Thomas a Becket & the Legend of the Ampulla

The Ampulla used for the consecration of the Kings of England is amongst the most ancient pieces of the Regalia. As it was kept at the Abbey, not the Tower, it escaped destruction during the Commonwealth, and was brought forth and redecorated for the Coronation of Charles II.

It is in the shape of a golden eaglet, with outspread wings, nine inches high. The oil comes out of' the beak of the bird, whose head screws off. The legend of its delivery to St. Thomas by Our Lady is celebrated in medieval stained-glass windows in the cathedral of St. Etienne at Sens.

On a night about 840 years ago (according to a story preserved amongst the Cottonian manuscripts in the British Museum) an exiled priest, sorely troubled in spirit, knelt in prayer before the altar of Our Lady, in the abbey church of Ste. Colombe at Sens. Thomas a Becket, also known as Thomas of London (for although he had been the son of a merchant of Norman origin, he was a Londoner by birth), had once been Chancellor of England and so much in his King's confidence that men said that Henry Plantagenet and Thomas of London had "but one heart and one mind."

He was still Archbishop of Canterbury, although he had begged Pope Alexander III. to release him from that office. But his election to that see had proved the end of a friendship, for the new Archbishop's ideas of his duty had clashed with his King's ecclesiastical policy.

After months of conflict Thomas had fled from Harwich on a winter's night in disguise and Henry had replied by confiscating the property of Thomas's see and banishing all his relatives, friends and servants Thomas had received the Pope's permission to excommunicate Henry, but hearing that his old friend was dangerously ill, had not as yet done so.

But even overseas Henry's wrath pursued him. Upon hearing that the Archbishop had taken refuge in a Cistercian abbey, Henry had threatened to expel all Cistercians from his dominions. Thomas moved on to a Benedictine abbey under the special protection of the King of France. As the weary Archbishop knelt in the abbey church at Sens, praying for guidance, he had a vision. "Our Lady" herself appeared to comfort him.

She bore in one hand a golden vessel, shaped like an eaglet, in the other a small vial containing holy oil. She told him that the Kings who should be anointed with this oil from this vessel should be Champions of the Church. She bade him deliver the treasure which she left with him, to a monk of Poitiers. Thomas returned to England after an absence of six years, and was murdered in his own cathedral within a month of his arrival. But the eaglet containing the sacred oil lay safely hidden in the church of St Gregory at Poitiers for nearly two hundred years, until the dream of a holy man occasioned its discovery.

It was brought to Henry, Duke of Lancaster who gave it to the heir of England his nephew, Edward the Black Prince. But it was not destined to be used at the Coronation of a King of England for another quarter of a century. The Black Prince died, still Prince of Wales, and his son, Richard II., crowned at the age of ten, did not learn of its existence until he reached maturity.

Henry IV, Richard II's cousin, ordered a Coronation of striking pomp and magnificence, and gave great publicity to the fact that he was to be the first King of England anointed from the holy vessel delivered to St. Thomas by Our Lady.

The Ampulla had a chariot to itself in his Coronation procession. Covered with a damask cloth, and carried by the sacristan of the Abbey of Marmoutier, it was drawn to the Abbey by a milk-white steed.

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