Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Classroom Activity)

In 1164, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury was involved in a dispute over land. Henry II 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.

Becket joined his former secretary, John of Salisbury in Rheims: The two men were very close friends: "John of Salisbury, a small and delicate man, warm, lively and playful, a joker with an eye to the ridiculous, the confident member of a learned elite, so sure of his scholarship that he could quote, to amuse his circle, classical authors and other embroideries of his own invention, was everything that Thomas Becket was not."

However, the quarrel between Becket and the king put a strain upon their friendship: John would not abandon Becket's cause but he disagreed with the way Becket was dealing with the situation. Becket now moved to Pontigny Abbey. According to Edward Grim, at least three times a day, his chaplain, was compelled by Becket, to "scourge him on the bare back until the blood flowed". Grim added that with these punishments he "killed all carnal desires".

Under the protection of Henry's old enemy. King Louis VII, Becket organised a propaganda campaign against the monarchy. As Becket was supported by Pope Alexander III, Henry feared that he would be excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church). Alexander sent a letter to Henry urging him to make peace with Becket and suggesting that he restored him as Archbishop of Canterbury.

John of Salisbury was also involved in negotiations with Henry II and Louis VII. The three men met at Angers in April 1166. In a letter to Becket he complained that he wasted money and lost two horses on the journey and that it obtained nothing of value. Talks continued and on 7th January 1169, Becket and Henry met at Montmirail but they failed to reach an agreement. Alexander, finally ran out of patience and ordered Becket to agree a deal with Henry. On 22nd July, 1170, Becket and Henry met at Fréteval and it was agreed that the archbishop should return to Canterbury and receive back all the possessions of his see.

Primary Sources

The death of Thomas Becket (1471)
(Source 1) The death of Thomas Becket in 1170 (1471)

(Source 2) John Simkin, Medieval Realms (1991)

Thomas Becket eventually agreed to return to England. However, as soon as he arrived he excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church), the Archbishop of York, and other leading churchmen who had supported the king 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?"

(Source 3) Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, Life of Thomas Becket (1174)

A man who has eaten my bread, who came to my court poor and I have raised him high - now he draws up his heel to kick me in the teeth! He has shamed my kin, shamed my realm: the grief goes to my heart, and no one has avenged me!

(Source 4) Gervase of Canterbury, The Deeds of the Kings (c.1210)

How many cowardly, useless drones have I nourished that not even a single one is willing to avenge me of the wrongs I have suffered.

(Source 5) John of Salisbury, describing a council meeting at Chinon in November, 1170.

The king complained about the Archbishop of Canterbury... Finally he said they were all traitors who did not... rid him of the harassment of this man.

Thomas Becket
(Source 6) Illustration in a English psalter (c. 1250)

(Source 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.

FitzUrse, 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 FitzUrse, 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 FitzUrse 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 Breton) 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."

Thomas Becket
(Source 8) The death of Thomas Becket in the Luttrell Psalter (1325)


(Source 9) Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (1986)

Among those who described Thomas's last day were five eye-witnesses: his clerks John of Salisbury and William FitzStephen, the monks Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury and the visiting clerk, Edward Grim. All these, except John, who tells us little about what happened before the final scene (which he missed), describe the events of the afternoon in some detail. Benedict, of whose narrative we have only fragments, provides the fullest account of Thomas's interview with the king's barons, William FitzStephen of what happened outside the chamber; but each of the four remembered something that others had forgotten or chosen to omit. In general it seems safe to conflate the several accounts. But, although there are few direct contradictions, memories were inevitably confused.

(Source 10) Benedict of Peterborough describing what happened after the death of Thomas Becket (c. 1171)

While the body still lay on the pavement... some of them (people from Canterbury) brought bottles and carried off secretly as much blood as they could. Others cut off shreds of clothing and dipped them in the blood. Some of the blood left over was carefully collected and poured into a clean vessel... They stripped him of his outer garments... and in doing so they discovered that the body was covered in sackcloth, even from the thighs down to the knees.

Thomas Becket
(Source 11) Illustration from a manuscript (12th century)

(Source 12) Arnulf, the Bishop of Lisieux, in a letter to the Pope Alexander III described Henry II's reaction to the news of Thomas Becket's death.

The king burst into loud cries and exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth... For three whole days he remained shut up in his chamber, and would neither take food nor admit anyone to comfort him.

(Source 13) William of Blois wrote a letter to Pope Alexander III about the death of Thomas Becket (1171)

I have no doubt that the cry of the whole world has already filled your ears of how the king of the English, that enemy of the angels... has killed the holy one... For all the crimes we have ever read or heard of, this easily takes first place - exceeding all the wickedness of Nero.

Thomas Becket
(Source 14) 19th century etching of Henry II whipped by monks for the murder of Thomas Becket.

(Source 15) Gervase of Canterbury, The Deeds of the Kings (c.1210)

He (Henry II) set out with a sad heart to the tomb of St. Thomas at Canterbury... he walked barefoot and clad in a woollen smock all the way to the martyr's tomb. There he lay and of his free will was whipped by all the bishops and abbots there present and each individual monk of the church of Canterbury.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction and study sources 2, 3, 4 and 5. Why was Henry II angry with Thomas Becket?

Question 2: Describe how people in source 10 behaved when they heard about the death of Thomas Becket. Try to explain the reasons why these people acted in this way.

Question 3: Compare the versions of Thomas Becket's death in 1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. How do these sources differ? Which of these sources do you think is the most reliable?

Question 4: Did Henry II want Thomas Becket to be murdered? Select sources from this unit that helps you to answer this question.

Question 5: Use the information in source 15 to explain source 14.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.