Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred on 29 December 1170, brutally murdered in front of the altar at Canterbury Cathedral. It was the culmination of years of opposition to his former friend and master King Henry II.
As Thomas was confronted by four knights, swords drawn, on the very brink of losing their temper, it is hard to work out what was going through his mind. His reaction to the threat he bravely faced suggests he might have had a plan that required his death that day.
Born on Cheapside in London around 1120, Thomas was provided with a good education that included a spell in Paris. After returning to London in 1141 aged 21, Thomas secured work in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas’s life was transformed when the period of civil war known as the Anarchy came to an end with the coronation of King Henry II on 19 December 1154.
By the end of January 1155, Thomas was witnessing royal documents as the new king’s chancellor. The office gave Thomas control of the royal chapel and the scriptorium, the king’s writing office. The appointment was at the recommendation of Archbishop Theobald, but no one foresaw the friendship that developed between the king and chancellor.
The New Archbishop
When Archbishop Theobald died on 18 April 1161, Henry summoned Thomas to tell him that he was to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas protested, asking, ‘How religious, how saintly, is the man whom you would appoint to that holy see, and over so renowned a monastery!’ Henry would not be moved.
At Canterbury, the horrified monks refused to elect Thomas. On 23 May 1162, the brothers were in London to hear that the king was not asking. Thomas was duly elected as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He had been appointed to hand the king control over the English Church, and he immediately refused to do so. Henry was furious and tried to prosecute Thomas for financial irregularities during his term as chancellor.
Refusing to be cowed, the archbishop left England to seek refuge in France at the court of Henry’s rival King Louis VII. Over the years that followed, Thomas refused to be reconciled, but his belligerence was proving inconvenient and embarrassing to Louis and Pope Alexander III.
In June 1170, Henry organised the coronation of his son, known as Henry the Young King. As Archbishop of Canterbury, it was Thomas’s prerogative to perform the ceremony, but Henry allowed the Archbishop of York to officiate.
In what looked like a prearranged performance, Louis complained that his daughter Margaret, the Young King’s wife, had been excluded. Henry offered to repeat the ceremony and allow Thomas to crown the couple if he would be reconciled.
Realising his sympathy had been exhausted, Thomas agreed. When he sailed back to England, though, it was with a plan. When he heard that his bishops were gathered at Dover to meet him, Thomas diverted his ship to Sandwich and rushed to Canterbury. His first act was to excommunicate all the bishops involved in the coronation. In dismay, they fired off letters to the king in Normandy.
Henry was celebrating Christmas at Bur-le-Roi near Bayeux. What followed was as hotly debated in the immediate aftermath as it has been for the 850 years since. Edward Grim, a monk at Canterbury, recorded that Henry bellowed
‘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!’
Four knights rose from the feast, rode to the coast, crossed the Channel and made for Canterbury. Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton burst into Thomas’ chamber on 29 December 1170. When Thomas refused to lift the excommunications, the knights threatened violence. Thomas waved them away, and they stomped out to collect their weapons.
The monks ushered Thomas to the altar in the Cathedral, hoping it would offer more protection. The sub-deacon, Hugh the Evil-clerk, led the armed knights back in. ‘Where is Thomas, traitor of the king and kingdom?’ roared one. When no answer came, he bellowed louder ‘Where is the archbishop?’
Thomas pushed his way out of the protective huddle of monks. ‘Here I am, not a traitor to the king but a priest’, Thomas quietly answered. The knights repeated their demand that he reverse the excommunications and Becket refused again. ‘Then you will now die,’ they growled. Thomas assured them calmly ‘I am prepared to die for my Lord’. The knights grabbed at Thomas and tried to drag him outside, but he tightly gripped a pillar.
Eventually, Thomas let go, pressed his hands together, leaned forward, stretching his neck out, and began to pray. The monks had scattered in terror, but some rushed back now to protect their archbishop. Grim was among them, and as he raised his arm to shield Thomas, one of the knights swung his sword down, carving into Grim’s arm and skimming Thomas’s scalp. A second blow severed the monk’s limb and crashed into Becket’s head.
A third sent the archbishop to the ground in a crumpled heap as Grim heard him mumble ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death’. A fourth blow sliced the top of Becket’s skull off. The sword shattered on the stone floor in the pool of blood.
Hugh the Evil-clerk stepped on the archbishop’s neck so that his brains poured from his skull into the puddle of gore. ‘We can leave this place, knights,’ Hugh crowed, ‘he will not get up again.’
Henry became an international pariah, the murder by his men fodder for his enemies. Thomas was canonised on 21 February 1173, and a cult quickly sprang up around his tomb. In 1174, as threats gathered around his lands, Henry made a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb, spending the night in tears and prayers. His fortunes were instantly transformed, and Thomas’s saintly reputation was sealed.
The lingering question is why things ended the way they did on 29 December 1170. Henry always denied that he meant for Thomas to be murdered. The four knights disappeared in shame. But had Thomas planned his death that day? He knew his opposition to Henry was floundering. Martyrdom may have been the ace up his sleeve.
Thomas deliberately wound the knights up into a frenzy. When they tried to drag him outside, he refused to leave the cathedral because it was the perfect place for the moment to play out. Spotting the tipping point in his attackers’ rage, Thomas suddenly, calmly offered himself as a sacrifice. He bravely withstood several blows with no effort to protect himself or escape.
Thomas Becket had refused to give up his defiance of King Henry’s desire to control the church. Martyrdom offered victory, and it worked. Henry dropped his plans. Thomas Becket faced his death with astonishing bravery, and his murder would redefine his reputation and Henry II’s kingship.