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Thomas Becket

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Thomas Becket
One of the earliest known depictions of Becket's assassination, c. 1175–1225
ChurchLatin Church
Appointed24 May 1162
Term ended29 December 1170
PredecessorTheobald of Bec
SuccessorRoger de Bailleul (Archbishop-elect)
Ordination2 June 1162
Consecration3 June 1162
by Henry of Blois
Personal details
Born21 December c. 1119
Died29 December 1170 (aged 50 or 51)
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, Kingdom of England
BuriedCanterbury Cathedral
  • Gilbert Beket
  • Matilda
Previous post(s)
Feast day29 December
Venerated in
Beatifiedby Pope Alexander III
Canonized21 February 1173
by Pope Alexander III
ShrinesCanterbury Cathedral
Cult suppressed1538 (by Henry VIII)
Lord Chancellor
In office
MonarchHenry II
Preceded byRobert of Ghent
Succeeded byGeoffrey Ridel

Thomas Becket (/ˈbɛkɪt/), also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London[1] and later Thomas à Becket[note 1] (21 December 1119 or 1120 – 29 December 1170), served as Lord Chancellor from 1155 to 1162, and then notably as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his death in 1170. He engaged in conflict with Henry II, King of England, over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by followers of the King in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.



The main sources for the life of Becket are a number of biographies written by contemporaries. A few of these documents are by unknown writers, although traditional historiography has given them names. The known biographers are John of Salisbury, Edward Grim, Benedict of Peterborough, William of Canterbury, William fitzStephen, Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, Robert of Cricklade, Alan of Tewkesbury, Benet of St Albans, and Herbert of Bosham. The other biographers, who remain anonymous, are generally given the pseudonyms of Anonymous I, Anonymous II (or Anonymous of Lambeth), and Anonymous III (or Lansdowne Anonymous). Besides these accounts, there are also two other accounts that are likely contemporary that appear in the Quadrilogus II and the Thómas saga Erkibyskups. Besides these biographies, there is also the mention of the events of Becket's life in the chroniclers of the time. These include Robert of Torigni's work, Roger of Howden's Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi and Chronica, Ralph Diceto's works, William of Newburgh's Historia Rerum, and Gervase of Canterbury's works.[3]

Early life


Becket was born c. 1119,[4] or in 1120 according to later tradition,[1] at Cheapside, London, on 21 December, the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. He was the son of Gilbert and Matilda Beket.[note 2] Gilbert's father was from Thierville in the lordship of Brionne in Normandy, and was either a small landowner or a petty knight.[1] Matilda was also of Norman descent[7] – her family may have originated near Caen. Gilbert was perhaps related to Theobald of Bec, whose family was also from Thierville. Gilbert began his life as a merchant, perhaps in textiles, but by the 1120s he was living in London and was a property owner, living on the rental income from his properties. He also served as the sheriff of the city at some point.[1] Becket's parents were buried in Old St Paul's Cathedral.

Plaque marking Becket's birthplace on Cheapside in London

One of Becket's father's wealthy friends, Richer de L'Aigle, often invited Thomas to his estates in Sussex, where Becket encountered hunting and hawking. According to Grim, Becket learned much from Richer, who was later a signatory of the Constitutions of Clarendon against him.[1]

At the age of 10, Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory south-west of the city in Surrey. He later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul's Cathedral. He did not study any subjects beyond the trivium and quadrivium at these schools. Around the age of 20, he spent about a year in Paris, but he did not study canon or civil law at the time and his Latin skill always remained somewhat rudimentary. Some time after Becket began his schooling, Gilbert Becket suffered financial reverses and the younger Becket was forced to earn a living as a clerk. Gilbert first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative – Osbert Huitdeniers. Later Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by then Archbishop of Canterbury.[1]

Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154, Theobald named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led Theobald to recommend him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor,[1] to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.[8]

As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king's traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics.[1] King Henry 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.[citation needed]



Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of Theobald. His election was confirmed on 23 May 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen.[1] Henry may have hoped that Becket would continue to put royal government first, rather than the church, but the famed transformation of Becket into an ascetic occurred at this time.[9]

Becket was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and on 3 June 1162 was consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and the other suffragan bishops of Canterbury.[1]

A rift grew between Henry and Becket as the new archbishop resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover and extend the rights of the archbishopric. This led to a series of conflicts with the King, including one over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen, which accelerated antipathy between Becket and the king. Attempts by Henry to influence other bishops against Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, where the King sought approval of the traditional rights of royal government in regard to the church.[1] This led to the Constitutions of Clarendon, where Becket was officially asked to agree to the King's rights or face political repercussions.

Constitutions of Clarendon

Manuscript illustration. The central man is wearing robes and a mitre and is facing the seated figure on the left. The seated man is wearing a crown and robes and is gesturing at the mitred man. Behind the mitred figure are a number of standing men wearing armour and carrying weapons.
14th-century depiction of Becket with King Henry II

King Henry II presided over assemblies of most of the higher English clergy at Clarendon Palace on 30 January 1164. In 16 constitutions he sought less clerical independence and weaker connections with Rome. He used his skills to induce their consent and apparently succeeded with all but Becket. Finally, even Becket expressed willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but he still refused formally to sign the documents. Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor's office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.[1]

Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, targeting Becket and all Becket's friends and supporters, but King Louis VII of France offered Becket protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to return to Sens. Becket fought back by threatening excommunication and an interdict against the king and bishops and the kingdom, but Pope Alexander III, though sympathising with him in theory, favoured a more diplomatic approach. Papal legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators.[1]

A Seal of the Abbot of Arbroath, showing the murder of Becket. Arbroath Abbey was founded 8 years after the death of St Thomas and dedicated to him; it became the wealthiest abbey in Scotland.

In 1170, Alexander sent delegates to impose a solution to the dispute. At that point, Henry offered a compromise that would allow Thomas to return to England from exile.[1]


Becket's assassination and funeral, from a French enamelled chasse made c. 1190–1200, one of about 52 surviving examples[10]
Sculpture and altar marking the spot of Thomas Becket's martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral. The sculpture by Giles Blomfield represents the knights' four swords (two metal swords with reddened tips and their two shadows).

In June 1170, Roger de Pont L'Évêque, Archbishop of York, was at York with Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, Bishop of Salisbury, to crown the heir apparent, Henry the Young King. This breached Canterbury's privilege of coronation and in November 1170 Becket excommunicated all three.[11]

On hearing reports of Becket's actions, Henry II is said to have uttered words interpreted by his men as wishing Becket killed.[12] The exact wording is in doubt and several versions were reported.[13] The most commonly quoted, as invented in 1740 and handed down by oral tradition, is "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?",[14] but according to historian Simon Schama this is incorrect: he accepts the account of the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, who gives, "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?"[15] Many other variants have found their way into popular culture.

Regardless of what Henry said, it was interpreted as a royal command. Four knights,[12] Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton,[1] set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury. On 29 December 1170, they arrived at Canterbury. According to accounts by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, the knights placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights told Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. Not until he refused their demands to submit to the king's will did they retrieve their weapons and rush back inside for the killing.[16] Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The other monks tried to bolt themselves in for safety, but Becket said to them, "It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!", ordering them to reopen the doors.

The four knights, wielding drawn swords, ran into the room crying, "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?" They found Becket 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.[1] On seeing them, Becket said, "I am no traitor and I am ready to die." One knight grabbed him and tried to pull him outside, but Becket grabbed onto a pillar and bowed his head to make peace with God.[17]

Several contemporary accounts of what happened next exist; of particular note is that of Grim, who was wounded in the attack. This is part of his account:

...the impious knight... suddenly set upon him and [shaved] off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God... Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, 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 grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow... his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church... The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights... placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, "We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again."[18]

Another account appears in Expugnatio Hibernica ("Conquest of Ireland", 1189) by Gerald of Wales.[19]

An ivory piece portraying the knights involved in Becket's assassination. One knight holds an axe with which to break down the door of the cathedral.

After Becket's death


After his death, the monks prepared Becket's body for burial.[1] According to some accounts, it was found that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop's garments – a sign of penance.[20] Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and on 21 February 1173 – little more than two years after his death – he was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St Peter's Church, Segni.[1] In 1173, Becket's sister Mary was appointed Abbess of Barking as reparation for the murder of her brother.[21] On 12 July 1174, amidst the Revolt of 1173–74, Henry humbled himself in public penance at Becket's tomb and at the church of St. Dunstan's, which became a most popular pilgrimage site.[citation needed]

Becket's assassins fled north to de Morville's Knaresborough Castle for about a year. De Morville also held property in Cumbria and this too may have provided a hiding place, as the men prepared for a longer stay in the separate kingdom of Scotland. They were not arrested and Henry did not confiscate their lands, but he did not help them when they sought his advice in August 1171. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome, where the Pope ordered them to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of 14 years.[22]

This sentence also inspired the Knights of Saint Thomas, incorporated in 1191 at Acre, and which was to be modelled on the Teutonic Knights. This was the only military order native to England (with chapters in not only Acre, but London, Kilkenny, and Nicosia), just as the Gilbertine Order was the only monastic order native to England. Henry VIII dissolved both of these during the Reformation, rather than merging them with foreign orders or nationalising them as elements of the Protestant Church of England.[citation needed]

The monks were afraid Becket's body might be stolen, and so his remains were placed beneath the floor of the eastern crypt of the cathedral.[22] A stone cover over it had two holes where pilgrims could insert their heads and kiss the tomb,[1] as illustrated in the "Miracle Windows" of the Trinity Chapel. A guard chamber (now the Wax Chamber) had a clear view of the grave. In 1220, Becket's bones were moved to a new gold-plated, bejewelled shrine behind the high altar in the Trinity Chapel.[23] The golden casket was placed on a pink marble base with prayer niches raised on three steps.[24] Canterbury's religious history had always brought many pilgrims, and after Becket's death the numbers rapidly rose further.[citation needed]

Cult in the Middle Ages

St Thomas Becket's consecration, death and burial, at wall paintings in Santa Maria de Terrassa (Terrassa, Catalonia, Spain), romanesque frescoes, c. 1180[25]
Former site of Thomas Becket's shrine in Canterbury Cathedral

In Scotland, King William the Lion ordered the building of Arbroath Abbey in 1178. On completion in 1197 the new foundation was dedicated to Becket, whom the king had known personally while at the English court as a young man.

On 7 July 1220, the 50th jubilee year of his death, Becket's remains were moved from his first tomb to a shrine in the recently built Trinity Chapel.[1] This translation was "one of the great symbolic events in the life of the medieval English Church", attended by King Henry III, the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton and many dignitaries and magnates secular and ecclesiastical.

Fresco depicting the murder of Thomas Becket; on the left is the figure of Saint Lanfranco in act of blessing. Church of San Lanfranco, Pavia.

So a "major new feast day was instituted, commemorating the translation... celebrated each July almost everywhere in England and in many French churches."[26] It was suppressed in 1536 with the Reformation.[27]

The shrine was destroyed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries on orders from King Henry VIII.[1][28] He also destroyed Becket's bones and ordered all mention of his name obliterated.[28][29]

As the scion of a mercantile dynasty of later centuries, Mercers, Becket was much regarded as a Londoner by citizens and adopted as London's co-patron saint with St Paul: both appear on the seals of the city and of the Lord Mayor. The Bridge House Estates seal has only a Becket image, while his martyrdom is shown on the reverse.

The cult included the drinking of "water of Saint Thomas", a mix of water and the remains of the martyr's blood miraculously multiplied. The procedure was frowned upon by the more orthodox, due to the similarities with the eucharist of the blood of Jesus.[30]

Local legends regarding Becket arose after his canonisation. Though they tend towards typical hagiography, they also display Becket's well-known gruffness. "Becket's Well", in Otford, Kent, is said to have been created after Becket had been displeased by 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 sing in the town ever again. In the town of Strood, Kent, Becket is said to have caused the inhabitants 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 fame quickly spread through 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 their exile, and King William II of Sicily wed a daughter of Henry II. Marsala Cathedral in western Sicily is dedicated to Becket. Over 45 medieval chasse reliquaries decorated in champlevé enamel showing similar scenes from Becket's life survive, including the Becket Casket, constructed to hold relics of him at Peterborough Abbey and now housed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.



Explanatory notes

  1. ^ The name "Thomas à Becket" is not contemporary but was first used by Thomas Nashe in the 1590s.[2]
  2. ^ There is a legend that claims 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, followed him home, was baptised and married him. This story has no truth to it, being a fabrication from three centuries after the saint's martyrdom, inserted as a forgery into Edward Grim's 12th-century Life of St Thomas.[5][6] Matilda is occasionally known as Rohise.[1]




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  2. ^ Jenkins 'Who put the 'a' in Thomas a Becket'.
  3. ^ Barlow Thomas Becket pp. 3–9.
  4. ^ Butler and Walsh Butler's Lives of the Saints p. 430
  5. ^ Staunton Lives of Thomas Becket p. 29.
  6. ^ Hutton Thomas Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury p. 4.
  7. ^ Barlow Thomas Becket p. 11.
  8. ^ Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 84.
  9. ^ Huscroft Ruling England pp. 192–195.
  10. ^ "V&A plaque", with latest count; Binski, 225, with a catalogue entry on one in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.
  11. ^ Warren, W.L. (1973). Henry II. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. p. 507. ISBN 9780520034945.
  12. ^ a b Huscroft Ruling England p. 194.
  13. ^ Warren Henry II p. 508.
  14. ^ McGovern, Jonathan (2021). "The Origin of the Phrase 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'". Notes and Queries. 68 (3): 370. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjab094.
  15. ^ Schama History of Britain p. 142.
  16. ^ Stanley Historical Memorials of Canterbury pp. 53–55.
  17. ^ Wilkes, Aaron (2019). "Crown vs Church: Murder in the Cathedral". Invasion, Plague and Murder: Britain 1066–1558. Oxford University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-19-849464-5.
  18. ^ Lee This Sceptred Isle p. 97.
  19. ^ Forester, Thomas (2001). Giraldus Cambrensis – The Conquest of Ireland. Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses Publications.
  20. ^ Grim, Benedict of Peterborough and William fitzStephen are quoted in Douglas, et al. English Historical Documents 1042–1182 Vol. 2, p. 821.
  21. ^ William Page & J. Horace Round, ed. (1907). 'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Barking', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2. pp. 115–122.
  22. ^ a b Barlow Thomas Becket pp. 257–258.
  23. ^ Drake, Gavin (23 May 2016). "Becket's bones return to Canterbury Cathedral". anglicannews.org. Retrieved 23 May 2016.
  24. ^ Jenkins 'Modelling the Cult of Thomas Becket', pp. 104-114.
  25. ^ Sánchez, Carles (2021). A painted tragedy The martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Santa Maria de Terrassa and the diffusion of its cult in the Iberian Peninsula. Anem Editors. ISBN 978-84-122385-7-0.
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  31. ^ Enciclopedia del románico en Castilla y León: Soria III. Fundación Santa María la Real – Centro de Estudios del Románico, pp. 961, 1009–1017.
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  33. ^ "St Thomas Becket meeting the Pope (Panel)". Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  34. ^ "Consecration of St Thomas Becket as archbishop (Panel)". Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
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Further reading



  • Anne Duggan, 2005, Thomas Becket, London: Hodder Arnold
  • John Guy, 2012, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Random House
  • David Knowles 1970, Thomas Becket, London: Adam & Charles Black
  • Richard Winston, 1967, Thomas Becket, New York: Alfred A. Knopf


  • James W. Alexander, "The Becket controversy in recent historiography", Journal of British studies 9.2 (1970): 1–26. in JSTOR
  • Anne Duggan, 1980, Thomas Becket: A Textual History of his Letters, Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Anne Duggan, ed., 2000, The Correspondence of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1162–1170). 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Carles Sánchez Márquez, 2021, A painted tragedy. The martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Santa Maria de Terrassa and the diffusion of its cult in the Iberian Peninsula, La Seu d'Urgell: Anem Editors
Political offices
Preceded by Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by