One of the novices pressed his eye to the crack in the Cathedral door. With a sharp intake of breath, he stumbled backwards and turned to the wide-eyed priests within. “They’re coming back, and they bear swords! God help us!”. One of the monks bid the novices, “Bolt the doors! They shall not enter this holy place!”, and the novices leaped to obey him, but a clear, strident voice rang out from the cloister: “”It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”.
The novices stopped, and the monk, chastened, turned and bowed. The Archbishop stood with his crozier in the doorway to the cloister, ringed by light in the gloom as if sent from Heaven itself. His face was not afraid, merely indignant that this place of God was to be polluted by rude men with dark hearts. He turned, followed by the monk from Cambridge and the soft chanting of the brothers assembled for vespers.
A mailled fist slammed into the Cathedral door, bursting it wide and sending a novice sprawling, nose bloodies. The four knights entered with naked blades, and the monks shrank back. Behind them were, horror of horrors, a couple of clerics – though the monks could not bear to look upon the profane warriors, they stared daggers at these blasphemous priests, and the newcomers fixed them in return with imperious disdain. The first knight seized the nearest monk by the scruff of his robe, and the brother could barely meet the burning bloodlust in his eyes, recoiling at the killer’s wine-soaked breath. “Where is he? Where is the traitor Thomas Becket?”
Within minutes of the four knights entering Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop Thomas Becket would lie dead upon the stone floor, his brains dashed out by one of the clerics who accompanied them. Becket’s murder marks the tragic culmination of a titanic clash of two great figures of history: the stubborn Archbishop, and the first Plantagenet King of England, King Henry II. The death of the Archbishop was instigated by the King uttering one of the most famous phrases in Medieval history: “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?”. His death would be widely viewed as a martyrdom, and would spawn a Europe-wide cult that would last for centuries, resulting in his eventual canonization as Saint Thomas Becket. But how did things get so bad as to cause the death of an Archbishop? Did King Henry actually say those words? Did he really intend the death of the Archbishop? Let’s immerse ourselves in the drama of 12th religious politics, in search of the cause of the assassination of Thomas Becket.
On Midwinter’s night in 1119 CE, two first-generation Anglo-Normans welcomed a baby boy named Thomas into the world in the market street of a prosperous town that they would have called ‘Lundin’ – modern day Cheapside, London. At that time, London was an important and wealthy settlement, but far from a capital city: moreso than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, the Norman Kings of England were itinerant, holding court all over the Anglo-Norman world. The closest thing to a capital was upriver at Winchester, where the royal treasury and records were kept. Thomas’ parents were of Norman origin – it’s possible that they were both migrants into England, but we know that Thomas’ paternal grandfather had served William the Conqueror as a minor knight. At the time of the birth of their son Thomas, Gilbert and Matilda Becket were moderately wealthy urban landlords, living off the rents of several dozen dwellings and farms in the city. Unlike many of the famous figures we have detailed knowledge about, Becket’s upbringing was much more closer to the norm of the Medieval populace.
As was the custom amongst the Norman nobility, Thomas was frequently sent away to foster with other noble families, including that of Richer de L’Aigle, another Anglo-Norman lord, where he went hunting and fishing. Thomas was also sent to begin his studies at Merton Priory, leaning the trivium and quadrivium: these were seven basic subjects, spanning grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, astronomy music and arithmetic – what we might consider a basic primary education. Whilst his childhood was significantly wealthier than many, Becket had to work as a clerk to support his family, and he eventually secured a position at the household of a leading Churchman named Theobald of Bec, likely through a family connection.
The Archbishop’s Man
Working as part of Theobald of Bec’s ecclesiastical retinue opened Becket’s eyes to the top flight of ecclesiastical politics. Theobald had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Stephen in 1139 during the Anarchy, expecting him to be a loyal ally. However, Theobald turned out to be an independent and fierce defender of the Church’s prerogatives – he faced down challenges from King Stephen’s brother Bishop Henry of Winchester, and was even instrumental in ending the conflict by refusing to countenance the accession of Stephen’s son Eustance to the throne. The Archbishop of Canterbury had traditionally retained the exclusive right to anoint the King during a coronation, and thus Theobald used this power cannily and politically. The Archbishop’s administration was a thriving place of international intellectual exchange, and Thomas worked alongside many future bishops, including future Archbishop of York Roger of Pont l’Évêque. In the latter years of the Anarchy, Thomas Becket was sent by Archbishop Theobald to the Continent to study canon law at Auxerre and Boulogne (though it is recorded that his Latin was never particularly good!). He was, however, a diligent and dependable worker who impressed the Archbishop, and judging from the course of his future conflicts with Henry II, one can imagine Theobald kindling and encouraging the same independent streak that he saw in the young Churchman.
In 1154 CE, the same year that Theobald crowned King Henry II, the ageing Archbishop promoted Thomas Becket to the position of Archdeacon of Canterbury, along with a patchwork of other Church offices. As well as significant administrative responsibility, many of these came with their own tied incomes from Church property and tithe money. The Anarchy had left England’s royal finances in a terrible state, with the Crown only taking in half as much income as it had under Henry II’s grandfather Henry I. The King had a significant financial task ahead of him – and whilst much of the financial policy of the High Medieval era was set directly by the monarch themselves, financial administration was often carried out by Church bureaucrats. Thus, only three months after his rise to Archdeacon of Canterbury, Archbishop Theobald recommended Thomas to King Henry II for the position of Chancellor – a relatively new office in England, which placed him in charge of the collection of many of the Crown’s traditional sources of revenue from landowners and the Church. Now within the inner circles of the top flight of Anglo-Norman politics, Becket was very much on the rise.
Chancellor to the King
The Medieval Catholic Church was no bystander to temporal politics but an active participant in it, and as Henry’s Chancellor, Thomas became an integral and wholly trusted part of the King’s government. Displaying enormous administrative talent, he was a key part of razing the unauthorized ‘adulterine’ castles which had been built during the Anarchy, he was frequently sent as a foreign representative of the King, and he even raised and led troops on the King’s behalf. We can only guess at the personal relationship between the two men, but the King, fifteen years younger than Thomas, must have seen the abstinent and pious low-born Thomas as a rare intelligence amongst the stupid and violent Norman aristocracy. It appears that in this period, Thomas Becket even aided the King in eroding some of the traditional rights of the Church, growing distant from Archbishop Theobald, whose summons he failed to attend and at whose death he was not present. Contemporaries remark upon his enormous wealth, and his ostentatious display – though he was always celibate, he was unseemly and indulgent. In all things, it seemed that he was the King’s man.
The great unresolved religious debate that loomed in background of the High Medieval age was the relationship between Church and the monarchies of Europe. The Gregorian Reform movement, initiated in the late 1000s by Pope Gregory VII, aimed to undo what he perceived as the slide in Papal authority, rejecting the right of kings to interfere in the appointment of key churchmen, as well as many other reforms aimed at rolling back monarchical influence over the Church. This made waves all over Europe, resulting in the Investiture Controversy between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, and during Thomas Becket’s time as Chancellor, the ideas of the Gregorian Reform were being debated in the Church institutions of France and England. The Anarchy, with its weakening of royal authority, had permitted the English Church authorities to regain much of their power, but Henry II was determined to rein in Church independence. It appears that Thomas Becket, as Henry’s Chancellor, was a willing participant in this project. When Archbishop Theobald of Bec died in 1161 CE, Henry was poised to elevate his man Thomas to the position, and tame the Church once and for all.
Thomas Becket was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 CE. The position had been vacant for almost a year after the death of Theobald, and some of the later biographies of Thomas explain this by having him warn the King of impending disaster if he appointed Thomas. But in reality, the pause may well have been due to the King’s preoccupation elsewhere in the vast Angevin Empire. Regardless, when Thomas was appointed to the See, he underwent a dramatic transformation. He set aside his lifestyle of wealth and excess, becoming an ascetic. Gone were his customary robes and his vast train of fineries – in favour of a simple monk’s habit and (according to some biographies) an uncomfortable hair-shirt.
There are many attempts to explain why Thomas underwent this dramatic transformation: saintly hagiographies have the future Saint Thomas struck by a divine vision, revealing the sin of his ways, and promising to live a godly life. Armchair-psychological explanations see Thomas as a flexible, role-driven person, determined to excel (even to an almost pathologically extreme degree) in the positions assigned to him. Or perhaps, a cynic might say, this was merely the new vehicle with which he could best carve himself out a personal empire with vast land holdings and estates. One way or another, almost overnight, Thomas had shed his former image, and he resigned the Chancellorship, citing the conflict between his religious duties and his profane ones – at the same time, he began loudly opposing the King’s policy of eroding the God-given rights of the Church, drawing a battle-line which would mark a bitter conflict between the two men under the latter’s murder at the hands of the former’s knights.
At Loggerheads with the King
Almost immediately upon the King’s return to England in 1163, the King and Thomas found each other opposed. One of the first flashpoints was over the immunity of Churchmen from civil legal authority: Henry was seeking to end the policy of ‘criminous clergy’ only standing trial before the bishop, seeking to bring them under the authority of the Crown’s courts. Thomas fiercely opposed this erosion of Church privileges, and the King was forced to withdraw his plans for the time being. The permanent break between the two men happened in January 1164, when Henry suddenly summoned the leading Churchmen to attend to him at Clarendon. There, he presented them with a 16-article document, known to history as the Constitutions of Clarendon, which revived his plans for dealing civilly with ‘criminous clergy’, as well as a raft of other attacks on Church authority, including banning the excommunication of royal officials, banning appeals to the Pope in ecclestiastic matters, and siphoning the tithes collected by vacant Church offices back to the Crown. Most of the officials at the meeting fell in behind the Bishop of London Gilbert Foliot, who was a vocal supporter of the King’s projects, and gave their assent to the Constitutions – but Thomas was ominously silent. After hours of, first discussion and later, haranguing by the King, Becket gave some indications that he agreed with the substance of the documents, but that his conscience would not permit him to actually sign them – even persuasion from his old foster-father Richard de L’Aigle would not move him.
The meeting broke up without the unanimity that the King needed, and Becket wrote to Pope Alexander III to appeal his case – violating one of the Constitutions of Clarendon – further angering Henry. The Pope formally admonished Henry for the content of the Constitutions, but expressed only a vague wish for reconciliation, and gave only lukewarm support to Thomas, who was advised to refrain from further rash actions. The deadlock languished until October of that year, when the King finally lost patience with the intransigent Archbishop. Summoned to Northampton Castle, there Henry effectively put Becket on trial for disloyalty and malfeasance. Unsurprisingly, he was rapidly convicted of the charges by Henry’s pocket judges, and Becket stormed out of the trial. In the aftermath, and unsure of how best to proceed, Henry II was persuaded by the Bishop of London Gilbert Foliot to arrest Thomas and to remove him from office. Getting wind of this, and fearing for his liberty if not his life, Thomas donned a disguise and fled to France.
An Archbishop in Exile
Henry’s eternal rival King Louis VII of France was all too happy to capitalize upon the explosive rift at the top flight of the English Crown. He publically patronized Thomas Becket, whilst King Henry, in one of his many fits of fury, set about targeting the family and supporters of Archbishop Thomas, stripping them of their lands and rights. However, support from Pope Alexander III was less than enthusiastic. If you’ve read our article on the spectacularly ambitious Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, you’ll know that in this period the Holy Roman Emperor had elevated his pet anti-Pope Paschal III in opposition to Pope Alexander – and he could not afford to risk a full-blown religious crisis with England, which might well drive King Henry II to throw his weight behind anti-Pope Paschal. As well, the majority of English bishops, led by Bishop Foliot, were publically opposed to Thomas Becket’s actions – whilst they might secretly have agreed with the substance of his actions. But Becket was legendarily intransigent, scuppering several attempts as reconciliation with Henry by meeting his envoys with scorn and letters of excommunication. This state of affairs lasted seven whole years, with Becket moving from monastery to monastery in France, until the cold winter of 1170 CE.
Henry Boils Over
Finally, King Henry had had enough. For the duration of the controversy, Henry had been unable to appoint new bishops, and several important Sees now lay empty, depriving Henry of administrators and income. Also, he had settled on a new means to circumvent the past century of disputed succession and power struggles by reviving the old Anglo-Saxon rite of crowning one’s successor as co-King during his lifetime, and thus set about preparing for the coronation of his son Henry (better known as Henry the Young King). There was merely one small problem: Thomas Becket. If you’ll recall, the right to anoint the Kings of England belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury alone, and breaching that protocol would be seen as a huge affront to the established order. King Henry II attempted to reconcile with the embittered Church father, and the two men reached a sort of negotiated stalemate, with Thomas returning to England in 1170 CE. But, unsurprisingly, he continued to refuse to countenance blessing the coronation of young Henry. Thus, King Henry calculated that risking the coronation was less dangerous than leaving his succession up for dispute. Without the permission of Thomas Becket, Henry sent Bishop Foliot to York, where he met Archbishop of York Roger of Pont l’Évêque (Thomas’s old work colleague under Theobald of Bec) – together, in a lavish ceremony, they crowned Henry the Young King as co-King with his father. When Thomas heard of this violation of his privileges – and a bitter betrayal by his former friend – he excommunicated all of the bishops who had participated. When Henry received the letters of excommunication, he exploded into one of his wild furies: Becket’s actions had potentially jeopardized the whole project, throwing the legitimacy of his heir into doubt. And he uttered the fateful words that sealed Becket’s fate: “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?”
The Death of An Archbishop
Or did he? We can be pretty certain that’s definitely not what he said: that formulation of the quote only appears as late as 1740 CE, in the Chronicle of the Kings of England compiled by publisher Robert Dodsley – almost six hundred years after the event. The most reliable account that is accepted by most historians is that written by a monk named Edward Grim, who was an eye-witness to Becket’s subsequent murder and who went on to write a detailed Vita of Thomas Becket’s life within a few years of the Archbishop’s death. He records Henry’s fateful outburst as: “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 cleric!”. Whatever the precise wording of the outburst was, it motivated four of Henry’s household knights to take matters into their own hands, to travel to Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas was, and to murder the unarmed man in cold blood. As we saw in the scene-setting passage at the start of this article, the four knights found the door to the Cathedral unlocked, as the Archbishop had refused to fortify the building. The monk Edward Grim was badly beaten whilst the Archbishop was siezed by the knights in a stairwell by the Catherdral cloister, and cut down whilst he knelt in prayer.
Scholars have wrestled with this event ever since. Some see it as a tragedy – that the King’s brutish household knights took the King’s exasperation out of context for the sake of taking revenge on the hated Churchman. Some see it as a case of stochastic murder: that the King was well-known for using targeted rage as a political tool, knowing that his underlings would interpret his wishes as an order, whilst shielding himself with plausible deniability. Regardless, the aftermath was largely free of serious consequences for King Henry II. There was much public outcry, but it was directionless, bewailing the tragedy of the situation rather than blaming the King directly. Preoccupied with events in Ireland, the King failed to punish the four knights who had murdered Thomas, and though they were excommunicated by the Pope for their crime, they were absolved in return for fourteen years’ service in the knightly orders of the Holy Land. King Henry was forced to conclude a peace with the Pope, withdrawing most of the Constitutions of Clarendon, although he was tacitly allowed to continue lay investiture of his selected bishops. As part of his reconciliation with the Pope, he was given symbolic strikes with a rod within Canterbury Cathedral: five each from his bishops, and three each from each of the 80 monks of the Cathedral. Henry had weathered this storm with little more than a dent to his pride: his project of taming the Church continued largely unabated.
The Cult of Saint Thomas
Almost immediately after the Archbishop’s murder, the monks at Canterbury began to venerate his remains as a holy relic. His remains were placed within a jewelled coffin upon pillars high up behind the altar, one of the holiest places in the building. It is from this period that Canterbury became a significant destination for pilgrims, who would visit in order to be blessed by the presence of Thomas’s mortal remains – and to ‘drink the waters of Saint Thomas’, which purported to be a mixture of water and the blood of the martyred Archbishop. Tales quickly associated local places and tales with Becket, such as a nearby well which was said to have sprung forth when the Archbishop struck the ground with his crozier. A mere three years after his death, Pope Alexander III was canonized as a martyr, officially elevating him to the status of Saint.
Becket’s legend spread quickly out of England, and many Continental frescoes and mosaics which depict Becket, made in the decade after his death, have survived down to the modern day. Stunning relic boxes such as the Becket Casket were made to contain purported relics of the Saint’s body. The story of the four knights exiled to the Holy Land to serve penitence for his murder inspired the creation of the Knights of Saint Thomas in 1191 CE, a Levantine military order made up entirely of English knights. There is even a cathedral dedicated to Becket in Marsala, Sicily, where Becket’s cousins fled after the Archbishop’s murder. A gorgeous silk Damask chasuble belonging to Becket resides at Fermo, where it was donated in the late 12th century – fascinatingly it bears stunning Arabic script to demonstrate the worldliness of its wearer. Being a Londoner of humble origins, many organizations in the City took him to be their patron saint, including the Worshipful Company of Mercers and the Bridge House Estates. Feasting in the name of Saint Thomas Becket took place every July across England and France until the Protestant Reformation. He would even be later venerated by King Henry II’s grandson, King Henry III. To finish Becket’s story symbolically, in 2022, a 12th century tunic which purports to bear the blood of the martyred Saint was returned to Canterbury Cathedral.
So, what are we to make of Becket’s story? The conflict between King Henry and Thomas Becket was rooted in the same religious controversy which played out across the whole of Medieval Europe – but theirs was a uniquely vivid story. Becket has proved to be a fascinating and divisive figure, evoking both pity and disgust from later writers: was he a wronged saint, or an obstinate and venal self-promoter? The murder of Saint Thomas Becket has provided rich material for writers and playwrights as diverse as Geoffrey Chaucer, T. S. Elliot, and Ken Follett – but it’s only by separating the true historical figures from their subsequent hagiographies and caricature by popular culture that we can reveal the rich history beneath.