Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket

Infobox Archbishop of Canterbury
Full name=Saint Thomas Becket

caption= Thirteenth century manuscript illumination, an early depiction of Becket's assassination
birth_name =
began = 1162-06-03
term_end = death date|1170|12|29|mf=y
predecessor = Theobald of Bec
successor = Richard of Dover
birth_date = c. 1118 | birthplace = Cheapside, London
death_date = death date and age|1170|12|29|1118|1|1 | deathplace = Canterbury
tomb = Canterbury Cathedral|

St. Thomas Becket, (c. 1118 – December 29, 1170) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. He engaged in conflict with King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church and was assassinated by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral.

He is also commonly known as Thomas à Becket, although this form may not have been contemporaneous. The "à" is now believed to be a complete error. Historian John Strype wrote in his "Memorials of Thomas Cranmer" (1694): "It is a small error, but being so oft repeated deserveth to be observed into corrected. The name of that archbishop was Thomas Becket. If the vulgar did formerly, as it doth now, call him 'Thomas à Becket' their mistake is not to be followed by learned men." Notwithstanding, the "Oxford Dictionary of English", the "New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors" and "Chambers Biographical Dictionary" all prefer "St. Thomas à Becket".

Early life

Thomas Becket was born in c.1118 in Cheapside, London, to Gilbert Beket of Thierville and Matilda (with a familiar name of Roheise or Rosea) of Mondeville near Caen. [Barlow, Frank (2004). "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford University Press. ] His parents, of the Rouen upper-middle class, were buried in Old St. Paul's Cathedral. There is a story that Thomas's mother was a Saracen princess who met and fell in love with his English father while he was on Crusade or pilgrimage in the Holy Land, then followed him home, was baptised and married him. This story has no truth to it, [ [ Thomas Becket: Playing a role] ] and its origin is unknown.

One of Thomas's father's rich friends, Richer de L'Aigle, was attracted to Thomas's sisters. He often invited Thomas to his estates in Sussex. There, Thomas learned to ride a horse, hunt, behave like a gentleman, and engage in popular sports such as jousting. Beginning when he was 10, Becket received an excellent education in civil and canon law at Merton Priory in England, and then overseas at Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre. Richer was later a signatory at the Constitutions of Clarendon against Thomas.

Upon returning to the Kingdom of England, he attracted the notice of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and finally made him Archdeacon of Canterbury and Provost of Beverley. He so distinguished himself by his zeal and efficiency that Theobald recommended him to King Henry II when the important office of Lord Chancellor was vacant.

Henry desired to be absolute ruler of his dominions, both Church and State, and could find precedents in the traditions of the throne when he planned to do away with the special privileges of the English clergy, which he regarded as fetters on his authority. As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king’s traditional medieval land tax that was exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. This created both a hardship and a resentment of Becket among the English Churchmen. To further implicate Becket as a secular man, he became an accomplished and extravagant courtier and a cheerful companion to the king's pleasures. Thomas was devoted to Henry's interests with such a firm and yet diplomatic thoroughness that scarcely anyone, except perhaps John of Salisbury, doubted his allegiance to English royalty.

King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life. An emotional attachment to Becket as a foster-father may have been one of the reasons the younger Henry would turn against his father.

Infobox Saint Archbishop of Canterbury
feast_day=December 29
venerated_in=Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion
titles=Bishop and Martyr
beatified_date= February 21,1173
canonized_date=July 12, 1174
canonized_place= St. Peter's Church in Segni
canonized_by=Pope Alexander III
attributes=Sword, Martyrdom, dressed in chancellor's robe and neck chain
patronage=Exeter College, Oxford; Portsmouth; Arbroath Abbey; secular clergy
major_shrine=Canterbury Cathedral


Thomas achieved his final position of power as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of worn under his courtier clothes) or (b) driven to devotion by Henry's lustful design or (c) motivated by self-interest and his own power grab. Most accounts of Thomas's early days as Archbishop were written after his death and were likely influenced by the political environment that existed then. The implications of Thomas's canonisation for the Pope as well as the King translated to real political gain or loss for each. A rift grew between Henry and Thomas as the new Archbishop dropped his Chancellorship and consolidated the landed revenues of Canterbury under his control. So began a series of legal conflicts, such as the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergy, which accelerated antipathy between the two great offices. Attempts by King Henry to foment the opinion and influence of the other Bishoprics against Thomas began in Westminster in October 1163, where the King sought approval of stated royal privileges. This led to Clarendon, where Thomas was officially asked to sign off on the King’s rights or face political repercussions.

The Constitutions of Clarendon

King Henry II presided over the assemblies at Clarendon Palace on January 30, 1164. In sixteen constitutions, he sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He employed all his skills to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but the Primate.

Finally even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but he still refused to formally sign the documents. This meant war between the two powers. Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on October 8, 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Lord Chancellor's office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.

Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, aimed at all his friends and supporters as well as Becket himself; but Louis VII of France received him with respect and offered him protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to move to Sens again.

Becket sought to exercise the prerogatives of the Church, particularly the weapons of excommunication and interdict. But Pope Alexander III, though sympathising with him in theory, favoured a more diplomatic approach. Differences thus arose between Pope and Archbishop, which became even more bitter when legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators. Disregarding this limitation on his jurisdiction, Becket continued to reject any limitations on the rights of his order. After another failed arbitration by Papal legates in the presence of the King of France, in April 1169, Becket excommunicated twenty people who had stood with Henry.

His firmness seemed about to meet with its reward when in 1170 the Pope was on the point of fulfilling his threats and excommunicating the entire population of England. At that point Henry, alarmed by the prospect, held out hopes of an agreement that would allow Thomas to return to England and resume his place. Even though both men met at a wooded area outside of Paris and negotiated with an apparent reconciliation, Becket refused to compromise on any issue whatsoever and thus even re-affirmed the Church's authority with even more stridency and obstinacy on his return to England.


In June 1170, the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury held the coronation of Henry the Young King in York. This was a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation, for which the Pope suspended the three. But for Becket, that wasn't enough, and in November 1170, he excommunicated all three. While the three bishops fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church. Soon word of this reached Henry who was in Normandy at the time.

After these latest venomous reports of Becket's activities, Henry is reported to have raised his head from his sickbed and roared a lament of frustration. The King's exact words are in doubt, and several versions have been reported:
* "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"
* "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"
* "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"
* "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"
* "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
* "Will no one revenge me of the injuries I have sustained from one turbulent priest?"
* "Will none of the knaves eating my bread rid me of this turbulent priest?"

* "What a band of loathsome vipers I have nursed in my bosom who will let their lord be insulted by this low-born cleric!"
* "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their Lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?" [Simon Schama's "A History of Britain", Episode 3, "Dynasty"]

Whatever the King said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, set out to consult the Archbishop of Canterbury. On December 29 1170 they arrived at Canterbury. According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a sycamore tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket.cite book
last = Stanley
first = Arthur Penrhyn
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Historical Memorials of Canterbury
publisher = John Murray
date = 1855
location = London
pages = p53 et sec
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =
] The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king's will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing. Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The four knights, carrying naked swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers. Several contemporary accounts of what happened next exist; of particular note is that of Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the attack.This is part of the written account from Edward Grim:

...The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.'

Following his death, the monks prepared his body for burial. It was discovered that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop's garments. Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and in 1173 — barely three years after his death — he was canonised by Pope Alexander in St. Peter's Church in Segni. On July 12, 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb (see also St. Dunstan's, Canterbury), which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England. In 1220, Becket's remains were relocated from this first tomb to a shrine in the recently completed Trinity Chapel where it stood until it was destroyed in 1538, around the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on orders from King Henry VIII. The king also destroyed Becket's bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. [ [ The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket] , Getty Museum] The pavement where the shrine stood is today marked by a lit candle. Modern day archbishops celebrate the Eucharist at this place to commemorate Becket's martyrdom and the translation of his body from his first burial place to the new shrine.

Aftermath and cultural references

Local legends regarding Becket arose after his canonisation. Though they are typical hagiographical stories, they also display Becket’s particular gruffness. "Becket's Well", in Otford, Kent, is said to have been created after Becket had become displeased with the taste of the local water. Two springs of clear water are said to have bubbled up after he struck the ground with his crozier. The absence of nightingales in Otford is also ascribed to Becket, who is said to have been so disturbed in his devotions by the song of a nightingale that he commanded that none should sing in the town ever again. In the town of Strood, also in Kent, Becket is said to have caused the inhabitants of the town and their descendants to be born with tails. The men of Strood had sided with the king in his struggles against the archbishop, and to demonstrate their support, had cut off the tail of Becket’s horse as he passed through the town.

The saint's cult quickly spread throughout the Norman world. The first holy image of Becket is thought to be a mosaic icon still visible in Monreale Cathedral, in Sicily, created shortly after his death. Becket's cousins obtained refuge at the Sicilian court during Thomas's exile, and King William II of Sicily wed a daughter of Henry II. The principal church of the Sicilian city of Marsala is dedicated to St Thomas Becket.

* Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" is set in a company of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
* The story of Becket's life became a popular theme for the medieval Nottingham Alabaster carvers. One set of Becket panels is displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
* Modern works based on the story of Thomas Becket include T. S. Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral", Jean Anouilh's play "Becket", which was made into a movie with the same title, and Paul Webb's play "Four Nights in Knaresborough", a film version of which is in pre-production.
* Thomas Becket was played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the Broadway run of Jean Anouilh's play "Becket", and by Richard Burton in the film version.
* An opera by Ildebrando Pizzetti based on the murder of Thomas Becket, "Assassinio nella cattedrale", was first produced at La Scala in Milan in 1958. There is a famous live recording of the opera from the Vienna State Opera on 9 March 1960 with Hans Hotter as Becket on Deutsche Grammophon conducted by Herbert von Karajan (457 671-2).
* In "The Black Adder", King Richard IV of England is telling the tale of the words spoken by Henry II, and a pair of knights act under his interpreted order to kill Prince Edmund, who was Archbishop of Canterbury at the time.
* In the nineteenth century, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer wrote the novella "Der Heilige" (The Saint) about Thomas Becket.
* Ken Follett's historical novel "The Pillars of the Earth," which is mostly an account of the building of a Gothic architecture cathedral, also depicts the struggles between the Church, the gentry, and the monarchy, culminating in the assassination and martyrdom of Becket by Henry's men. This fictionalised account is considered largely historically accurate, but adds one of the book's fictional villains as the fifth attacker.
* An episode of "History Bites" is set in the aftermath of Becket's assassination.
*Masonic scholars, seeking to establish the origin of the third degree ritual of the death of Hiram Abif, have suggested (among many other theories) that it was a re-telling of the murder of Becket. [cite web
last = Madhavan
first = Chakravarthy Sampath
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The Hiramic

work = Pietre-Stones Review Of Freemasonry
publisher =
date = 2003-05-26
url =
format =
doi =
accessdate =2008-05-02
] [cite book
last = Heywood
first = H. L.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Supplement to Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry Vol Three
publisher = The Masonic History Company
date = 1909
location = Chicago
pages = p1262
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =
] This theory included reference to a company of masons in the City of London making a procession to St. Thomas's Chapel on his saint's day. The theory suggests that there may have been an emblematic performance concerning the death of Thomas on that day.
* The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, interfaith, legal and educational institute dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions, took its inspiration and namesake from Thomas Becket. [ [ Becket Fund] ]
* In 2006, in a "daft poll" carried out by the BBC, Becket was lined up alongside lesser-known historical figures such as Hugh Despenser, Eadric Streona and Thomas Arundel, and was then voted as the second "worst" Briton in history behind only Jack the Ripper. [cite journal|last=Weaver|first=Matthew|date=2006-01-31|title=Asking silly questions|journal=The Guardian|location=London|url=|accessdate=2008-05-02] [ [ BBC NEWS | UK | Saint or sinner? ] ]

Notes and references

* Sudeley, The Rt. Hon. The Lord, "Becket's Murderer - William de Tracy", in "Family History" magazine, Canterbury, August 1983, vol.13, no. 97, pp. 3-36.
* D. J. A. Matthew, "The Letter-Writing of Archbishop Becket," in "Belief and Culture in the Middle Ages: Studies Presented to Henry Mayr-Harting". Eds. Henry Mayr-Harting, Henrietta Leyser and Richard Gameson (Oxford, OUP, 2001), pp. 287-304. ISBN 0-19-820801-4
* Julian Haseldine, "Thomas Becket: Martyr, Saint - and Friend?," in "Belief and Culture in the Middle Ages: Studies Presented to Henry Mayr-Harting". Eds. Henry Mayr-Harting, Henrietta Leyser and Richard Gameson (Oxford, OUP, 2001), pp. 305-317.
* Michael Staunton, "Thomas Becket and his Biographers" (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2006), id=ISBN 1-84383-271-2

Further reading

*cite book
last =Duggan
first =Anne
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Thomas Becket—Reputations
publisher =Hodder Arnold
date =2005
location =London
pages =(5)
url =/ncb/history/archbishop/
doi =
id =
isbn = 0 340 74138 4


External links

* [ The Murder of Thomas Becket, 1170]
* [ Edward Grim’s account of the murder of Thomas Becket] at the Internet History Sourcebooks Project
* The [ Life of S. Thomas, martyr, of Canterbury] from "The Golden Legend", compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Caxton. (Internet History Sourcebooks Project.)
* [ Britannia's British History Department]
* [ Thomas Becket: Duston & Northampton: The Honeymoon Years]
* [ Photos and locations of 20 of the surviving Medieval Limoges Enamel Chasses for Relics of Saint Thomas Becket]
* [ Meurtre à la cathédrale : vie et mort de Thomas Becket] (external link)
* [ Thomas Becket Memorial]

NAME=Thomas Becket
ALTERNATIVE NAMES= Thomas à Becket, St Thomas Becket, St Thomas of Canterbury
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Chancellor of England, Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint
DATE OF BIRTH=about 1118
PLACE OF BIRTH=Cheapside, London
DATE OF DEATH=February 21, 1173
PLACE OF DEATH=Canterbury, Kent

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