Becket's Early Life
Thomas Becket was born in London in around 1120. His parents, Matilda and Gilbert Becket, had moved to England from Normandy and settled in Cheapside in London, where they made a living as merchants. Though Becket was not from a noble family, his parents were part of a rapidly rising merchant class and Thomas would have had a fairly privileged upbringing. Gilbert and Matilda had at least three other children – Agnes, Roheise and Mary – but Thomas was probably their only son that survived into adulthood.
In about 1130, when Thomas was around the age of 10, he was sent to school at Merton Priory, a monastery in Surrey. He went on to study at a grammar school in London, where he would have learned Latin and possibly the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music). In his early twenties Becket also spent time as a student in Paris, but only studied in France for two years, and had returned to his family home in London by the age of 21.
On his return to England, Becket initially began work as a clerk for his relative, Osbert Huitdeniers. However, through family connections to the church, he was soon appointed as a clerk in the household of Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was described by his contemporaries as an intelligent, charming and authoritative figure, and he rose quickly through the ranks. Between 1149 and 1151, Becket was assigned several missions to Rome as the Archbishop’s representative, where he met Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153) and many distinguished cardinals and papal officials.
In 1154, Archbishop Theobald appointed Becket as Archdeacon of Canterbury. This was a prestigious and very senior role in the church. However, very soon Thomas was recommended by the Archbishop to an even higher post, as chancellor to the new King Henry II. Much like today, the Lord Chancellor was one of the most powerful figures in the country. William Fitzstephen, one of Becket’s twelfth-century biographers, described the role as ‘second to the king of the realm’.
Becket was appointed chancellor in January 1155, when Henry II was around 21 years old. Henry and Thomas became close friends, and Henry entrusted his new chancellor with more control over English royal administration than any of his predecessors. As chancellor, Becket was responsible for overseeing the administration of government, approving royal appointments and raising the crown’s revenue from landowners, which included churches and bishoprics.
Becket also benefitted financially from his connections to the royal court, and he would have been able to afford a fairly lavish lifestyle. On one diplomatic visit to King Louis of France, Thomas is said to have taken 200 horsemen, 24 changes of dress and 12 packhorses to carry his gold and silver table furnishings.
Becket as Archbishop
Archbishop Theobald died on 18th April 1161 after a long illness. Most contemporary writers agree that both Theobald and King Henry were eager for Thomas to be appointed as the next Archbishop. Henry also hoped that Thomas would retain his role as Chancellor, as having Becket as both Chancellor and the Archbishop would strengthen the king’s power over church and state.
The monks at Canterbury were less in favour of Becket’s candidacy. He was an unusual choice, as previous archbishops of Canterbury since the Norman Conquest had all been monks or canons and some had also been distinguished theologians and scholars.
Despite the monks’ reservations, Thomas Becket was appointed Archbishop on 23 May 1162, and consecrated (officially blessed) on 3rd June. At some point during that year, against the king’s wishes, he also resigned as Chancellor. It is unclear exactly why Thomas made the decision to give up this role, though it may have been because he felt the king would have had too much power over the church and state if he remained in both posts.
As Becket started to enact his duties as archbishop, his relationship with Henry began to deteriorate. This was probably due to the change in Thomas’ loyalties – as archbishop, Becket no longer made decisions that aided the king and the crown, but the church. A series of disputes ensued between Becket and the king, all of which were concerned with whether the crown or the church had more legal authority over the clergy, secular authorities and everyday people.
The Constitutions of Clarendon
In January 1164 Henry summoned a council of nobles and bishops to Clarendon Palace in Wiltshire, in an attempt to bring Becket under control. His aim was to enforce a series of 16 legal articles known as the Constitutions of Clarendon.
A number of the articles in the Constitutions seriously restricted the church’s rights over legal proceedings. Henry specifically wanted to address how errant clergy were tried at court. Whilst the everyday person was tried at the royal courts, where in the most extreme cases they could be charged with mutilation or death, churchmen were tried in an ecclesiastical (church) court. Here, the most severe punishment was being dismissed from priesthood. The Constitutions of Clarendon requested that if a member of the clergy were found guilty at the ecclesiastical court, they would be sent to the royal courts to be tried.
Initially, under significant pressure from the king, Becket agreed to support the Constitutions, but refused to attach his seal to the documents – a sign that he did not officially want to sanction them. Shortly after, Pope Alexander III condemned the articles, and requested that Becket and the bishops withdraw their support.
Having been obstructed yet again by Thomas, Henry attempted to deter him through the courts. In October 1164 Becket was summoned to appear before the king’s council in Northampton accused of various charges, including denial of justice over the granting of land and contempt of court. He was found guilty and ordered to forfeit all his personal property and pay a large fine.
Becket refused to accept the terms of his punishment, protesting that he had been brought to court on false pretences. Fearing further repercussions from the king, Becket fled to France.
Exile in France
Becket fled from Northampton with a small group of loyal companions on 15th October 1164. To avoid being pursued, they travelled up to the Gilbertine monastery of Chicksands in Bedfordshire, where Becket was disguised as a Gilbertine monk and given a false name. From here the group made their way down the coast to Sandwich, where they took a boat to Oye on the Flemish coast and travelled to France.
King Henry quickly sent his own group of supporters to France in an attempt to persuade the French King Louis VII that Thomas was treasonous and should not be granted safe travel through his land. However, Louis was not Henry’s ally, and he decided to offer Becket his support. This meant Thomas was able to find safe lodging and even financial assistance during his exile in France.
For most of his exile, Becket stayed at a monastery at Pontigny, near Sens in central France. From here, he wrote many letters to cardinals, bishops and even the Pope in an attempt to raise support for his plight.
Coronation of the 'Young King Henry'
Though the Pope supported Becket, he urged him to seek reconciliation with Henry, and sent representatives to attempt to reunite the King and the Archbishop.
However, in the middle of these negotiations, Henry began to make plans to crown his son, who was next in line to the throne and also named Henry. This showed deliberate disregard for Becket, as it was the Archbishop of Canterbury who had the privilege of crowning the monarch. Instead, the ‘Young King Henry’ was crowned in Westminster Abbey in June 1170 by the Archbishop of York, assisted by the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Salisbury.
In response to the coronation, Becket threatened to impose an Interdict on England, which would have prevented all church officials from conducting religious ceremonies such as baptism, marriage and funerals. Under the threat of the Interdict, Henry agreed to negotiate with Thomas.
Reconciliation and Return to Canterbury
On 22 July 1170, Becket met Henry at Fréteval near Orléans in France. For the first time since 1164, the archbishop and the king spoke privately, and the king promised to restore the Archbishop of Canterbury’s right to crown the monarch. In September, Henry issued a statement confirming that Thomas should be welcomed back to England in peace.
Before leaving for England, Becket issued three letters excommunicating (expelling) the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury for their involvement in the coronation of the ‘Young King Henry’. This would lead to the rise in tensions between the Archbishop and the King on his return from exile.
Becket returned to Canterbury on 1 December 1170. Contemporary reports record that Thomas was welcomed back to the Cathedral by cheering crowds and rejoicing monks. However, although he was greeted warmly by the local people, senior officials with connections to the King and the Archbishop of York were much more opposed to his return.
Murder in the Cathedral
Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. The events leading up to his death, and the question of King Henry’s involvement in the murder are somewhat unclear.
In December Henry was at the royal court in Normandy, where he was approached by Roger of York, Gilbert of London and Jocelin of Salisbury (the former Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury). Together they complained to the king about their excommunications.
The king was said to have been outraged. He is also supposed to have uttered the now famous line “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”, although this is probably a later addition to the story. It is not known whether Henry ever specifically ordered some kind of retribution for Becket’s actions.
Nevertheless, Henry’s anger did inspire four knights in his court – Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret – to travel from Normandy to Canterbury Cathedral in search of Becket. Like Henry, the knights’ motives are unclear: they may have been intent on killing Becket, or they may simply have wanted to arrest him to take him back to the King.
The most detailed account of Becket’s murder was written by his biographer, a monk named Edward Grim. Grim was by Becket’s side when he was killed, and was even wounded himself in the attack.
Grim reports that when the four knights arrived at the Cathedral, Becket was in his personal quarters in the Archbishop’s Palace. He was persuaded by the monks to seek refuge in the church, but the knights followed. The monks attempted to bar the doors of the church, but Becket told them to leave it open, saying “It is not proper that a house of prayer, a church of Christ, be made a fortress.”
The knights entered the Cathedral, demanding to see the Archbishop. Becket met them in the North West transept, where the knights requested that he withdraw his excommunication of the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury. Thomas refused, and they tried to drag him out of the Cathedral. Becket held onto one of the church columns to prevent them taking him.
It was at this point that one of the knights raised his sword for the first time, bringing it down on Becket and “shaving off” the crown of his head, whilst also wounding the nearby Grim’s arm. The other knights then started to attack Becket, while the other monks fled.
The third blow of a sword brought Becket’s life to an end. Grim describes how, by the end of the attack, Thomas’ crown had “separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain [and] the brain turn red from the blood”. Becket’s blood and brains spilled onto the stone floor beneath him, so that it “purpled the appearance of the church with the colours of the lily and the rose”.
The knights were also accompanied by a clerk, named Hugh de Horsea. Before the knights left, he is said by Grim to have:
"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."
The knights then fled, leaving Becket’s body in the Cathedral.
Aftermath of the Murder
Becket’s body remained in the North West transept for most of the night. Early the next morning, he was prepared for burial. As the monks were preparing the body, they discovered that Becket had been wearing a hair shirt (sackcloth) and a monastic habit under his clothes. To the monks, this was a sign of Thomas’ sainthood, as hair shirts, which were made of rough material, were worn by saintly individuals as a form of constant punishment.
Once the monks had discovered a hair shirt under Becket’s clothes, they began to treat the rest of his body as if it were a saint’s. In the Middle Ages, saints were believed to enact powerful miracles through their bodily remains, such as their bones or their blood. These objects were known as the saint’s relics. In the hope that it would become an important relic, some of the monks collected Becket’s blood, which still covered the floor of the church, in containers or on cloth.
Fearing that the knights may return and take away Becket’s body, the monks buried him quickly, on the day immediately following the murder. Thomas was dressed in the garments he would have worn as archbishop and buried in a marble tomb in the Cathedral crypt.
As news of Becket’s murder spread through Canterbury and the country, miracles began to be reported to the monks at Canterbury. One of the earliest to be recorded was the story of a man who had been in the Cathedral at the time of Becket’s murder and had dipped some cloth in the spilled blood. He had taken this to his sick wife and watered down the blood for her to drink, which cured her from her illness. Other stories also described how people with many types of illnesses were cured from drinking water mixed with Becket’s blood, or from visiting his body in the Cathedral. Both Becket’s body and his blood became important relics, believed to possess powers to heal those who touched or, in the case of the blood, consumed it.
These stories were recorded by two monks at Canterbury, Benedict and William. The same stories are also depicted in the spectacular miracle windows in the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral, completed during the rebuilding of the Cathedral between 1174 and 1220. These stained glass windows would have surrounded Becket’s shrine and been visible to pilgrims visiting the Cathedral.
Thomas Becket was officially canonised (made a saint) by Pope Alexander III in 1173, two years after his death.
As Becket’s reputation as a miracle-working saint began to grow, people from all over Europe started to flock to Canterbury in the hope that they would also be healed. The miracle stories recorded by Benedict and William, the monks who gauarded the shrine, show that that people from all walks of life were arriving at the Cathedral, from knights to merchants, butchers and shoemakers. The monks reported being overwhelmed with visitors who wanted to visit Becket’s tomb in the Cathedral crypt. Canterbury quickly became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Western Europe.
As well as visiting Becket’s tomb, Pilgrims visiting Canterbury could also buy small amounts of his watered-down blood. This was sold in small metal containers known as ‘ampulla’, which were sometimes decorated with images of Becket or his martyrdom. They were designed to be small and portable so that the blood relic could be easily brought to a sick person who couldn’t travel or taken home by a pilgrim.
In addition to ampulla, pilgrims could also buy small souvenirs, known as ‘pilgrim badges’. These lead badges contained scenes related to many different aspects of Becket’s life and martyrdom and would have been pinned or sewn onto pilgrim’s clothes. Much like today’s postcards, badges would have been bought and worn as a sign that you had visited a particular pilgrim site.
The Rebuilding of the Cathedral and Translation of Becket’s Body
On 5th September 1174, a fire broke out in Canterbury. It spread from the cottages outside the walls of the monastery onto the Cathedral itself, destroying the great Romanesque Quire.
The fire prompted a huge rebuilding campaign at Canterbury. The eastern end of the Cathedral was rebuilt in a new architectural style known as the Gothic style, and was designed specifically to house the body of Thomas Becket. A new marble shrine was also constructed, which was lavishly decorated with gold and encrusted with jewels. The shrine would have stood in the centre of the Trinity Chapel, directly above Becket’s original tomb in the crypt below.
On 7th July 1220, Becket’s body was moved, or ‘translated’, from the crypt up into the new shrine in the Trinity Chapel. The translation was accompanied by a lavish ceremony, which was attended by the king, Henry III, and many of the most important religious and political leaders in the Europe. A new liturgical office (service) was composed in honour of the occasion.
The Trinity Chapel and Becket’s shrine then became the focal point for pilgrims visiting Canterbury.
Becket and Reformation
In 1534, King Henry VIII broke from Rome, appointing himself Supreme Head of the English Church. Religious practices changed dramatically and the English monasteries were closed. In Canterbury the monastery was closed and the monks were cast out.
As an Archbishop that had repeatedly opposed the King, Becket symbolised a challenge to royal authority. In 1538 Henry VIII demanded that Thomas should no longer be venerated as a saint, and ordered that Becket’s shrine at Canterbury should be destroyed. The shrine was smashed to pieces, the jewels on the shrine taken to the king’s treasury and Thomas’ body reported to have been destroyed.
All that remains of the shrine are a few marble fragments, still held today in the Cathedral collections.
Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (1986)
Paul Binski, Becket’s Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England (2004)
Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket (2004)
The Cult of Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, ed. Marie-Pierre Gelin and Paul Webster (2017)
‘Digital Pilgrim’ – digitisations of the British Museum’s collection of pilgrim badges, including many Thomas Becket badges
Internet History Sourcebook - Edward Grim's Account of Becket's Murder