St. Thomas Becket
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St. Thomas Becket, also called Thomas à Becket or Thomas of London, (born c. 1118, Cheapside, London, England—died December 29, 1170, Canterbury, Kent canonized 1173 feast day December 29), chancellor of England (1155–62) and archbishop of Canterbury (1162–70) during the reign of King Henry II. His career was marked by a long quarrel with Henry that ended with Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral. He is venerated as a saint and martyr in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. He is a patron saint of secular clergy (priests and deacons who serve pastorally in parishes).
Becket becomes an archbishop
Canterbury Cathedral © Becket was probably very influential during the early part of Henry's reign. He acted as ambassador and chief negotiator in Henry's early dealings with King Louis VII of France, and played a prominent role in the ill-fated expedition to Toulouse of 1159. He was therefore close to the king at the time when Henry was at his most strident and uncompromising, and it was probably the memory of this which coloured Becket's actions when he became an archbishop.
Everyone, Henry included, expected Becket to be a yes-man for the King.
On Henry's accession in 1154, Theobald was Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald had quite a pragmatic view of the relationship between Church and Crown. He felt that the two should co-operate through a process of sensible give-and-take not least because this put a little distance between Canterbury and the Pope, who had recently intervened disastrously in English affairs. Theobald had been forced to clean up the mess caused by papal interference in the election of the Archbishop of York, and the Pope had also recognised the Irish Church in 1152, much to Theobald's chagrin.
Canterbury Cathedral © When Theobald died in 1161, Henry manoeuvred Becket into the vacant seat. Knowing the way Henry went about these things (he once ordered Winchester to 'hold free and fair elections and elect my man Robert into the post'), he undoubtedly caused bad blood. It is in this context that we must see Becket's elevation to the archbishopric. Everyone, Henry included, expected Becket to be a yes-man for the King. What no one realised was that Becket would take his new role quite so seriously. He had thrown himself into the job as Henry's chancellor with gusto, now he would do the same thing with the Church. He gave notice of this by resigning the chancellorship, much to everyone's surprise.
12th Century St Davids represented in British Museum exhibition: Thomas Becket. Murder and the Making of a Saint
The Very Rev'd Dr Sarah Rowand Jones, Dean of St Davids Cathedral, with crozier on display in Cathedral Treasury. © St Davids Cathedral
St Davids Cathedral in west Wales is loaning one of its 12th Century croziers to the British Museum for its major summer exhibition. ‘Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint’ will run in London from 20 th May 2021 to 22 August 2021.
The crozier is one of several medieval artefacts uncovered in 1865 during restoration work by architect George Gilbert Scott to support the fragile Cathedral tower. Croziers, as well as rings and chalices, were found in the tombs of Bishop Richard de Carew, Bishop of St Davids 1256-1280, and Bishop Thomas Beck, Bishop of St Davids 1280-1293.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is the first major UK exhibition on the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket, whose brutal murder inside Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 shook the middle ages. It will chart over 500 years of history from Becket’s remarkable rise from ordinary beginnings to become one of the most powerful figures in Norman England, through to his enduring but divisive legacy in the centuries after his death. The story will be told through an array of over 100 stunning objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe. The crozier loaned by St Davids, dated to the 12th century, will show visitors to the exhibition an example of what the church used during Becket’s own lifetime.
Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 29 December 1170 when he was killed by soldiers of King Henry II during a Vespers service in Canterbury Cathedral – Becket had been in dispute with the King over the powers the monarch had over the church. It was also Henry II who blocked the appointment as Bishop of St Davids of Cymro-Norman scholar Gerald de Barri (also known as Gerald the Welshman, Gerallt Cymro or Geraldus Cambrensis). In his place, Henry appointed the Norman monk Peter de Leia, who became responsible for rebuilding the Cathedral in 1181 in the form we largely know it today. King Henry had also, largely unsuccessfully, fought against Arglwydd Rhys ap Gryffudd (the Lord Rhys), Prince of Deheubarth and south Wales. Gerallt Cymro and Arglwydd Rhys are both buried in St Davids Cathedral.
Mari James, Cathedral Library Development Officer, at installation of crozier in British Museum display. © The Trustees of The British Museum
Within a year of Thomas Becket’s murder, Henry II made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St David on 29 September 1171 which was recorded in the medieval Welsh Annals, Brut y Tywysogion, or Chronicles of the Princes. The 850th anniversary of this visit will be marked in St Davids Cathedral in September 2021. St Davids had been a significant pilgrimage destination following the affirmation by Pope Callixtus II in 1123 that two pilgrimages to St Davids were equivalent to one to Rome. Gerald recorded that the King made his second pilgrimage the following year, on 1 April 1172. The Cathedral has a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket, which may have been built on the site of the King’s visit to the older building.
The Very Rev’d Dr Sarah Rowland Jones, Dean of St Davids said, ‘The 12th century was an important period in Welsh history, seeing the transition from rule by native princes of Wales to that of the Norman and English monarchy. We are delighted to share the history of our Cathedral in the medieval period, through loaning one of our treasures to the British Museum for a few months. It is a pleasure to contribute to this exceptional exhibition on St Thomas Becket’s life, murder and continuing influence.’
The crozier will return to St Davids Cathedral after the exhibition closes and will then again be on public display in the Cathedral Treasury.
Henry II of England & Thomas Becket, St. David's - History
The assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 changed the course of history. Becket was one of the most powerful figures of his time, serving as royal Chancellor and later as Archbishop of Canterbury. Initially a close friend of King Henry II, the two men became engaged in a bitter dispute that culminated in Becket’s shocking murder by knights with close ties to the king. It is a story of betrayal, of the perceived abuse of power and those who fall for standing in the way of the Crown. Here we explore Becket’s rise and fall, and unpick the events that led to the murder that shook the Middle Ages…
Who was Thomas Becket?
Becket was a second-generation French immigrant, born around 1120 in Cheapside, in the City of London, to Gilbert and Matilda, who had left Normandy following the Norman Conquest. His father was a well-connected merchant but the family were neither excessively wealthy nor powerful. Becket was sent to school at Merton Priory and, after a few years studying in Paris, he eventually gained employment through one of his father’s friends as a clerk for Theobald, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was described by his contemporaries as intelligent, charming and authoritative and, in 1155, he got his biggest break. Recognising his talents, Theobald suggested that Henry II appoint Becket as Chancellor of England. He and the king quickly became close friends, hunting, gaming and travelling around England together. Becket embraced life in the royal court: he is said by his contemporary biographers to have enjoyed vast wealth, throwing lavish parties, decorating his residences with beautiful furnishings and making numerous journeys to France on his own ships.
Rise and fall
When the position of Archbishop of Canterbury became vacant, Becket was put forward. Given his lifestyle and reputation he was an unlikely candidate but the king had other ideas. Henry was keen to appoint his close friend to the role but, crucially, he wanted him to continue as Chancellor. With Becket in both positions, Henry saw an opportunity to exercise greater authority over the Church as well as the state. Becket was appointed Archbishop on 23 May 1162 and consecrated (officially blessed) on 3 June. However, at some point during the rest of that year, and against the king’s wishes, Becket resigned as Chancellor. His actions drove a wedge between him and the king which would never be repaired. From this point on, Becket’s relationship with Henry began to deteriorate. A series of disputes ensued regarding the division of power between the Crown and the Church. By 1164, tensions were at an all-time high and, in October, Becket was summoned to appear before the King’s council and ordered to forfeit all his personal property. He refused to accept the terms of his punishment and, fearing further repercussions from the king, he fled to France.
Life in exile
Becket remained in exile in France for six years. During this time Henry flexed his power in England. His most blatant snub of his old friend’s authority was his decision to have his son, Henry the Young King, crowned in June 1170 by Becket’s long-standing enemy, the Archbishop of York. Becket appealed to the Pope and, under significant pressure, Henry agreed to reopen negotiations. Following this, the Archbishop and the king spoke privately for the first time since 1164, and Henry promised to restore Becket’s rights as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was reassured that it would be safe to return to England. However, his final act was to punish those involved in the unauthorised coronation. Before leaving France Becket issued three letters expelling (excommunicating) the Archbishop of York and two bishops from the Church. This act was to have devastating consequences upon his return to England.
The lead up to the murder
Becket returned from exile on 1 December 1170. Contemporary reports record that he was greeted on his journey back to the Cathedral by cheering crowds and rejoicing monks, but he faced increasing hostility by the authorities loyal to the king. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury, furious that they had been excommunicated, travelled to Henry’s royal court in Normandy where they relayed Becket’s actions to the king. Henry was outraged and, although it is unclear whether he ever specifically ordered retribution for Becket’s actions, his furious outburst prompted four knights – Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret – to travel to Canterbury in search of Becket. One of Becket’s biographers records Henry’s words as:
What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (California: University of California Press, 1986), p. 235.
The crime scene
We are fortunate to have five eye-witness accounts of Becket’s murder, all of which broadly agree on the details of what took place. One key account was written by a man named Edward Grim, who was so close to Becket during the skirmish that he was wounded by one of the knight’s swords. Grim tells us that when the four knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, Becket was in the Archbishop’s Palace. They attempted to arrest him but he refused. Becket was persuaded by the monks to take refuge in the church, but the knights pursued him, bursting into the Cathedral with swords drawn, terrifying those inside by shouting:
“Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?” the knights then rushed at him… roughly manhandling and dragging him, intending to kill him outside the church, or carry him away in chains.The Lives of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 201.
As Grim recounts, Becket held tight onto one of the Cathedral’s pillars to prevent them seizing him, and it was at this point that one of the knights raised his sword for the first time, bringing it down on Becket, slicing off the crown of his head. Two of the other knights then started to attack Becket and most of the monks fled. The third blow brought the Archbishop’s life to an end. Gruesomely, by the end of the attack, Becket’s crown had:
“separated from the head so that the blood [turned] white from the brain, and the brain equally red from the blood.”The Lives of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 203.
The murderous knights were accompanied by a clerk, who, because of his involvement, became known as ‘Mauclerk’ or ‘evil clerk’. Following the attack, this Mauclerk:
put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered the brains with the blood over the pavement. “Let us go, knights”, he called out to the others, “this fellow will not get up again.The Lives of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 203.
Chaos ensued following the murder, and with none of those present knowing what to do next, the body remained where it had fallen for several hours. Some individuals dipped parts of their clothes in his spilled blood, or collected it in small vessels to take away in anticipation of Becket’s future sanctity. After spending the night on the high altar of the Cathedral, he was buried by the monks the next day in the crypt. Reports immediately circulated of miraculous healings connected to Becket. Facing increasing pressure from the people of Canterbury, the monks opened the crypt of the Cathedral so pilgrims could visit his tomb. An extraordinary wave of miracles was recorded and, in recognition of this, Becket was made a saint (canonised) by the Pope on 21 February 1173. It was one of the fastest canonisations in history. Becket’s reputation as a miracle-working saint spread quickly and people from all over Europe started to flock to Canterbury in the hope that they would be healed. As well as visiting the tomb, pilgrims could also purchase a mixture of his blood and water, called St Thomas’ Water, which was bottled and sold by opportunistic monks in small lead vessels called ampulla. Henry II, in a public act of penance for his involvement in the murder, visited the tomb in 1174, granting royal approval to Becket’s cult.
Becket’s death and subsequent miracles transformed Canterbury Cathedral into one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe. In 1220 his body was moved from the crypt to a glittering new shrine in a purpose-built chapel upstairs in the Cathedral. Geoffrey Chaucer famously captured something of the atmosphere of pilgrimage to this shrine in his Canterbury Tales. In death Becket remained a figure of opposition to unbridled power and became seen as the quintessential defender of the rights of the Church. To this end you can find images of his murder in churches across Latin Christendom, from Germany and Spain, to Italy and Norway. Becket was, and remains, a truly European saint. His relics at Canterbury were visited by people from across the continent until 1538, when Henry VIII would label him a traitor, order the destruction of his shrine and try to wipe him from history altogether. That, however, is a story for another time.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open 20 May – 22 August 2021. Find out more about the exhibition and book tickets here.
Buy the richly illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition.
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The first blow wounded Thomas on the head, and then, as the blood streamed down his face, one of the knights, Richard Brito, “smote him with such force that the sword was broken against his head”, and the whole crown of his head was cut off. One of the knight’s followers used his sword point to extract the archbishop’s brains through the wound.
It was a horrific crime in itself. But, given the status of the victim and the sanctity of the place, it was an outrage beyond comprehension.
Why was Thomas Becket murdered?
The attack was the conclusion of a long struggle between king and archbishop, one that was marked almost from the beginning by a clash of personalities. Great issues were at stake. Henry II was a remarkable and intelligent ruler, who had a vision of a land in which justice should be available to all, and all should be equal under royal law. As a young man, he had witnessed the disastrous struggle for the throne (known as the Anarchy) between his cousin Stephen and his mother, Matilda, and was determined that good government should be restored.
Thomas had his own vision, believing that in all things the authority of the church should be supreme, and that the king should rule as the church’s representative in the secular world. Royal interference in the church’s affairs should be ended, he contested, after centuries in which the king could overawe those who elected the church’s leaders, even the cardinals who chose the pope himself.
Both believed passionately in laws: Henry in the laws of the realm, Thomas in those of the church – canon law – which had been newly compiled and edited at the university of Bologna.
Were Thomas Becket and Henry II friends?
This infamous struggle between two powerful men began in harmony and friendship. Henry II became king at the end of 1154 when he was only 21, after the sudden death of Stephen. His chief advisor at the outset of his reign was Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury and it was Theobald who arranged the appointment of a 35-year-old clerk in his service to be the king’s chancellor, effectively his chief clerk. This was Thomas Becket, son of a moderately wealthy Londoner, who had joined Theobald’s household 12 years earlier as a first step to a career in the church. He had become Theobald’s favourite, and had been sent to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law, before becoming archdeacon of Canterbury. Thomas was charming, quick-witted and a loyal servant.
Having spent his early years in the very secular environment of the merchant families of London, Thomas transferred easily to royal service and the royal court. But what no one could have foreseen was the extraordinary friendship that sprang up between Henry and the chancellor, and the way in which Thomas transformed his rather prosaic post – at least in outward appearance – to the greatest office under the crown.
Henry never enjoyed magnificence, and preferred, even on festive or ceremonial occasions, to dress as simply as possible. When an alliance with France had to be negotiated – to be sealed by the betrothal of Henry’s eldest son, also called Henry, to Margaret, the daughter of Louis VII – the king sent Thomas on ahead to deal with the business aspects of the alliance.
Mindful of the need to impress the French, the king also encouraged him to mount a magnificent display. To say that Thomas was up to the task, is something of an understatement. For a start, he took 24 changes of clothing, many silk garments (which he gave away), every kind of fur, cloaks, and rich carpets. When he entered France, he was preceded by 250 footmen, who sang as they marched along. Eight wagons followed, bearing his provisions and the furnishings for his chapel, chamber, bedroom and kitchen.
Thomas’s treasure – gold and silver plate, money and books – was carried on 12 pack-horses. Monkeys rode on the back of the carthorses. Behind this came the squires with their masters’ shields, and leading their warhorses, the falconers with hawks on their wrists, and the members of the chancellor’s household.
Finally, preceded by the knights and clerics, the chancellor himself appeared, accompanied by close friends. “What a marvellous man the king of England must be,” the French were supposed to have exclaimed, “if his chancellor travels in such great state!” As it turned out, Henry came modestly dressed and accompanied by a mere handful of knights.
The king often teased Thomas about his delight in rich dress. As they rode through London one day, Henry saw an old man in a ragged coat and suggested to his chancellor that it would be an act of charity to give him a cloak. “Yes,” said Thomas, “you, as king, should see to it.” At this, Henry took hold of Thomas’s splendid cape and, after a short tussle, pulled it off and gave it to the poor man.
The cleric William Fitzstephen wrote that “when the daily round of business had been dealt with, the king and Thomas would sport together, like boys of the same age, in hall, in church and out riding together”. He also describes Thomas’s entertainment: “He hardly ever dined without the company of sundry earls and barons… His board was resplendent with gold and silver vessels and abounded in dainty dishes and precious wines.” And Henry himself would come: “Sometimes the king, bow in hand as he returned from the hunt or was about to set off, rode on horseback into the hall where the chancellor sat at table … sometimes he would jump over the table and sit down to meat with him. Never in the whole Christian era were two men more of one mind or better friends.”
And when the English invaded the county of Toulouse in the autumn of 1159, Thomas seems to have been in command of the army after Henry left to fight the French in Normandy. “Donning hauberk and helmet, the chancellor put himself at the head of a strong force and stormed three castles, which were strongly fortified and impregnable. He then crossed the Garonne with his troops in pursuit of the enemy, and, after confirming the whole province in its allegiance to the king, returned in high favour and honour.” To all appearances, Thomas was relishing his role as a great secular magnate.
How did Becket become Archbishop of Canterbury?
Six years after Thomas became chancellor, his old master, Archbishop Theobald, died. By now, Henry’s schemes for establishing royal power and justice were well under way and, as Thomas had probably helped to develop them, he seemed the obvious choice to replace Theobald. It’s likely that Henry secured the blessing of the pope, Alexander III, before telling Thomas of the appointment.
And with that the tragedy begins. Thomas was duly elected in May 1162. In the words of a modern historian, “he threw off the layman and became the complete archbishop”. At the beginning of June he resigned the chancellorship, apparently on the advice of the most senior of the English bishops, Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, and it may be that his relationship with the king was already on the wane. It was later said that Thomas had already warned Henry that his appointment as archbishop would be fatal to their relationship. In that, he was proved spectacularly prescient.
But even if the details are exaggerated, Thomas’s sudden change from a great officer of state with appropriate secular pomp to ascetic archbishop has puzzled historians ever since. Had he experienced a conversion like that of St Paul on the road to Damascus? The apparent contrast between Thomas as chancellor and Thomas as archbishop is as sharp as that between Saul the persecutor of Christians and St Paul as father of the church.
Even more puzzling is his unrelenting stance with regard to the programme of justice that he had helped Henry to initiate in these early years of the king’s reign. As someone trained in canon law and experienced in English royal law, Thomas must have known that there were many points at which Henry’s intentions would bring him into conflict with the church. However, there is from the outset every sign that he had decided not to negotiate or to give ground, but to defend the church’s privileges with all his might.
On becoming archbishop, Thomas attempted to restore the lands seized from the church of Canterbury during Stephen’s reign. He had the king’s permission to do this, it seems, but he encountered problems. The strategically important castle at Tonbridge was now in the possession of Roger de Clare, Earl of Hertford, one of the most influential of Henry’s barons. Thomas excommunicated another important lord, William of Eynsford, over a claim to the church at Eynsford, but Henry forced the archbishop to absolve William.
Knowing Henry’s intelligence and determination, Thomas may have feared that if he yielded on any point of dispute, Henry would only press him further. But in July 1163, at a council held at the palace of Woodstock, Thomas attacked a proposal of Henry’s which was essentially a reform of taxation with little if any conflict with ecclesiastical law. He did so on the grounds that it was an unprecedented and arbitrary innovation, as if he had become the defender of the ancient royal customs of England. It was now two years since he had first known that he was to be archbishop – and in this time he had moved from being a supporter of Henry’s plans to outright opposition.
What did Thomas Becket and Henry II argue about?
This ill-tempered approach pervades the archbishop’s relations with the king throughout the rest of his life – and Henry, renowned for his violent temper, responded in kind. The king’s actions, however, smack of a cold and resolute determination to humiliate the archbishop. Thomas had insisted on what we now call ‘benefit of clergy’, the right of anyone in holy orders to be tried in a church court, and only in a church court. Such ‘criminous clerks’, as they were called, could not be imprisoned by the king or put to death. In response, Henry attacked Thomas personally. The king raked up claims against him from his time as chancellor, claiming huge sums from him that the archbishop could not possibly pay.
This was Henry’s weakest moment in many ways: he was responding to an issue that struck at the heart of the differences between the church’s new ambitions and the royal agenda with a personal attack on Thomas. It was as if he sought to prove that even the archbishop could be arraigned in a royal court.
These claims against Thomas, and the argument as to whether he could be judged for them in a secular court, came to a head at a council in Northampton in 1164. Thomas had compounded his offences in the king’s eyes by opposing the provisions of the document setting out in writing the ancient customs of England that Henry had presented at an earlier council at Clarendon in January 1164. Now, in Northampton, these tensions broke out into open conflict. And it wasn’t just the king who had an axe to grind with Thomas: the great magnates, who had never had much love for the upstart merchant’s son, shouted insults at him when he declared that the barons had no authority to sit in judgment on him. Thomas, however, did not maintain a dignified silence, but hurled abuse back.
The same ill-temper was evident when Thomas, fearing for his safety, fled to Flanders. There he was visited by the justiciar (chief justice) Richard de Lucy, who pleaded with him to return to England. Thomas refused, and the encounter ended with a violent quarrel during which de Lucy withdrew the homage he had once paid to the archbishop.
Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, and he would probably have preferred to back Thomas to the hilt – if it wasn’t for the fact that he was one of two popes. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, had just recognised Alexander’s rival, Victor IV, as pontiff – and, fearing Henry II might do the same, Alexander was keen to reach a compromise.
In the summer of 1165, he ordered Thomas not to provoke the king in any way before Easter 1166, so anxious was he to preserve Henry’s good will. Once the ban expired, Thomas – in a move that surprised even his closest counsellors – launched a devastating series of excommunications against the English bishops and barons, sparing only the king himself. With the victims at once appealing to the pope, a settlement appeared less likely than ever.
But a settlement needed to be found, and the pope began interminable negotiations for Thomas’s return. Meetings with the legates sent by the pope broke up in acrimony, but there were rare moments when Thomas and Henry met and seemed to renew their old friendship – and, as a result, peace terms were eventually agreed. However, the entente was soon to break down in spectacular style.
Against tradition – but not church law – Henry’s eldest son, also named Henry, had been crowned king by the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury earlier in the year, to ensure that he succeeded his father. Henry had letters from the pope from some years earlier giving permission for the ceremony. Thomas retaliated in kind by using letters of excommunication against them which the pope had issued, also some time earlier.
It was the act of a man bent on revenge, not of someone who was going to win back his position by conciliation and patient negotiation. By calling into question the validity of the coronation, Thomas was striking at the heart of one of Henry’s most cherished schemes. During the years of exile, the archbishop seemed to have lost his judgment of affairs and to have withdrawn into a steely bitterness.
In that, he wasn’t alone: Henry’s fury with Thomas when he heard the news in France also led him to lose control. Whatever he may have said to the assembled courtiers – and we only have the report of one of Thomas’s biographers, who was not present – his rage inspired the four knights to ride to the coast, take ship for England, and confront the archbishop. On this occasion, intransigence and rage produced bloody murder.
Due to a lack of eyewitness evidence or personal letters, it can be difficult for historians to trace the moods and motives of the people about whom they write. But in this case we have abundant evidence, mostly from the biographers of Thomas in the years following his death – and from his own letters. There is rather less on Henry’s side, but even those who knew him well do not attempt to conceal his fierce temper and stubbornness. Only the extreme scenes of his rolling on the floor chewing the rushes and tearing his clothes when in a rage come under suspicion, as they appear rather too close to medical descriptions of madness.
It is easy to portray Henry as the villain of the piece, as some historians have done, describing a king surrounded by “slippery” advisors, “feeling utterly humiliated” and “bawling insults”. This is not in the sources, even the most hostile.
I personally see Henry as a cool and calculating man, prone to occasional disastrous outbursts of temper. Thomas, meanwhile, comes across as determined but resolutely undiplomatic, genuinely spiritual in his exile but ultimately unsure of himself – a man who relied on the advice of his followers at critical moments.
Of course there were high principles and deep politics involved in the quarrel between Henry and Thomas, and there’s no doubt that the issue of both royal and papal authority proved an insoluble problem. But the outcome was exacerbated by the two protagonists. Thomas, despite his sainthood and undeserved martyrdom, is as much at fault as Henry. Indeed, the Norman poet who, in 1169, described Henry as blameless and Thomas as iniquitous, may have more of a point than we know. What should have been an argument – however hotly disputed – conducted between the highest representatives of church and state had become fatally enmeshed in a clash of personalities.
Richard Barber is a historian who has written several books on medieval England, including Edward III and the Triumph of England (Allen Lane, 2013)
The conflict between Henry II and Thomas a Becket
In the chaos of Stephen's reign there had been little hope of obtaining Justice from any except ecclesiastical courts, which, as a natural consequence, encroached upon the jurisdiction of the lay courts.
King Henry found that in all cases in which any person was concerned who belonged to the ranks of the clergy, including what was practically the lay fringe of that body, the Church claimed exclusive jurisdiction, and inflicted on clerics penalties which, from the lay point of view, were grotesquely inadequate. Royal expostulations were met by archepiscopal denunciations. The quarrel waxed hot.
The king was determined that the clergy should not be exempted from the due reward of their misdoings. In the Constitutions of Clarendon he propounded a scheme which he professed to regard as expressing the true customs of the kingdom. Becket was induced to promise to accept the customs but not without justification he repudiated the king's view of what those customs were.
The clauses in the Constitutions which forbade carrying appeals to Rome and required the higher clergy to obtain a royal licence to leave the kingdom were hardly disputable. But the case for the "customs" broke down when the king claimed that criminous clerks should be handed over to the secular arm for further judgment after the Church had indicted its own penalties.
Becket, however, chose to resist the demand on the ground that a cleric as such was exempt from secular punishment in virtue of his office.
Becket in exile
The barons took the king's side and threatened violence. Becket yielded avowedly to force and nothing else. Having done so he obtained a papal dispensation annulling his promise. The king's indignation was obvious and justifiable. Becket persuaded himself that his life was in danger, as it really may have been and he fled from the country to appeal to the Pope and the king of France.
In the course of the quarrel both sides had committed palpable breaches of the law. Now, with Becket out of the country, diplomacy at Rome, coupled with the logic of facts in England, might have secured the king complete victory but he was tempted to a blunder. He had his eldest son Henry crowned as his successor.
Coronation was a prerogative of the Archbishop of Canterbury the young prince was crowned without him. The Pope threatened to suspend the bishops who had performed the ceremony and to lay the king's continental territories under an interdict. Henry was alarmed and sought a reconciliation with Becket. At a formal meeting in France the quarrel was so far composed that Becket was invited to return in peace to Canterbury.
He returned, but not in peace. He had hardly landed in England when he excommunicated the bishops who had participated in the coronation ceremony. The news was carried to the king, who was then in the neighbourhood of Bayeux. He burst into a fit of ungovernable rage.
Four knights caught at the words which he uttered in his frenzy, slipped from the court, posted to the sea, and took ship for England, where they at once made for Canterbury. They broke into the archbishop's house and charged him with treason. He flung the charge in their teeth. They withdrew, but only to arm themselves.
The archbishop's chaplains forced him into the cathedral where the vesper service was beginning. As he passed up into the choir the knights burst in with drawn, swords crying,"Where is the traitor? Where is the archbishop?" He turned and advanced to meet them.
"I," he said, "am the servant of Christ whom ye seek." One of them laid hands on him the archbishop flung him off with words of scorn. They cut him down and scattered his brains on the pavement. Then they took horse and departed.
The murder of Becket gave him the victory which otherwise would hardly have been his. Henry's repentance was abject and sincere. Nearly eighteen months passed before he finally came to terms with the Pope he evaded the extremity of submission, making a pretext for delay out of the expedition to Ireland, of which we shall presently speak further.
When he did come to terms he was able to maintain those claims for the independence of the English Crown which had been asserted by his predecessors. But he had to surrender on the question of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts and no encroachment was made upon those privileges called "Benefit of Clergy" until the dawn of the Reformation.
A History of Britain
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.
New biography of St. Thomas Becket dispels myths with serious scholarship
A review of Fr. John Hogan’s Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church, published by Our Sunday Visitor.
Perhaps the second best-known martyrdom in the history of the Anglophone world is St. Thomas Becket, killed in Canterbury Cathedral during Vespers at the hands of four knights motivated by King Henry II of England’s ranting that the archbishop was a traitor whom he wished to be rid of. That Becket and the king had once been close friends, that Henry wished for one of his allies to become primate of England and that the future martyr’s elevation to that position was followed by his transition to a holier mode of life and by a staunch defense of the Church against royal power are also matters of common knowledge.
Those who have done even cursory research into the topic will be aware that popular perceptions of it include a high proportion of myth, much of it derived from the Jean Anouilh play that bears the martyr’s name and served as the script for the movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. But those reading Father John Hogan’s Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church will, unless they have already made a more serious study of that saint’s life, be surprised by the full extent to which the Becket legend is filled with misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
Among the most egregious errors corrected in this book is the one claiming that Becket, despite being a deacon, was sunk in a life of immorality before his selection for the episcopate inspired a dramatic conversion. In reality, the worldliness of Becket’s early life concerned matters of perfection and prudential judgments rather than intrinsically grave sin. His love of luxury and ostentatious magnificence was joined to strict chastity and financial charity for the poor that could be as lavish as his own lifestyle. The real change he underwent after being selected as archbishop was the rejection of minimalism in favor of a seriously devout life. Although, his devout life was grounded in the spiritual formation he had received from his mother during childhood and a basic commitment to Catholicism that had never left him.
Even one of the early Becket’s very real flaws, his willingness to assist encroachment on the autonomy of the Church, is open to exaggeration. The best known conflict between chancellor Becket and England’s Catholic hierarchy concerned a tax that was not new and that did not directly target the Church. What Beckett did do was enforce a neglected law in which landholding knights legally liable to military service could pay a fee for hiring professional substitutes, changed a graduated scale of fees to a flat rate that hit the lesser knights hard and applied the law to lands in the hands of clergymen. Another notable case was grounded in a conflict of jurisdiction between a diocese and an abbey, Becket working on behalf of the latter in obedience to a king intent upon using the issue to weaken episcopal authority.
But even during the years when Becket was most closely cooperating with Henry he was still willing to stand up to him over ecclesial issues. At one point the king, wishing to gain control of Blois, insisted upon a marriage between his cousin and the heiress of the land’s recently deceased ruler—an heiress who was also an abbess entirely opposed to asking for a dispensation from her religious vows and to leaving her convent. When Henry decided to have her kidnapped, Becket condemned him to his face with all the vigor he later showed as primate.
Becket later intervened on behalf of the secretary of John of Salisbury (at the time secretary to Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury) whom Henry had decided to charge with treason. Salisbury was saved, becoming one of the more prominent thinkers of the age, a member of Archbishop Becket’s inner circle and author of one of the martyr’s first biographies. Salisbury’s biography of Becket stressed that the chancellor was commonly at odds with his royal master and concerned about the latter’s more tyrannical tendencies well before there was any question of elevation to the see of Canterbury. True as it is that the Becket chosen to replace Archbishop Theobald was still something of a king’s man, he was hardly the king’s lackey. He also had a background closer to that of men commonly chosen for the episcopate in his day than is usually realized.
The seminary system as we now know it (with precisely delimited courses of studies followed by priestly ordination) was a creation of the reform movements associated with the Council of Trent. In the twelfth century men simply became members of the diocesan clergy, being admitted to the non-sacramental minor orders and then rising based on their education, sanctity, demonstrated abilities and the needs of their dioceses rather than in accordance with any set program.
Both before and during his years as the king’s chancellor, Becket also held the office of archdeacon of Canterbury—a senior diocesan administrative post. Archdeacons often knowing more about running a diocese than many parish clergymen, it was unremarkable for them to be chosen as bishops despite never having been priests. That, his experience as chancellor, and the fact that he was an expert canon lawyer rendered Becket highly qualified for the primate’s duties as an administrator. This role made him responsible for the Church throughout England. His lack of advanced theological training (for which he quickly made up) and his mode of life (which he quickly reformed) meant that he seemed set to be a bureaucratic archbishop rather than either a spiritually zealous or a scandalous one.
Of course, Henry II got a very different new primate than the one he had expected. While telling the true story of their conflict generally involved only the addition of fuller details rather than revising the broad picture, a brief mention of the real roles of Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII of France is in order. The latter did not use Becket as a political pawn but was sincerely sympathetic both to his stand for the Church and to him personally as a man, though he did sometimes compromise his inclinations for political reasons. The former was a reforming pontiff loyal to the program of the great Pope St. Gregory VII, one whose occasional vacillation was motivated by a desire to avoid Henry II dragging England into schism in alliance with the notorious Frederick Barbarossa—who supported a series of anti-popes, periodically conquered parts of Italy and forced Alexander to spend much of his pontificate in exile.
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Henry II of England & Thomas Becket, St. David's - History
The image of Becket’s bloody demise at the hands of four knights from the king’s entourage has been depicted countless times in sculpture, wall painting, stained glass, manuscript illumination and metalwork. In the exhibition you see the shocking scene on flasks sold to pilgrims, on brightly enamelled caskets made to hold Becket’s relics, and even on a stone font made for a parish church as far away as Sweden.
The archbishop’s murder by Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy caused outrage across Europe and continues to fascinate people today. What is astonishing, for an event which took place 850 years ago, is our ability to recount in detail what happened on the day of the crime. In this blog, we track down Becket’s murderers and explore who they were and the mysterious circumstances of their deaths.
How do we know what we know?
Within 20 years of Becket’s death, at least 13 biographies had been written about him. These ‘Lives of St Thomas’ were all composed by men who either knew Becket personally or had close associations with the Church. Five were written by eye-witnesses to the murder, including one by a man named Edward Grim, the only person who came to Becket’s defence when the knights attacked. For his valiant effort to protect the archbishop, he received a sword in the arm during the fracas.
Given their backgrounds and ties to the Church, it is unsurprising that the biographers, on the whole, paint the archbishop in a positive light, while Henry and his knights are the villains of the story. As a younger man, Becket had lived a secular lifestyle enjoying the pursuit of hunting, playing chess, and even on occasion fighting in battles. But despite this, he is routinely presented in the biographies as a model of virtue who was always destined for future saintly glory. In contrast, the four knights are lambasted as ‘men of Belial [the devil]’ and ‘ruffians’, ‘madmen’ and ‘butchers.’
The earliest description of the crime was written by John of Salisbury, an eyewitness and one of the archbishop’s closest advisors. In early 1171, John wrote a letter to his friend, the Bishop of Poitiers, in which he recounted the gory details of the murder and the astonishing miracles taking place at Becket’s tomb. Copies of the letter circulated widely, and John later expanded it into a full biography which was presented to the Pope as part of a campaign to have the archbishop canonised. This took place in February 1173 when Pope Alexander III officially made Becket a saint, one of the fastest canonisations at the time. A copy of John’s eyewitness account can be found in a collection of correspondence related to Becket and Henry’s dispute complied in the wake of the crime, on loan from the British Library. One of the earliest known images of Becket’s murder immediately precedes John’s description in this manuscript. It is a lively and dramatic scene, remarkable for the illuminator’s attention to detail.
In the upper part, Becket is interrupted at dinner by the knights’ arrival at his palace in Canterbury. They wait outside the door while a servant announces them. Below, to the left, having pursued the archbishop into the cathedral, the knights strike him down. Kneeling before his attackers, Becket is hit on the top of his head by the knight carrying a red shield while Edward Grim, who stands behind holding a cross-shaped staff, receives a blow to his arm. Between Becket and the knights, a piece of the archbishop’s bloody severed skull and a fragment from the tip of the murder weapon fall to the ground. This detail of the broken sword can be found in a number of the eyewitness accounts, as Grim states, ‘With this blow, the sword itself was dashed on the pavement.’ Medieval pilgrims to Canterbury were offered the relic of the swordpoint to kiss, in a chapel located on the site of the murder called the Martyrdom.
Who were the murderers?
As news of Becket’s murder spread throughout Europe so too did the notoriety of the four knights. The names Fitzurse, Morville, Brito and Tracy became infamous and they were almost as frequently depicted as Becket himself. All of the knights came from high-standing and land-owning families with close ties to the Crown. Their decision to arrest Becket was no doubt part of a plan to curry favour with the king. When they made their way to Canterbury they did little to conceal their identities or hide in darkness. The archbishop even knew some of the knights personally, greeting Morville by name.
In representations of the event, the numbers of knights present and the way they were depicted varied considerably, but occasionally one of them was marked out. In the illumination above, the red shield of the second knight is decorated with the head of an animal, a visual clue to the man’s identity. The bear’s head is an allusion to the surname of Reginald Fitzurse, which translates as ‘son of the bear’. According to some of Becket’s biographers, Fitzurse was the unofficial leader of the group and the bear’s head was frequently used to single him out. Fitzurse’s prominent role was widely known and medieval pilgrims to Canterbury could even buy and take home a badge in the form of his murder weapon. A surviving scabbard for a souvenir like this includes a small shield embossed with four tiny bears’ heads.
Another pilgrim souvenir names Fitzurse and describes his involvement in the crime. It is a tin-alloy flask made to hold a liquid called St Thomas’s Water, a mixture of Becket’s blood and water, which was dispensed by the Canterbury monks. Front and back are decorated with two scenes, one of Becket enthroned and another of the murder. Around the frame is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘Reginald Fitzurse brought to pass the martyrdom of Thomas.’
A myth debunked
What spurred the knights to action? For many, Becket’s death will forever be linked to the famous phrase supposedly uttered in a rage by Henry II, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’. The knights, within earshot of the king, interpreted Henry to be fed up with the archbishop and conspired to deal with Becket once and for all. Taking it upon themselves they hatched a plan, made their way to Canterbury, and the rest is history.
But, while these events are broadly true, the exact words Henry said will never be known for certain his famous phrase can only be traced back as far as the 1700s. Becket’s early biographers attributed a few different phrases to the king and although their accounts differ, the meaning remains clear. Henry, overwhelmed by his anger with Becket, wanted the entire court to hear of his displeasure. Whether or not he wanted anyone to murder the archbishop is impossible to say!
Garnier of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a French biographer of Becket who travelled to Canterbury to investigate the facts and even interviewed the archbishop’s sister, wrote that Henry said:
A man… who has eaten my bread, who came to my court poor, and I have raised him high – now he draws up his heel to kick me in the teeth! He has shamed my kin, shamed my realm the grief goes to my heart, and no one has avenged me!Trans Michael Staunton, The Lives of Thomas Becket, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001, p. 189
Although Henry later distanced himself from the knights’ actions, many blamed him for Becket’s death. One of the objects on loan to the exhibition is a font from the parish church of Lyngsjö in southern Sweden. It shows how, in the aftermath of the crime, Henry was seen as its instigator. Made around 1191, the upper half of the bowl shows a scene of Becket’s murder. To the left, the king sits enthroned, named by a scroll reading ‘REX:HRICVS’ (King Henry). He points to a knight, ordering him to join in with the others who have already begun attacking the archbishop.
Crime and punishment
Henry’s appearance on the Lyngsjö font raises the question of what punishment he and the murderers faced for Becket’s death. Following the crime, the knights trashed and looted the archbishop’s palace, probably in search of incriminating evidence which they could use against him. They then made their way to Saltwood Castle, located 15 miles south of Canterbury. From there, they travelled to Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire, where they stayed for about a year. Surprisingly, the knights faced little initial backlash from the king and appear to have been left in peace during their time in Knaresborough. Behind the scenes however, Henry barred their male heirs from inheriting property – a serious blow.
To absolve themselves, the knights made their way to the Pope in Rome, who commanded them to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. All four are believed to have died either in Jerusalem or on their way there. William de Tracy left us with a final clue to his whereabouts, a surviving charter dating from 1173 to 1174, now in the library and archive of Canterbury Cathedral, issued by him in the Italian city of Cosenza. Desiring forgiveness for his involvement in the murder, he grants gifts to the monks of Canterbury and asks that they pray for his soul.
As for the king, his punishment was light. Two years after Becket’s death, he performed a public penance in the Norman towns of Avranches and Caen. Afterwards, the Pope absolved Henry of any wrongdoing. But the king’s public demonstrations did not end there. In July 1174 he was facing the greatest challenge to his authority yet, a civil war brought about by his sons and their mother, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the midst of this war, he finally visited Canterbury and the resting place of his old adversary. In an astonishing public humiliation, the king walked barefoot through the city and knelt before Becket’s tomb in the Cathedral crypt. He acknowledged his involvement in the crime and was punished by monks. The next day, Henry’s fortunes changed. His men won a decisive battle and his success was widely attributed to the intervention of Saint Thomas of Canterbury.
From then on, Henry adopted Becket as his protector. He made numerous gifts to the cathedral and visited it regularly on pilgrimage. In a royal charter, on loan to the exhibition from Canterbury Cathedral, Henry promises to protect the rights of the Canterbury monks in perpetuity. It came endorsed by his great seal, a magnificent wax image of the king enthroned with sword in one hand and orb in the other.
Despite Henry’s penance and personal endorsement of Becket’s burgeoning cult, he could never escape his association with the murder. A later genealogy of English kings, on loan from the British Library, shows both men locked in a heated argument. Enthroned on the left, Henry presses a finger emphatically into his open palm while the Archbishop raises a hand in disagreement.
Their dispute became the defining feature of the king’s reign, whereas Becket would be raised up as a champion among those who sought a model of opposition to royal tyranny and a defender of the rights of the Church.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open 20 May – 22 August 2021. To find out more about the exhibition and to book tickets visit britishmuseum.org/becket
To find out more about Becket’s life and legacy, read Thomas Becket: the murder that shook the Middle Ages
Buy the richly illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition.
The Cult of Thomas Becket: History and Historiography through Eight Centuries
Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury (1120–70) is one of the iconic figures in British history – a man who most people have not only heard of, but also have an opinion on. Yet, despite the brutality of his murder, such opinions are not always positive. In fact, this medieval archbishop is an unusually divisive figure, and always has been. In the 12th century, he was both revered as a saint and dismissed (by his fellow bishop Gilbert Foliot) with the famous line ‘[he] always was a fool and always will be’. More recently, he has been included in lists of both the greatest and the worst Britons of all time. Notably, in 2005, he was runner-up to Jack the Ripper in a BBC History Magazine poll – above King John and Oswald Mosley. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the strength of feeling he is capable of provoking, he has also been the subject of vast quantities of writing in the eight centuries since his death.
Several recent historians, including Anne Duggan and Nicholas Vincent, have produced surveys of this substantial body of literature, but Kay Brainerd Slocum’s The Cult of Thomas Becket: History and Hagiography through Eight Centuries is the first book-length study to focus solely on the myth rather than the man.[i] Her emphasis is on strictly historical texts, and cultural representations (such as T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) are dealt with in a few brief pages. The strange history of people who have compared themselves to Becket is similarly addressed only in passing – although former FBI director James Comey does earn a mention. Slocum approaches her subject chronologically, beginning with Becket’s murder and continuing through to the present day.
Thus the opening section of the book, ‘Saint and cult’, covers the copious hagiographical, liturgical and iconographical material which was produced in the three centuries after Becket’s murder. Chapter one (‘The creation of St Thomas of Canterbury’) provides brief summaries of the early Becket lives: more than a dozen such biographies were produced between 1171 and 1213, and it is on these writings that most subsequent work about Becket has been based. Chapter two (‘Thirteenth-century translations’) explores slightly later attempts to spread Becket’s cult by translating these biographies into the vernacular, and by stressing aspects of the archbishop’s life which gave him wider appeal – for example, his close relationship with his mother, and his great concern for the poor. The growth of the cult is further examined in chapter three (‘Holy blisful martir: the development of the Becket cult’), which begins with the earliest recorded miracles. Many of these involved the ‘water of St Thomas’ (a mix of water and the martyr’s blood which could be drunk by the sufferer), which was potent, but also controversial, since it echoed the Eucharist a little too closely for comfort. Nevertheless, devotion to the dead archbishop spread rapidly across Europe, aided by the continental marriages of Henry II’s daughters and the efforts of Cistercian monks. Slocum highlights how, even at this early stage, people were prone to find what they needed in the Becket story. He was, for example, particularly appealing to bishops facing their own church-state battles, in countries as far apart as Poland and Iceland.
Chapter four (‘Liturgies, sermons and the translation of 1220’) focuses on the author’s particular speciality: the medieval liturgies dedicated to Thomas Becket, of which over 300 survive.[ii] Drawing heavily on the existing lives, these texts were designed to further develop Becket’s sanctity, by highlighting his key roles: he was a pastor, a defender of the church, a martyr, and an intercessor. Slocum identifies a gradual shift in tone (the earliest liturgies contained more violence, whereas those written for and after the 1220 translation emphasised reconciliation), and argues for the importance of liturgy in spreading the cult. Sermons were also important, allowing oral dissemination of Becket’s saintly and episcopal virtues. Chapter five (‘Becket and iconography’) highlights the wealth of material remains (manuscript illumination, Limoges reliquaries, pilgrim badges and ampullae, seals, and stained glass), and draws attention to recent interdisciplinary studies which draw on these sources.[iii]
Becket’s cult thrived for three centuries after his death. Then came the Reformation, the impact of which is unravelled in chapters six (‘Henry VIII and the spectre of Becket’) and seven (‘Becket as a symbol for the Catholic opposition’). Inevitably, there had been some pre-Reformation criticism of Becket’s cult, notably from 15th-century Lollards. In the early years of the 16th century Erasmus commented unfavourably on the immense wealth of the shrine, and William Tyndale made unfavourable comparisons between Becket and his namesake Cardinal Wolsey. By the 1530s, the archbishop had developed into a major problem for the Henrician Reformation, since he was not only a saint but also a symbol of effective ecclesiastical resistance against the crown. Consequently, destroying the Canterbury shrine and burning Becket’s bones was not enough: the archbishop had to be transformed from saint to traitor, and this was achieved in part by rewriting the story of his death. In this new version of events, Becket was a troublemaker, justly killed after a jurisdictional dispute between Canterbury and York led to a riot. Despite efforts to revive his cult during the brief reign of Mary I (1553–8), the Tudor Becket was (to quote John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) ‘not a Martyr, but a stubborn man against his King.’
For Protestants like Foxe, Becket’s popish tendencies and opposition to Henry II made him a traitor, but for early modern English Catholics these were positive attributes. Devotion to the saint survived in recusant communities throughout the period, and he was often linked to more recent martyrs such as Thomas More and Edmund Campion. His experiences as an exile and his willingness to die for his faith enhanced his appeal to Catholic exiles from Reformation England, and in particular to priests trained for missionary work at the English Catholic colleges on the continent. In these institutions, Becket was the subject of artwork, plays, and spiritual exercises, and an inspiration for seminarians who believed that their destiny was to follow in the footsteps of this English martyr.
18th-century interpretations of Becket were less focused on religion, as Slocum outlines in chapter eight (‘Rationalism and the Canterbury martyr’). Most Enlightenment historians saw Henry II as an effective monarch striving to establish good government in an age of superstition, and his actions during the Becket dispute as necessary attempts to maintain order in his kingdom. The archbishop, on the other hand, was a man with many flaws, not least overweening ambition. David Hume (1711–76) wrote disapprovingly of Becket’s ‘violent spirit’, and claimed that his triumphant final return to Canterbury was effectively a declaration of war. In this version of events, the murder in the cathedral was not a martyrdom, but a necessary step towards English freedom from superstition and foreign rule.
Opposition to foreign rule also played an important role in the histories considered in chapter nine (‘Victorian biographers and antiquarians’). During the 19th century, a growing interest in national histories led to a new focus on the question of Becket’s identity: was he a Saxon or a Norman? Some Victorian historians went so far as to reconfigure the Becket dispute as a conflict between an oppressive Norman king and a Saxon priest who wanted only to preserve the rights of the native people. Others argued that Becket must have been on the side of the oppressors, since his penitential practices (particularly his penchant for hair undergarments) were decidedly un-English. Once again, the Protestant-Catholic divide reared its head, as Becket was adopted as one of the figureheads of the Oxford Movement, whilst historians concerned by the rise of Anglo-Catholicism produced strident attacks on the saint. Of the latter group, James Froude (1818–94) was one of the most forthright: his Becket was ‘overbearing, violent, ambitious [and] unscrupulous’, and the church which he defended was ‘saturated with venality’. A less dramatic, but perhaps ultimately more significant, Becket-related enterprise of this period was the production of new editions of the key texts, including the seven-volume Rolls Series edition of the lives and letters.
In the final section of the book, Slocum focuses on ‘Becket in the modern and postmodern world’, and begins by turning her attention to ‘Becket in legal and intellectual history’ (chapter 10). In the late 19th century, the reign of Henry II began to be seen as a key period in English legal history, and consequently the Becket dispute began to be studied in legal terms. This approach survived well into the 20th century, favoured by historians including Z. N. Brooke, C. R. Cheney and Charles Duggan- who reached very different conclusions about whose legal case was stronger. At around the same time, historians such as Beryl Smalley[iv] and Benedicta Ward[v] placed the archbishop in his intellectual context, the former by looking at the influence of the Schools and the latter by focusing on medieval understandings of the miracles.
Recent decades have also seen the publication of numerous biographies of Becket, and Slocum surveys these in chapter 11 (‘Biographies of the Canterbury martyr in the twentieth and twenty-first century’). In broad terms, she sees the first half of the 20th century as a period of continuing nationalism, when Becket was either an English Christian hero, or a vain and ambitious man who overreacted in the face of Henry II’s moderate demands. Since the 1950s, there has been a turn towards ‘psychological interpretation’, with biographers such as David Knowles, Anne Duggan and John Guy paying increasing attention to Becket’s personality and its impact on the dispute. The last few decades have seen yet more new approaches, as summarised in chapter 12 (‘Becket scholarship in the postmodern world and beyond’): contemporary historians have approached the man and the dispute through prisms including gender and sexuality, anger and conflict studies, friendship, and medievalism. In doing so, they have addressed topics ranging from Becket’s sex life (or lack thereof) to his horses.
Ultimately, the Becket who emerges from these pages is, in Slocum’s words, ‘a kaleidoscopic personality’, a man who has been constantly reconfigured into new shapes to suit the beliefs and agendas of those who have written about him. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this book is that it highlights just how malleable a figure Becket is, and how it is possible to project almost anything onto him- a quality which both explains the enduring interest in his story, and raises interesting questions about the ways medieval history has been used for modern purposes. For those who are familiar with the medieval Becket, but who know little about the ways in which his story has subsequently been adapted and exploited, this is an eye-opening read.
The other enigma in this volume is the author: what Slocum thinks about this material, and the questions it raises, is not entirely clear. Which of the interpretations she describes does she find credible, and/or worth further investigation? If all (or at least most) of these theories have emerged from the same set of 12th-century biographies, what does that tell us about that original set of texts? She shows that the medieval cult of Becket was Europe-wide, but also states that (prominent exceptions such as Raymonde Foreville notwithstanding) the historiography is primarily in English: if interest in Becket was so widespread in the middle ages, when and why did it shrink? And where will Becket studies go next? Even allowing for the fact that this is a historiographical survey, it would be useful to have a stronger sense of why Slocum thinks this material matters, perhaps in a more substantial conclusion.
Overall, however, this a clear and wide-ranging survey of a vast number of texts. With a study of this kind, it is perhaps inevitable that some readers will wish that there had been room for other things: a summary of the non-English historiography, perhaps, or more detailed consideration of the work of a particular author. Nevertheless, this is a valuable addition to the ever-growing literature on Thomas Becket, and a very useful introduction to that literature. With the 850 th anniversary of his martyrdom coming up in 2020, there will undoubtedly be a further flurry of publications about Becket in the next few years, and it will be interesting to see what new forms the martyr takes. Based on what Slocum tells us about past histories, one thing seems certain: these new interpretations will tell us as much about twenty-first century priorities and interests as they do about the man himself.
[i] Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket (London, 2004), pp. 224-52 Nicholas Vincent, ‘Thomas Becket’ in G. Atkins (ed.), Making and Remaking Saints in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Manchester, 2011), pp. 92-111
[ii] See Kay Brainerd Slocum, Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket (Toronto, 2004).
[iii] Especially Paul Binski, Becket’s Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England, 1170-1300 (New Haven, CT, 2004) and the work of Rachel Koopmans, including her Wonderful to Relate: Miracles Stories and Miracle Collecting in the High Middle Ages (Philadelphia, PA, 2011).
[iv] Beryl Smalley, The Becket Conflict and the Schools: A Study of Intellectuals in Politics (Oxford, 1973)
[v] Benedicta Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind: Theory, Record and Event, 1000-1215 (Philadelphia, PA,1982), pp. 89-109
Constitutions of Clarendon
The Pope in Rome was horrified when they heard the news that Henry had destroyed St. Thomas Becket's Shrine. On 17 December 1538, the Pope excommunicated Henry VIII from the Catholic church.
In 1539 the Corporation of the City of London changed its Common Seal. It used to bear on its reverse side an image of Thomas Becket. This was removed: from then on this became a shield of the City Arms.
It has been estimated that bullion, plate and other treasures worth over ٟ million, including spoils from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, were sent to the Mint [Tower of London] between 1536 and 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, to be melted down.
It had been suggested that, as long as the name of St. Thomas of Canterbury should remain in the calendar, men would be stimulated by his example to brave the ecclesiastical authority of their sovereign. The king's attorney was therefore instructed to exhibit an information against him and "Thomas Becket, some time archbishop of Canterbury," was formally cited to appear in court and answer to the charge.
The Nineteenth Century and After. Volume 60. Henricus R versus Thomas Becket by E. Taunton: Leonard Scott Publishing Company. 1906. p. 1003.
Ethelred Luke Taunton (1906). Henricus R. Versus Thomas Becket. Periodical: The Nineteenth Century and After (Volume 60). pp. 1003–.
Christopher Morgan and Andrew Alderson wrote an article published in the Sunday Times (UK) on June 22nd 1997 entitled "Becket's bones kept secretly at Canterbury for 450 years".
Benedictine martyrs of Reformation (d. 1539) (blessed)
This is a group of three English Benedictine abbots with several other monks who were executed for resisting Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. They were Richard Whiting, abbot of Glastonbury, Hugh Faringdon of Reading, and John Beche of Colchester. Among the 'incriminating' documents Whiting possessed was a life of Thomas Becket he was hanged, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor, along with his treasurer and sacristan. The other two were also executed. They were beatified as martyrs in 1895. It is interesting, though, to note that none of them rejected the Oath of Supremacy they seem to have been fighting to keep their monasteries rather than out of opposition to Henry's rejection of papal supremacy.
Conjectured pictures of Becket's Shrine
|By J. Cole|
Dudley (?) - Watercolour - "Reconstruction of the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral", 10ins x 7.75ins, indistinct signed and dated 1969, with inscription to reverse indicating "The Original Drawing for Christian Canterbury City of Pilgrims", in gilt moulded frame and glazed