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Thomas Becket

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Pen Portrait of Thomas Becket by Jim GodfreyThomas Becket, Saint Thomas the Martyr, was unrivalled among the saints of medieval England and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was one of the most important sites of pilgrimage in Christendom

Born on St Thomas the Apostle’s Day, 21 December, in 1120, Becket (note: not a Becket, a later affectation) was the son of a prosperous Anglo-Norman London merchant. He was well educated and advanced quickly, becoming an agent to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him on several missions to Rome.

The illustration (left) depicts the scene of St Thomas' martyrdom as in the Becket Window of the Cathedral. Becket is the kneeling figure whose head was replaced with a piece of clear glass in the 16th century. You can read more about that extraordinary story here.


Becket and Henry

Becket’s talents were noticed by Henry II, who made him his Chancellor in 1155. The two men became close friends and Becket became the King’s confidant. Indeed chroniclers at the time speak of Henry and Becket as having ‘one heart and mind’ and together they enjoyed very ‘worldly’ pursuits such as hunting and hawking. As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king's traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics, showing great commitment to his royal master. Henry even sent his son, Prince Henry, to live in Becket's household.

When Theobald died in 1161, Henry manoeuvred Becket into the vacant position of Archbishop. It meant, incredibly, that Becket was ordained priest on 2 June 1162 and consecrated Archbishop the very next day!

Everyone, Henry included, expected Becket to side with the King, and so their friendship came under severe strain when it became clear that Becket took his responsibilities as Archbishop very seriously and would defend the Church against the Crown.

One matter in particular, the ‘Benefit of Clergy’, highlighted this rift. The Church reserved the right to try clerics in the ecclesiastical courts, not those of the Crown. Henry was determined to eliminate this custom but Becket resisted. In 1164, realising the extent of Henry's displeasure, he fled into exile in France, remaining there for six years.

In 1170 Henry and Becket met in Normandy and appeared to resolve their differences. On 30 November Becket returned to Canterbury. However, Becket, who had earlier excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for supporting the King, now refused to absolve them. Henry heard of this whilst spending Christmas in Normandy, at Bur-le-Roi, near Bayeux. He flew into a rage and was heard to exclaim ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’



His outburst inspired four of his knights, led by Reginald Fitzurse, to sail to England to confront Becket. They arrived at Canterbury on the afternoon of 29 December finding the Archbishop in his palace. They demanded he submit to the King but Becket refused and fled to the Cathedral where the knights discovered him kneeling at an altar with Edward Grim, a visiting clerk from Cambridge.

They tried to arrest him and when he resisted they struck him down. The first blow, partly deflected by Grim’s protective arm, sliced the top off Becket’s head (this is the scene depicted in the Becket Window). More blows followed before the knights retreated, leaving the Archbishop for dead.

Christendom was outraged at the murder and the knights fled to the Holy Land on a ‘penitent crusade’. Pope Alexander III then took the initiative, canonising Becket on 21 February 1173. A shrine was set up, quickly becoming an extremely important place of pilgrimage, and the monks at Canterbury were soon selling small glass bottles of Becket’s blood.

Henry, beset by rebellions, capitulated to papal authority. He did penance himself, and, on 12 July 1174, walked barefoot to the site of Becket’s martyrdom. There he was stripped and spent the night being scourged by the Canterbury monks.


At Christ Church, the martyrdom of Becket appears in the tracery glass of the Cathedral’s 14th century Becket Window, an extremely rare medieval survival. Great Tom (and hence Tom Quad) also takes its name from him, and the two Cornish choughs (black birds with red beaks and claws) which appeared on Becket’s coat of arms also feature on the arms of Wolsey (and hence the College) as well as on the 17th century silver wands carried by the Cathedral Vergers.