St. Thomas Beckett at the British Museum and the link to Waltham Abbey

Our Museum, Heritage and Culture Specialist, Tony O’Connor looks at the link to Waltham Abbey in our latest blog.

The British Museum is currently holding a fantastic exhibition Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint, which is on until 22nd August 2021. The exhibition brings together a stunning range of material to celebrate Becket’s life and his veneration as a saint, following his murder in Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th December 1170.

The murder had important consequences for Waltham Abbey, which is often overshadowed by the church’s links to king Harold and king Henry VIII.

To atone for his role in the murder, King Henry II agreed to build and endow a number of new monasteries and it is from this that the Becket link with Waltham Abbey developed as Waltham Abbey was to be the main beneficiary of this royal project.

Work began in 1177 with the replacement of the existing clergy (a college of priests –established by Harold Godwinson in 1060) with a monastic order of Augustinian Canons.  Up to 1184 expansion of the church was paid for by the king with grants totalling £1,427 (about £2 million in today’s money), while this represents a large sum for the time, it also reflects that the king was fulfilling his vow on the cheap, with as little cost to his treasury as possible. His annual income and expenditure on other things was many times greater.

The great church established by Henry II was three times the size of the church that exists today. Henry also added new lands and rents to the church with the manors of Epping and Sewardstone adding these to 17 other manors Waltham Abbey controlled.

Church reconstruction image (WAHS)

 Parts of the west end of the church are dated to this period and the cloistral passage in the Abbey gardens is the only part of the fabric still standing with its vaulting intact.

In 1188 a charter of William de Vere, the bishop of Hereford mentions a chapel within the abbey precinct in the honour of God, the virgin Mary and the most blessed martyr and bishop Thomas. Excavation of the Becket chapel were undertaken by the Waltham Abbey Historical Society in 1979 and 2003, the finds including painted window glass.

Painted glass from the cloister (EFDM)

The museum also holds other important artefacts from the great church including the Priors Bible dating to about 1200, decorative stonework, which supported the ceiling of the church, statuary and even part of the lead pipe, which brought a fresh water supply to the monastery from Wormley in Hertfordshire some 3 miles away. A plan showing the route of the piped supply, dated to 1250 survives in a document in the British Library.

The Waltham Abbey Bible (EFDM)