Today in History: The Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, 1170

On December 29, 1170, Henry II of England accidentally murdered his former best friend, Thomas Becket.

The Anarchy

As always, to understand a historical tale, you need to understand some of the context. Henry’s entire childhood developed in the context of a 18-year civil war known as the Anarchy, and that fight deserves its own mention.

Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, produced a small army of illegitimate kids. (Wikipedia lists 24).  However, he only produced one legitimate son, who died at the age of 17 in the sinking of the White Ship.

White Ship Sinking
Thankfully, everyone was allowed a moment to wave goodbye before drowning.  Image c.1320. (Wikipedia)

Today, the British have very specific laws as to the order of succession: we know, with certainty, who is first, 5th, 20th and 100th in line for the throne. In the 12th century, however, anything past a legitimate son was debatable.

Henry, having no legitimate sons, named his sole legitimate daughter, Matilda, as heir. (Today the British monarch has no say in the matter.) The English nobles,* however, would have none of it.  It wasn’t just because she was a woman, although that certainly was not helping. She was the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor (as such, her proper title is Empress Matilda) and was seen as a foreigner. On top of which, she just wasn’t terribly personal or diplomatic.

*I say “English nobles,” but practically all of the men holding titles in England also held much older titles in Normandy, France. They spoke French and often spent much of their time in France, as did the king himself. William the Conqueror, Matilda, Henry II, and Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) were all buried in France, not England.

So a cousin, Stephen, seized the throne, and he and Matilda warred for 18 years. Neither of them were good at the job they claimed was rightfully theirs, and the country suffered horribly. In 1153, Stephen acknowledged the future Henry II as his heir in exchange for Henry and Matilda recognizing Stephen as the current king.

Authority of the King

In 1154, Stephen died, and the 21-year-old Henry was handed a rather broken and lawless country. For the rest of his life he centralized power, codified laws, organized tax collections, created a system of appointed circuit judges, and periodically put down rebellion (often fomented by his wife (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and children (including future kings Richard the Lionheart and John), but that is yet another story).

As chancellor, Thomas Becket was strongly aligned with Henry’s views of kingly authority. Considering the age difference, it is certainly possible Thomas was able to significantly shape their approach to governing.  The two became close friends.

Henry II and Becket from Movie
Which apparently looked something like this.
Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in Becket, 1964.
(The Guardian; Photograph: Kobal)

One area that did not submit to Henry’s authority was the Church.  Medieval kings were constantly struggling with the Church about the appointment of bishops, authority of ecclesiastical courts, and other issues that threatened the king’s sovereignty.

So when Henry got the opportunity, he had Thomas appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest Church position in England. Thomas agreed with Henry’s centralizing policies, so surely this would only work in the king’s favor…just as soon as Thomas was ordained as a priest, which he hadn’t been up to this point.

Thomas Becket - 13th century psalter
From a 13th century psalter. Stories of his death are careful to highlight the multiple gruesome blows to took to the head, the last one spilling his brains onto the cathedral floor.

Broken Friendship

And then Becket changed his mind. The official stories emphasize an embrace of piety and asceticism. It’s a more inspiring story than Thomas seeing the chance to tweak the political nose of the king. For whatever reason, Becket argued for the authority of the Church just as vehemently as the previous archbishop. The results were councils, a trial, excommunications, a flight to France, threats against friends, threats of interdict, and more excommunications.

Not exactly your average fallout between friends.  (Unless you’re a Vampire LARPer, in which case this is pretty much how every falling out ends.)

According to tradition, Henry one day rhetorically lamented to four knights, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Whatever he actually said, the four knights considered it a sort of “nudge nudge, wink wink” request.

They arrived at Canterbury and demanded Thomas reverse his position on the most recent argument between him and the king.  There’s no reason to think they would have killed him if he did.  But he didn’t, and he knew what it would cost him.  The first knight:

…leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God…

Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows…

Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.’ -Edward Grim, witness (Eye Witness to History)

exeter cathedral becket boss
Roof boss from Exeter Cathedral, c.1300, depicting Thomas being murdered for the sin of jazz hands. The paint restoration is mid to late 20th century. (ParadoxPlace)


Locals immediately venerated him as a martyr, as one might expect when you can put “archbishop,” “murdered” and “cathedral” into one sentence. There were tales of miracles. Thomas was canonized as a saint, the knights are sent on Crusade, and Henry accepted eighty lashes with a whip (probably symbolic, but still immensely humiliating) in penance for his part in things. He also has to give up his fight with the Church.


Click on an image above for description and slideshow.

Canterbury Cathedral

Becket’s body was put on display in an immensely rich shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, which became the largest pilgrimage site in England and one of the most important in Europe. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a group of pilgrims traveling to visit his shrine.

The Other Henry and the Other Thomas

400 years later, England suffered another civil war – this time the War of the Roses.  The solution was to marry Henry VII of the House of Lancaster to Elizabeth of the House of York.  Their child, a descendant of both families, would eventually become king, and everyone should be happy.

That child was Henry VIII.

In 1538, Henry VIII stripped Thomas’s shrine of valuables and destroyed his body as part of a larger movement in which the government took control of Church resources.  However, Becket was particularly mistreated, due to the very nature of his quarrel over the king’s authority.  Henry attempted to have all mention of the saint obliterated.

Henry VIII succeeded where Henry II did not in establishing the supremacy of the king over the Church, although he had to actually leave the Catholic church to do it. And one of the people who stood against Henry’s moves against the Church was a man named Thomas More.

…who was one of Henry VIII’s best friends.

…who became chancellor.

…who was killed for refusing to accept the king’s supremacy on the matter.

..and who was canonized. Today, Thomas More is recognized as a saint by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the very entity whose formation he opposed.


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