On December 29, 1170, the Archbishop of Canterbury was brutally murdered on the floor of the Canterbury Cathedral by four armed knights while preparing for his evening prayers.
The ramifications of that incident shook the country of England, its king, and the Catholic Church.
Over 850 years later, it is still remembered and remains one of the most significant events in English history.
Learn more about the murder of Thomas Becket and why and how it happened on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Thomas Becket was born in the year 1120 to a Norman family living in England. His father was probably a low-ranking knight and may have owned a small amount of land. The senior Becket was also a merchant, probably trading in textiles or wine from continental Europe.
Being Norman instead of Anglo-Saxon meant that they were culturally part of the same group which ruled England since the Norman Conquest, and having some money and land, together meant that they would at least rub elbows with the upper class of English society, even if they weren’t at the top themselves.
He attended a grammar school in London, where he studied the basics of education in the middle ages. The trivium, which is grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, which consists of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
At the age of 20, he went to Paris for a year of further study, and a few years after he returned in 1146, he managed to get a job in the household of the Bishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec. The Archbishop of Canterbury was the highest ranking church official in England.
His position was probably that of a clerk or a secretary for the Archbishop, although it totally isn’t clear.
Whatever he did, he must have done it well because Becket was assigned several important tasks by the Archbishop. He was sent to Italy and France to study canon law, and he was also sent on assignments to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome.
He was given several other minor ecclesiastical positions in the English church, and in 1154, he was named the Archdeacon of Canterbury.
The Archdeacon was basically the second highest position under the Archbishop but didn’t require the office holder to be a priest or a bishop.
One of the reasons why Thomas Becket was appointed Archdeacon was because of the success he had in representing the church when negotiating with the crown and the reigning monarch at that time, King Stephen.
Here I should note the background in which much of this story takes place.
Back in the 12th century, the church and the monarchy in England were really two different spheres of power. The church claimed that they were independent of the crown and not subject to its laws. If a priest committed a crime, for example, then they were subject to an ecclesiastical court, not a court of the king.
Likewise, there were always battles back and forth over the issue of taxation of church land and income.
Thomas Becket was one of the chief representatives at this time for the church.
The same year that Becket was appointed Archdeacon, something else really big happened in England. King Stephen died and a new king, Henry of Anju, aka Henry II, ascended to the throne.
As a new king, Henry had to fill the various offices of state. Archbishop Theobald had a brilliant idea. He lobbied to get his protege, Thomas Becket, appointed to the position of chancellor. The idea was that if he had one of his own on the inside, he could advocate for the church.
One month later, in January 1155, Thomas Becket became the Lord Chancellor of England.
Archbishop Theobald’s scheme didn’t quite work according to plan.
Becket, just as when he worked for the church, did a really good job. He had a new boss and worked on behalf of his new boss. This included collecting taxes on property owned by the church.
Becket took a position that was considered rather middling and turned it into one of the most powerful offices in the country.
More importantly, Henry and Thomas became really good friends. Despite the fact that Thomas was 12 years his senior, they would go hunting, drinking, and traveling together. Thomas became his closest advisor, and Henry even entrusted his son, Henry the Younger, to be raised in Becket’s house.
During this period, Becket became personally very rich, and his standing with the clergy of England dropped dramatically. He wasn’t seen as the church’s man in the royal court, he was just seen as King Henry’s man.
The peak of Becket’s extravagance was probably in 1158 when he traveled to Paris with an entourage of 250 people and 24 changes of clothes.
His personal household had 700 knights, and he once famously at a meal of extremely rare eels, which cost the equivalent of an entire herd of cows.
The event which radically changed everything occurred in 1162.
In 1161, Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury had died.
In the months after his death, there was debate amongst the clergy and the nobility about who should replace him as archbishop.
Henry finally came up with what he thought was a masterful plan. He would appoint his best friend, Thomas Becket, to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket had plenty of experience running the archdiocese.
More importantly, with Becket as Archbishop, he would have no problem establishing the primacy of the crown over the church because Thomas Becket was Henry’s guy….right?
Thomas Becket was ordained a priest on June 2, 1162, and then was installed as Archbishop the next day.
I should also note that when he became Archbishop, he remained the Lord Chancellor of England.
Right when this happened, there was a dramatic turn in the personality of Thomas Becket.
Becket suddenly had a religious conversion.
He began wearing sackcloth garments. Sackcloth, which is basically like burlap, was worn by penitents as atonement for their sins. If you’ve ever seen a burlap sack, it is extremely rough and would be somewhere between uncomfortable and painful to wear all day, every day.
He began eating much less and gave up drinking alcohol outside of sacramental wine.
Henry soon found out exactly what Theobald found out. Appointing Thomas Becket to a high-ranking position and expecting him to remain loyal to you wasn’t going to work.
A few months after being consecrated as Archbishop, Thomas Becket resigned as chancellor.
The now Archbishop Thomas Becket began blocking all of Henry’s attempts to establish dominance over the church in England.
To counter Becket, Henry appointed the Archdeacon of Canterbury as the new Chancellor, Geoffrey Ridel. Ridel’s loyality was to King Henry and supported the crown over the church, but it didn’t really matter because the Archbishop had the final say on everything.
The biggest issue at first was that of jurisdiction for trying crimes committed by the clergy.
Becket and the church contended that all clergy, in both major and minor orders, were subject to church courts and discipline, not the kings. Major orders were: bishop, priest, and deacon. Minor orders included acolyte, exorcist, lector, and porter. A porter was basically a glorified usher.
The problem was that up to 20% of the men in England would have qualified as belonging to the clergy if minor orders were included.
Henry felt that having the church judge its own clergy undermined the rule of law and the ability for him to govern England.
Becket felt that the church couldn’t let the clergy be judged by the king, or else they would lose their independence, and it would be abused to make the church submit to the whims of the crown.
Henry also wanted to recover lands lost to the church and to force the church to pay the Sheriff’s Aid, which were funds to pay local law enforcement. Becket said that the payments by the church were voluntary and couldn’t be compelled.
In July 1163, the King and the Archbishop had a heated argument in the village of Woodstock, and things got worse afterward when Becket ex-communicated one of the king’s men for trying to install a clerk in a local church.
Things between the two men got progressively worse. Henry removed his son from Becket’s household, where he had been raised.
In January 1164, Henry summoned all the bishops to Clarendon Palace, where they were to sign a document with 16 terms that would weaken the church’s independence and its ties to Rome by reverting to the rules when Henry I ruled.
Becket agreed to the terms, but that wasn’t the end of it by a longshot. In August, the king had the archbishop brought up on trying to leave the country without permission and a host of other charges.
He was found guilty but didn’t accept the verdict, so in November 1164, he fled to France.
Over the next six years, Becket began a letter-writing campaign to the pope and began ex-communicating many of the allies of the king and the bishops in England who supported him.
In June 1170, Henry’s son Henry the Younger was crowned as junior king, as his father was still alive. However, it is the prerogative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown the king, and this had been usurped by the Bishop of York and London.
This led Becket to threaten to put an interdict on the entirety of England, which would have prevented anyone in the country from receiving certain rites.
This eventually led Henry and Thomas Becket to come to terms which allowed the Archbishop to return to England.
Becket returned to England in early December 1170.
During the entire affair in June and July of that year, Henry became very frustrated and supposedly said something out loud to his court. The exact words aren’t known, but according to legend, he said, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Another version has Henry saying, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”
Evidently, four of Henry’s knights took this off-hand comment as an order. The four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, traveled from Normandy to Canterbury to confront the Archbishop.
On December 29, they arrived at the cathedral and confronted Becket, ordering him to Winchester to go before the king. When he refused, they rushed out of the cathedral to get their weapons and came back in.
There is some debate about what happened exactly, but the end result is that Becket was hit with several sword strikes to the head, and the top of his skull was cut clean off.
Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket laid dead on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.
You’d think that this might have solved Henry’s problems, but it did not. It made matters much worse.
Almost immediately, Thomas Becket was revered as a martyr. As word of the assassination spread across Europe, the status of Henry fell. The pope prevented Henry from receiving mass.
Thomas Becket was canonized and made a saint by Pope Alexander III in February 1173, just a little over two years after his death.
No one actually thought that Henry ordered the killing. Becket was a priest, and if Henry really wanted him dead, he probably could have done so much sooner. However, Henry was certainly responsible for the murder, even if it wasn’t his intent.
Nonetheless, he had to perform an act of public penance, which was something almost unheard of for a sitting king.
On July 12, 1174, in the middle of an uprising led by his wife and three children, he went to the tomb of the now Saint Thomas Becket to perform his penance. He walked there barefoot and then, before the tomb, took off his shirt and was then flogged with tree branches by a group of bishops and monks. He then had to spend the night on the floor of the cathedral where Becket was murdered.
On top of all that, the pope made Henry recant all of the reforms he had earlier gotten from the church, give back lands he took from Cantebury, and build a new monastery.
As for the actual assassins, they fled to Scotland. Henry never actually punished them, but they were excommunicated by the pope. They all eventually traveled to Rome to appeal. They were forgiven on the condition that they served in the holy land for 14 years.
In the years after the murder of Thomas Becket, his tomb and the site of the murder became the largest pilgrimage destination in England, and for a while, he was the patron saint of England.
Geoffrey Chaucer, in the late 14th century, wrote about the pilgrims to the tomb in his book The Canterbury Tales.
Its location as a pilgrimage site ended when Henry VIII banned the catholic church. He ordered the tomb and the remains of Thomas Becket to be destroyed and any mention of his name to be erased.
Today there is a small memorial in Canterbury Cathedral on the spot where Becked was killed, and there are dozens of churches around the world named in his honor.
If you are interested in a homework assignment, I would highly recommend you watch the 1964 movie “Becket” starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and it is one of my favorite movies of all time, even if it isn’t totally historically accurate.
The murder of Thomas Becket was one of the most significant events to occur in medieval England, and it defined relations between the church and the king until the protestant reformation.
The story of Thomas Becket and the events surrounding his death remains a compelling story even 850 years later.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Fireman_Jake, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes,
Five stars are not enough
I’m so thankful to have found this podcast! Gary does such a great job covering a full spectrum of interesting topics. I’m quickly catching up to secure my place in the completist’s club…listened to episode 500 today on the way home.
With this year being the 100th anniversary of Sparky the Fire Dog and the National Fire Prevention campaign in the US, wouldn’t it be fitting to do a show on either how Fire Prevention Week came about or all the progress and innovations that have come to light since it’s inception?
Thank you, Jake! When you qualify for the completionist club, you shall be welcome with open arms. Remember that Fridays are pizza night.
As for doing an episode on fire prevention, that isn’t a bad idea. I know firefighting has a history going back at least to ancient Rome, and fires have become much less frequent over the last several decades due to advances in fire prevention.
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