Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, the son of a wealthy Norman merchant living in London, was born in 1118. After being educated in England, France and Italy, he joined the staff of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

When Henry II became king in 1154, he asked Archbishop Theobald for advice on choosing his government ministers. On the suggestion of Theobald, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket's job was an important one as it involved the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. The king and Becket soon became close friends. Becket carried out many tasks for Henry II including leading the English army into battle.

When Theobald died in 1162, Henry chose Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, had a reputation as a cruel military commander and was very materialistic (Becket loved expensive food, wine and clothes). They also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church.

After being appointed Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. Every morning thirteen poor people were brought to his home. After washing their feet Becket served them a meal. He also gave each one of them four silver pennies.

Instead of wearing expensive clothes, Becket now wore a simple monastic habit. As a penance (punishment for previous sins) he slept on a cold stone floor, wore a tight-fitting hairshirt that was infested with fleas and was scourged (whipped) daily by his monks.

Thomas Becket soon came into conflict with Roger of Clare. Becket argued that some of the manors in Kent should come under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Roger disagreed and refused to give up this land. Becket sent a messenger to see Roger with a letter asking for a meeting. Roger responded by forcing the messenger to eat the letter.

In 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts.

Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation. There were several examples of clergy found guilty of murder or robbery who only received "spiritual" punishments, such as suspension from office or banishment from the altar.

The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue but after talking to other church leaders Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge.

In 1164, the Archbishop of Canterbury was involved in a dispute over land. Henry ordered Becket to appear before his courts. When Becket refused, the king confiscated his property. Henry also claimed that Becket had stolen £300 from government funds when he had been Chancellor. Becket denied the charge but, so that the matter could be settled quickly, he offered to repay the money. Henry refused to accept Becket's offer and insisted that the Archbishop should stand trial. When Henry mentioned other charges, including treason, Becket decided to run away to France.

Under the protection of Henry's old enemy. King Louis VII, Becket organised a propaganda campaign against Henry. As Becket was supported by the pope, Henry feared that he would be excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church).

Becket eventually agreed to return to England. However, as soon as he arrived on English soil, he excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church) the Archbishop of York and other leading churchmen who had supported Henry while he was away. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news and supposedly shouted out: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of Henry's knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard Ie Bret, who heard Henry's angry outburst decided to travel to England to see Becket. On the way to Canterbury the four knights stopped at Bletchingley Castle to see Roger of Clare.

When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170, they demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated. When Becket refused, they hacked him to death with their swords.

The death of Thomas Becket (1471)
The death of Thomas Becket (1471)

The Christian world was shocked by Becket's murder. The pope canonised Becket and he became a symbol of Christian resistance to the power of the monarchy. His shrine at Canterbury became the most important place in the country for pilgrims to visit.

Although Henry admitted that his comments had led to the death of Becket, he argued that he had neither commanded nor wished the man's death. In 1172 Pope Alexander III accepted these arguments and absolved Henry from Becket's murder. In return. Henry had to provide 200 men for a crusade to the Holy Land and had to agree to being whipped by eighty monks. Most importantly of all. Henry agreed to drop his plans to have criminal clerics tried in his courts.

Primary Sources

(1) William FitzStephen, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190)

Clad in a hair-shirt of the roughest kind which reached to his knees and swarmed with vermin, he punished his flesh with the sparest diet, and his main drink was water... He often exposed his naked back to the lash.

(2) William FitzStephen, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190)

One day they (King Henry II and Thomas Becket) were riding together through the streets of London. It was a hard winter and the king noticed an old man coming towards them, poor and clad in a thin and ragged coat. "Do you see that man? ... How poor he is, how frail, and how scantily clad!" said the king. '"Would it not be an act of charity to give him a thick warm cloak." "It would indeed... my king." Meanwhile the poor man drew near; the king stopped, and the chancellor with him. The king greeted him pleasantly and asked him if he would like a good cloak... The king said to the chancellor, "You shall have the credit for this act of charity," and laying hands on the chancellor's hood tried to pull off his cape, a new and very good one of scarlet and grey, which he was unwilling to part with... both of them had their hands fully occupied, and more than once seemed likely to fall off their horses. At last the chancellor reluctantly allowed the king to overcome him. The king then explained what had happened to his attendants. They all laughed loudly.

(3) Thomas Becket in a letter to Henry II (1166)

There are two principles by which the world is ruled: the authority of priests and the royal power. The authority of priests is the greater because God will demand an accounting of them even in regard to kings.

(4) Conversation between Henry II and Thomas Becket, quoted by Roger of Pontigny in his book Life of Thomas Becket. (c. 1176)

Henry II: Have I not raised you from the poor and humble to the summit of honour and rank?... How can it be that after so many favours... that you are not only ungrateful but oppose me in everything.

Thomas Becket: I am not unmindful of the favours which, not simply you, but God the giver of all things has decided to confer on me through you as St Peter says, '"We ought to obey God rather than men."

Henry II: I don't want a sermon from you: are you not the son of one of my villeins?

Thomas Becket: It is true that I am not of royal lineage; but then, neither was St Peter.

(5) Edward Grim, Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1180)

Who can count the number of persons he (Becket) did to death, the number whom he deprived of all their possessions. Surrounded by a strong force of knights, he attacked whole regions. He destroyed cities and towns, put manors and farms to the torch without a thought of pity.

(6) Thomas Becket in conversation with Herbert of Bosham, quoted in Herbert Bosham's Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1188)

Herbert, I want you to tell me what people are saying about me. And if you see anything in me that you regard as a fault, feel free to tell me in private. For from now on people will talk about me, but not to me. It is dangerous to men in power if no one dares to tell them when they go wrong.

(7) Edward Grim, Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1180)

The four knights with one attendant entered. They were received with respect as the servants of the King. The servants who waited on the Archbishop invited them to the table. They rejected the food, thirsting rather for blood. The Archbishop was informed that four men had arrived who wished to speak with him. He consented and they entered.

The knights sat for a long time in silence. After a while, however, the Archbishop turned to them, and carefully scanning the face of each one he greeted them in a friendly manner, but the wretches, who had made a treaty with death, answered his greetings with curses.

Fitz Urse, who seemed to be the chief and the most eager for crime among them, breathing fury, broke out in these words, "We have something to say to thee by the King's command.... The King commands that you depart with all your men from the kingdom... from this day there can be no peace with you, or any of yours, for you have broken the peace."

The Archbishop said, "I trust in the King of heaven, who suffered on the Cross: for from this day no one will see the sea between me and my church.... He who wants me will find me here." The knights sprang up and coming close to him they said, "We declare to you that you have spoken in peril of your head." "Do you come to kill me?" he answered. As they went out, he who was named Fitz Urse, called out, "In the King's name we order you, both clerk and monk, that you should take and hold that man."

The Archbishop returned to where he had sat before, and consoled his clerks, and told them not to fear; and, as it seemed to us who were present - it was him alone that they wanted to slay... We asked him to flee, but he did not forget his promise not to flee from his murderers from fear of death, and refused to go.

The knights came back with swords and axes and other weapons fit for the crime which their minds were set on... The knights cried out, "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King?" Becket... in a clear voice answered, "I am here, no traitor to the King, but a priest... I am ready to suffer in His name... be it far from me to flee from your swords."

Having said this, he turned to the right under a pillar... and walked to the altar of St. Benedict the Confessor... The murderers followed him; "Absolve", they cried, "and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicatec and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended."

He answered, "I will not absolve them." "Then you shall die," they cried. "I am ready," he replied, "to die for my Lord... But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people." They then laid hands on him, pulling and dragging him, that they might kill him outside the church. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pulled on him. He said "Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty; you and your accomplices act like madmen." The knight, fired with terrible rage, waved his sword over the Archbishop's head.

The wicked knight (William de Tracy), fearing that the Archbishop would be rescued by the people in the nave... wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God... cutting off the top of the head... by the same blow he wounded the arm of him that tell this story. For he, when the other monks and clerks fled, stuck close to the Archbishop...

Then he received a second blow on his head from Reginald Fitz Urse but he stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows... and saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death." Then the third knight (Richard Ie Bret) inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement... the blood white with the brain and the brain red with blood, dyed the surface of the church. The fourth knight (Hugh de Morville) prevented any from interfering so the others might freely murder the Archbishop.

The priest (Hugh of Horsea) who had entered with the knights... put his foot on the neck of the holy priest, and, horrible to say, scattered his brains and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, "Let us away, knights; he will rise no more."