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Raising a wee dram to St Thomas Becket

Raising a wee dram to St Thomas Becket

Picture This… December 2020

The monthly ‘Picture This…’ articles highlight items from the collections of Canterbury Cathedral and related collections, and are written by postgraduate students from the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University, staff from the three institutions and guest contributors. The year 2020 is an anniversary year of St Thomas Becket, and throughout the year ‘Picture This…’ will focus on Becket.

Author: Francesca Richards, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent

This whisky miniature of Thomas Becket (died 1170) is perhaps a rather incongruous article to be found in Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library. Alongside Anglo-Saxon charters, Tudor scrolls and early modern printed books, a mass-marketed product of the 1970s, designed for the sale of Scotch whisky, presents us with an entirely different story. In the run up to the festive season, when many will be enjoying a little glass of something over Christmas or Hogmanay, it is interesting to delve a little deeper into this object and the inspiration for its creation, St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

This whisky miniature of Becket measures approximately 13cm high and is crafted in white porcelain. It is presented in a Beneagles branded cream box, with ‘The Thistle and The Rose’ in a large red gothic script and ‘History in Miniature’ written below it in capitals. On one side of the box there is a short paragraph about the series of whisky miniatures and on the other side, the contact details for Beneagles. Beneagles, a company producing blended Scotch whisky, was established in 1922 by a grocer, Peter Thomson, and specialised in novelty ceramic miniatures and decanters in the shapes of birds of prey. In the 1970s, this Becket whisky miniature was produced as one of 10 designs intended to be both individual collectors’ items and for use as part of a whole chess set. Thomas Becket here was of course the White Bishop.

The ‘Thistle and the Rose’ chess set was commissioned to present a ‘unique series reflecting our rich historical past’. It was designed by Perth artist Ann Whittet and modelled by Fredrick Mellor of George Wade & Sons Ltd., Stoke-on-Trent, a company founded in 1867. These distinctive pieces were then fashioned in porcelain at the Wade factory at Portadown in Northern Ireland. The major chess pieces were once filled with 50ml of 70° proof Scotch whisky, bottled by Peter Thomson (Perth) Ltd and sold individually. The accompanying black and white un-filled pawns could be bought separately by chess enthusiasts. In the 1970s, the filled miniatures were offered to first-class passengers of the British Caledonian airline.

The Thomas Becket miniature belongs to the white ‘English Rose’ pieces, alongside King Henry VIII (1491-1547), Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Sir Frances Drake (1540-1596), a Norman English tower (12th century) and pawns bearing the Rose of England. The black ‘Scottish Thistle’ pieces include King Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), John Knox (1505-1572), Sir William Wallace (1274-1305), a Scottish tower house (15th century) and pawns carrying a motif of the Thistle of Scotland.

As arguably the most famous of all English bishops , it seems fitting that Thomas Becket is included in this list of English and Scottish notables, an assortment of kings, queens, knights and religious leaders from the period of the 1100s to the 1500s. Becket’s Scottish counterpart in the chess set is John Knox, who founded the Scottish Presbyterian Church and, ironically for the purpose of chess, rejected the office of bishop in the 1550s.

Becket is shown wearing the bishop’s mitre, holding the bishop’s crosier in his left hand and making a sign of blessing with his right. However, he was not a typical ecclesiastical dignitary. Becket’s life was filled with controversy, as his stellar rise from a clerk to Archbishop of Canterbury brought him first the favour and then the hatred of the King of England, Henry II. Indeed, when pouring whisky from the miniature, did the purchaser reflect on the gory end of this bishop in Canterbury Cathedral itself and the cult his martyrdom provoked?

One can imagine a grandfather, who enjoyed the odd tipple of whisky, collecting this remarkable set of miniatures and getting out the chess set one Sunday afternoon to play with the grandchildren. ‘Who was Thomas Becket, Grandpa? What happened to him?”, they might ask. This set of whisky miniatures brought key protagonists in English and Scottish history to the fore, though in a rather anachronistic fashion. Presenting Elizabeth I’s opponent on the chess board as Mary Queen of Scots makes historical sense; presenting 12th-century English Archbishop Thomas Becket against 16th-century Scottish theologian, John Knox, less so.

Nonetheless, as exciting projects at Canterbury Cathedral bring the life and times of Thomas Becket to the public imagination once again, this porcelain whisky miniature reminds us of the myriad of ways in which Thomas Becket’s legacy continues to inspire and to appear in perhaps the most unexpected of places.

Further reading:

Frank Barlow, ‘Becket, Thomas [St Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London] (1120?–1170), archbishop of Canterbury’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), [accessed 26 November 2020]

‘Beneagles | Scotch Whisky’, Scotchwhisky.Com Online Magazine, [accessed 26 November 2020]

Jane E. A. Dawson, ‘Knox, John (c. 1514–1572), religious reformer’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2008), [accessed 26 November 2020]

The Becket Connection, History, University of York, [accessed 1 December 2020]

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