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...

Canterbury Cathedral

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.

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