The unholy feud that killed Thomas Becket

Henry II and Becket may have wrestled over the power of the church, but their murderous dispute was chiefly fuelled by a clash of personalities, according to Richard Barber...

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

At dusk on the evening of 29 December 1170, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered in the half-light of his cathedral by four knights. They had arrived in the afternoon at the archbishop’s lodging, claiming to bear a message from King Henry II. A violent argument soon broke out, and Thomas took refuge in the church. He resolutely resisted the knights’ demand that he should become their prisoner. In response, they attempted to haul him out of the church, and in the struggle that ensued, drew their swords. The first blow wounded Thomas on the head, and then, as the blood streamed down his face, one of the knights, Richard Brito, “smote him with such force that the sword was broken against his head”, and the whole crown of his head was cut off. One of the knight’s followers used his sword point to extract the archbishop’s brains through the wound. It was a horrific crime in itself. But, given the status of the victim and the sanctity of the place, it was an outrage beyond comprehension.

The attack was the conclusion of a long struggle between king and archbishop, one that was marked almost from the beginning by a clash of personalities. Great issues were at stake. Henry II was a remarkable and intelligent ruler, who had a vision of a land in which justice should be available to all, and all should be equal under royal law. As a young man, he had witnessed the disastrous struggle for the throne between his cousin Stephen and his mother, Matilda, and was determined that good government should be restored.

Thomas had his own vision, believing that in all things the authority of the church should be supreme, and that the king should rule as the church’s representative in the secular world. Royal interference in the church’s affairs should be ended, he contested, after centuries in which the king could overawe those who elected the church’s leaders, even the cardinals who chose the pope himself.

Both believed passionately in laws: Henry in the laws of the realm, Thomas in those of the church – canon law – which had been newly compiled and edited at the university of Bologna.

Yet this infamous struggle between two powerful men began in harmony and friendship. Henry II became king at the end of 1154 when he was only 21, after the sudden death of Stephen. His chief advisor at the outset of his reign was Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury; and it was Theobald who arranged the appointment of a 35-year-old clerk in his service to be the king’s chancellor, effectively his chief clerk. This was Thomas Becket, son of a moderately wealthy Londoner, who had joined Theobald’s household 12 years earlier as a first step to a career in the church. He had become Theobald’s favourite, and had been sent to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law, before becoming archdeacon of Canterbury. Thomas was charming, quick-witted and a loyal servant.

Having spent his early years in the very secular environment of the merchant families of London, Thomas transferred easily to royal service and the royal court. But what no one could have foreseen was the extraordinary friendship that sprang up between Henry and the chancellor, and the way in which Thomas transformed his rather prosaic post – at least in outward appearance – to the greatest office under the crown.


A c1280–1300 book painting shows  King Henry II, “a remarkable  and intelligent ruler… prone to  disastrous outbursts of temper”. (© AKG Images)

Henry never enjoyed magnificence, and preferred, even on festive or ceremonial occasions, to dress as simply as possible. When an alliance with France had to be negotiated – to be sealed by the betrothal of Henry’s eldest son, also called Henry, to Margaret, the daughter of Louis VII – the king sent Thomas on ahead to deal with the business aspects of the alliance. Mindful of the need to impress the French, the king also encouraged him to mount a magnificent display. To say that Thomas was up to the task, is something of an understatement. For a start, he took 24 changes of clothing, many silk garments (which he gave away), every kind of fur, cloaks, and rich carpets. When he entered France, he was preceded by 250 footmen, who sang as they marched along. Eight wagons followed, bearing his provisions and the furnishings for his chapel, chamber, bedroom and kitchen. Thomas’s treasure – gold and silver plate, money and books – was carried on 12 pack-horses. Monkeys rode on the back of the carthorses. Behind this came the squires with their masters’ shields, and leading their warhorses, the falconers with hawks on their wrists, and the members of the chancellor’s household.

Finally, preceded by the knights and clerics, the chancellor himself appeared, accompanied by close friends. “What a marvellous man the king of England must be,” the French were supposed to have exclaimed, “if his chancellor travels in such great state!” As it turned out, Henry came modestly dressed and accompanied by a mere handful of knights.

The king often teased Thomas about his delight in rich dress. As they rode through London one day, Henry saw an old man in a ragged coat and suggested to his chancellor that it would be an act of charity to give him a cloak. “Yes,” said Thomas, “you, as king, should see to it.” At this, Henry took hold of Thomas’s splendid cape and, after a short tussle, pulled it off and gave it to the poor man.

The cleric William Fitzstephen wrote that “when the daily round of business had been dealt with, the king and Thomas would sport together, like boys of the same age, in hall, in church and out riding together”. He also describes Thomas’s entertainment: “He hardly ever dined without the company of sundry earls and barons… His board was resplendent with gold and silver vessels and abounded in dainty dishes and precious wines.” And Henry himself would come: “Sometimes the king, bow in hand as he returned from the hunt or was about to set off, rode on horseback into the hall where the chancellor sat at table… sometimes he would jump over the table and sit down to meat with him. Never in the whole Christian era were two men more of one mind or better friends.”

And when the English invaded the county of Toulouse in the autumn of 1159, Thomas seems to have been in command of the army after Henry left to fight the French in Normandy. “Donning hauberk and helmet, the chancellor put himself at the head of a strong force and stormed three castles, which were strongly fortified and impregnable. He then crossed the Garonne with his troops in pursuit of the enemy, and, after confirming the whole province in its allegiance to the king, returned in high favour and honour.” To all appearances, Thomas was relishing his role as a great secular magnate.

Six years after Thomas became chancellor, his old master, Archbishop Theobald, died. By now, Henry’s schemes for establishing royal power and justice were well under way and, as Thomas had probably helped to develop them, he seemed the obvious choice to replace Theobald. It’s likely that Henry secured the blessing of the pope, Alexander III, before telling Thomas of the appointment.

And with that the tragedy begins. Thomas was duly elected in May 1162. In the words of a modern historian, “he threw off the layman and became the complete archbishop”. At the beginning of June he resigned the chancellorship, apparently on the advice of the most senior of the English bishops, Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, and it may be that his relationship with the king was already on the wane. It was later said that Thomas had already warned Henry that his appointment as archbishop would be fatal to their relationship. In that, he was proved spectacularly prescient.

But even if the details are exaggerated, Thomas’s sudden change from a great officer of state with appropriate secular pomp to ascetic archbishop has puzzled historians ever since. Had he experienced a conversion like that of St Paul on the road to Damascus? The apparent contrast between Thomas as chancellor and Thomas as archbishop is as sharp as that between Saul the persecutor of Christians and St Paul as father of the church.

Even more puzzling is his unrelenting stance with regard to the programme of justice that he had helped Henry to initiate in these early years of the king’s reign. As someone trained in canon law and experienced in English royal law, Thomas must have known that there were many points at which Henry’s intentions would bring him into conflict with the church. However, there is from the outset every sign that he had decided not to negotiate or to give ground, but to defend the church’s privileges with all his might.

On becoming archbishop, Thomas attempted to restore the lands seized from the church of Canterbury during Stephen’s reign. He had the king’s permission to do this, it seems, but he encountered problems. The strategically important castle at Tonbridge was now in the possession of Roger de Clare, Earl of Hertford, one of the most influential of Henry’s barons. Thomas excommunicated another important lord, William of Eynsford, over a claim to the church at Eynsford, but Henry forced the archbishop to absolve William.


Becket clearly savoured his role as a secular magnate but, once appointed to the archbishopric of Canterbury Cathedral, he defended the privileges of the church to the hilt. (© Getty)

Knowing Henry’s intelligence and determination, Thomas may have feared that if he yielded on any point of dispute, Henry would only press him further. But in July 1163, at a council held at the palace of Woodstock, Thomas attacked a proposal of Henry’s which was essentially a reform of taxation with little if any conflict with ecclesiastical law. He did so on the grounds that it was an unprecedented and arbitrary innovation, as if he had become the defender of the ancient royal customs of England. It was now two years since he had first known that he was to be archbishop – and in this time he had moved from being a supporter of Henry’s plans to outright opposition.

This ill-tempered approach pervades the archbishop’s relations with the king throughout the rest of his life – and Henry, renowned for his violent temper, responded in kind. The king’s actions, however, smack of a cold and resolute determination to humiliate the archbishop. Thomas had insisted on what we now call ‘benefit of clergy’, the right of anyone in holy orders to be tried in a church court, and only in a church court. Such ‘criminous clerks’, as they were called, could not be imprisoned by the king or put to death. In response, Henry attacked Thomas personally. The king raked up claims against him from his time as chancellor, claiming huge sums from him that the archbishop could not possibly pay.


A 14th-century illumination shows Henry II in conversation with Thomas Becket. The pair’s friendship had turned sour, and  the archbishop was hellbent on obstructing Henry’s every move – an approach that repeatedly enraged the king. (© AKG Images)

This was Henry’s weakest moment in many ways: he was responding to an issue that struck at the heart of the differences between the church’s new ambitions and the royal agenda with a personal attack on Thomas. It was as if he sought to prove that even the archbishop could be arraigned in a royal court.

These claims against Thomas, and the argument as to whether he could be judged for them in a secular court, came to a head at a council in Northampton in 1164. Thomas had compounded his offences in the king’s eyes by opposing the provisions of the document setting out in writing the ancient customs of England that Henry had presented at an earlier council at Clarendon in January 1164. Now, in Northampton, these tensions broke out into open conflict. And it wasn’t just the king who had an axe to grind with Thomas: the great magnates, who had never had much love for the upstart merchant’s son, shouted insults at him when he declared that the barons had no authority to sit in judgment on him. Thomas, however, did not maintain a dignified silence, but hurled abuse back.

The same ill-temper was evident when Thomas, fearing for his safety, fled to Flanders. There he was visited by the justiciar (chief justice) Richard de Lucy, who pleaded with him to return to England. Thomas refused, and the encounter ended with a violent quarrel during which de Lucy withdrew the homage he had once paid to the archbishop.


Becket meets Pope Alexander III. Fearful of provoking Henry II’s ire, the pontiff was unwilling to offer Becket his full support. (© Bridgeman)

Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, and he would probably have preferred to back Thomas to the hilt – if it wasn’t for the fact that he was one of two popes. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, had just recognised Alexander’s rival, Victor IV, as pontiff – and, fearing Henry II might do the same, Alexander was keen to reach a compromise. In the summer of 1165, he ordered Thomas not to provoke the king in any way before Easter 1166, so anxious was he to preserve Henry’s good will. Once the ban expired, Thomas – in a move that surprised even his closest counsellors – launched a devastating series of excommunications against the English bishops and barons, sparing only the king himself. With the victims at once appealing to the pope, a settlement appeared less likely than ever.

But a settlement needed to be found, and the pope began interminable negotiations for Thomas’s return. Meetings with the legates sent by the pope broke up in acrimony, but there were rare moments when Thomas and Henry met and seemed to renew their old friendship – and, as a result, peace terms were eventually agreed. However, the entente was soon to break down in spectacular style.


A pewter pilgrim badge shows Becket standing on a ship while returning to England from his exile on the continent. A month later, he would be dead. (© Art Archive)

Against tradition – but not church law – Henry’s eldest son, also named Henry, had been crowned king by the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury earlier in the year, to ensure that he succeeded his father. Henry had letters from the pope from some years earlier giving permission for the ceremony. Thomas retaliated in kind by using letters of excommunication against them which the pope had issued, also some time earlier.

It was the act of a man bent on revenge, not of someone who was going to win back his position by conciliation and patient negotiation. By calling into question the validity of the coronation, Thomas was striking at the heart of one of Henry’s most cherished schemes. During the years of exile, the archbishop seemed to have lost his judgment of affairs and to have withdrawn into a steely bitterness.

In that, he wasn’t alone: Henry’s fury with Thomas when he heard the news in France also led him to lose control. Whatever he may have said to the assembled courtiers – and we only have the report of one of Thomas’s biographers, who was not present – his rage inspired the four knights to ride to the coast, take ship for England, and confront the archbishop. On this occasion, intransigence and rage produced bloody murder.


Thomas Becket departs from Henry II at Montmirail in France after negotiations between the two had broken down. He would soon oppose Henry’s decision to have his son crowned king – a move that would send their relationship spiralling to new lows. (© Bridgeman)

Due to a lack of eyewitness evidence or personal letters, it can be difficult for historians to trace the moods and motives of the people about whom they write. But in this case we have abundant evidence, mostly from the biographers of Thomas in the years following his death – and from his own letters. There is rather less on Henry’s side, but even those who knew him well do not attempt to conceal his fierce temper and stubbornness. Only the extreme scenes of his rolling on the floor chewing the rushes and tearing his clothes when in a rage come under suspicion, as they appear rather too close to medical descriptions of madness.

It is easy to portray Henry as the villain of the piece, as some historians have done, describing a king surrounded by “slippery” advisors, “feeling utterly humiliated” and “bawling insults”. This is not in the sources, even the most hostile.

I personally see Henry as a cool and calculating man, prone to occasional disastrous outbursts of temper. Thomas, meanwhile, comes across as determined but resolutely undiplomatic, genuinely spiritual in his exile but ultimately unsure of himself – a man who relied on the advice of his followers at critical moments.

Of course there were high principles and deep politics involved in the quarrel between Henry and Thomas, and there’s no doubt that the issue of both royal and papal authority proved an insoluble problem. But the outcome was exacerbated by the two protagonists. Thomas, despite his sainthood and undeserved martyrdom, is as much at fault as Henry. Indeed, the Norman poet who, in 1169, described Henry as blameless and Thomas as iniquitous, may have more of a point than we know. What should have been an argument – however hotly disputed – conducted between the highest representatives of church and state had become fatally enmeshed in a clash of personalities.

Richard Barber is a historian who has written several books on medieval England, including Edward III and the Triumph of England (Allen Lane, 2013).

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