The Becket Panel
The four shields in the corners of the Panel represent the Coat of Arms of the Diocese of St Albans (top left), the See of Canterbury (top right), the D'Aubigny family (bottom right), and of Thomas Becket (bottom left).
Wymondham Abbey is dedicated to God in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saints Thomas Becket, Archbishop and Martyr. The 'Becket Panel' depicts St Thomas Becket and eight scenes from his life. It was painted by Fr David Hunter, a former priest at the Abbey, and was given by him to the parishoners of Wymondham Abbey in thanksgiving for 900 years of Christian witness here in this place, and to commemorate the Millennium year in 2000.
The assassination of Thomas of Canterbury on the 29th December 1170 is the culmination of the medieval conflict between Church and State, between the increasingly powerful monarchy of Henry II, and the immovable religious practices of Thomas Becket. This tension between the secular and the sacred, the timeless struggle between despotism and liberty, guarantees that Saint Thomas will always be of significance to contemporary society.
The 'Becket Panel' has been painted in the style of a narrative Icon. It relates pertinent scenes from Becket's archiepiscopal to his martyrdom; reading from bottom left upwards, then across and down, the scenes portray the following:
1. Becket's Consecration as Archbishop:
Thomas reluctantly acceded to the insistent pressure from the King to take up the See of Canterbury. As Chancellor, Becket had served his sovereign with distinction, and had forged links of friendship and trust with Henry. Thomas knew that his allegiance to the Church would lead to a conflict of interest between the demands of his office and the ambitions of the King.
2. The Council of Northampton:
The inevitable antagonism between Henry and Thomas over the rights and privileges of the Church led to the King summoning his Archbishop to answer unjust charges of treachery. Thomas held his ground, but seeing that his condemnation had already been decided upon, he slipped away in disguise and escaped to France.
3. The King expels the relatives of Thomas Becket:
In retaliation, Henry sent into exile all Becket's relations (Becket himself was unmarried), and confiscated all their property and possessions.
4. Becket sails for France:
Thomas fled to the continent, and with the protection of King Louis VII of France, he hoped to continue by correspondence his controversy with King Henry.
5. Thomas is exiled for six years:
The exiled Prelate withdrew to the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny. Pope Alexander III exhorted him to stand firm in his struggle. While there, it is said that he received a vision of Christ, warning him of his impending martyrdom.
6. Becket meets the Kings of England and France:
An attempted reconciliation between Henry and Thomas was engineered by King Louis. Negotiations broke down, and the two Kings take leave of the Archbishop, riding with gestures of frustration and fury.
7. Thomas returns to England:
Thomas resolved to resume residence in Canterbury once again, and in November 1170, landed at Sandwich in Kent. He was greeted with a tumultuous welcome from the ordinary people who thronged his triumphal return all the way to Canterbury.
8. Murder in the Cathedral:
News of Becket's return and the excommunication of his enemies reached the ears of the King. He fell into a violent passion and gave vent to the famous words ('Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?'), that led to four of his knights, who were standing by, to believe that they would be doing him good service if they put the Archbishop to death. Thomas met his fate without flinching and declared himself ready to die for his Lord. His last recorded words are reproduced on the scroll at the foot of the Saint: "For the sake of Jesus and for His Holy Church I am prepared to die".