Thomas Becket is famously remembered as the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered upon the supposed orders of King Henry II. Becket’s legacy has continued into the modern day, with many authors, poets, and films being centred on his struggles with Henry II and his infamous and untimely death. Both the Catholic Church and Anglican Communion have recognised Becket as a martyr and a saint, and was canonised by Pope Alexander III soon after his death.
Becket was either born in 1118 or 1120 in Cheapside, London. Both of his parents, Gilbert and Matilda, were of Norman ancestry. Gilbert worked as a merchant and then later made a living from renting properties in London.
Becket became a student of Merton Priory when he was ten years old, and then attended a grammar school – some have argued that he was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral. When he was around 20 years old, he spent a year studying in Paris. During his education, Becket’s father faced financial problems and Becket became a clerk in order to support himself and his family.
It was after this time that Becket secured a space in working in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was, at the time, Theobald of Bec. Theobald may have seen some potential in Becket and assigned him with a number of vital tasks, including traveling to Rome, Bologna and Auxerre. It was during this time that Becket learnt canon law. After demonstrating his capabilities, Theobald made Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. He was also given a number of other ecclesiastical positions, including becoming a prebendary of St Paul’s and Lincoln Cathedral. Becket impressed Theobald in these positions, which led him to recommend Becket to The King, Henry II, for the position as Lord Chancellor. Becket was officially promoted to this position in 1155.
In his new role, Becket was in charge of enforcing The King’s sources of revenue from landowners, such as from bishoprics and churches. At one point, Henry II sent his eldest son, Henry, to go and live in Becket’s household. This was a supposed custom of the time for noble children to go and stay in other noble homes for some time. It has been suggested that Becket paid great attention to the young Prince and a bond was created, therefore possibly influencing The Prince’s decision to rally against his father after Becket was murdered.
In 1162, Becket was selected as the next Archbishop of Canterbury after Theobald’s death. After showing his skill in dealing with laws of the land, Henry II may have expected Becket to continue with his work within the government, rather than putting the church first. However, during this time, Becket became an ascetic and illustrated his religious piety. Becket began to live a simpler life away from the luxury of the royal court.
Becket resigned from his chancellorship and began plans to increase the rights of the archbishopric, both to the frustration of The King. Becket and Henry began to disagree on a number of issues, including matters surrounding the administration and power that secular courts had over English clergymen, which were believed to undermine monarchical power. Henry attempted to assert his authority over Becket in 1164 when he passed a law stating that anyone found guilty in a church court would then face punishment by The Royal Court. Becket was determined to not accept this law and became increasingly frustrated with the King, leading to his fleeing to the Continent under the protection of France’s King, Louis VII.
Becket threatened The King and his Kingdom with excommunication during his time in exile, yet Pope Alexander III argued that the ongoing dispute between Henry and Becket should be resolved more diplomatically and sent papal delegates to attempt to forge a solution. Becket finally returned to England in 1170.
After Becket’s return from exile, Henry II had his son, Henry, proclaimed as ‘The Young King’ and heir apparent in York. The Archbishop of York, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Salisbury crowned The Young King. Becket saw this as an impeachment of his privilege as Archbishop of Canterbury, and then excommunicated all three men. He then proceeded to excommunicate more men of the Church who refused to support him.
After hearing of Becket’s actions, it is believed that Henry II may have muttered some words that led a number of knights to then murder the Archbishop. The words that Henry stated have been widely contested. Traditionally, it has been thought that Henry may have said: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, however a variety of sayings have been suggested. Either way, whatever Henry said was taken as an official order, and four knights took it upon themselves to confront Becket.
Two contemporary accounts from the monk Gervase of Canterbury and Edward Grim state that the knights used cloaks to hide their armour and concealed their weapons by a tree outside of Canterbury cathedral. It was here that the knights came across Becket near the monastic cloister. According to Edward Grim, this is what happened next:
“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 news of Becket’s death soon travelled across Europe, with many almost instantly recognising him as a martyr. On 27th February 1173 Pope Alexander III canonised in St Peter’s Church in Segni, and excommunicated the four knights involved in Becket’s murder.
In July 1174, when facing revolt, Henry II made a public display of penance at Becket’s tomb. He did the same at St Dunstan’s church, which soon became a popular pilgrimage site. The number of pilgrims who visited Canterbury Cathedral after Becket’s death, unsurprisingly, increased greatly.
50 years after his death, Becket’s remains were moved to a shrine in Trinity Chapel, within Canterbury Cathedral. However, this shrine was ruined and demolished in 1538 in the midst of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Becket’s bones, which would have been used as reliquaries, were also destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII. To this day, the space where Becket’s shrine was erected is marked by a single lit candle.