovely as the afternoon light faded outside, it’s cosy with a casual dining area and seating at the bar on stools. It has that classic ‘distressed’ look and is hugely popular.

Bar of the week was in the Courthouse Hotel, which lives up to its name and has many of its original features including 3 former cells in the bar area which you can sit in (with the door open!) complete with the cell toilet but for decorative purposes only now. Oscar Wilde and Mick Jaggar spent some time here but before the cells became part of the bar sadly for them!

Must be off shopping for presents….

Bye for now.