Europe's greatest martyr: how Thomas Becket rose from the dead
The “meddlesome priest” exerted an extraordinary hold over king and country during his lifetime. But, writes Emily Guerry, that was nothing compared to the power he wielded from beyond the grave
On 29 December 1170, four of King Henry II’s knights murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket inside Canterbury Cathedral, scattering his blood and brains across the pavement. The killing, 850 years ago, marked the end of one of the most brilliant, divisive careers of England’s Middle Ages. Yet, in many ways, it was also a beginning.
News of Becket’s killing spread quickly and, in a matter of months, he had been transformed into one of the most famous martyrs in Christian history. Becket was canonised a mere three years after his death, while, within a decade, Canterbury monks had recorded 703 miracles related to the slain archbishop, and tens of thousands of visitors had flocked to the cathedral to venerate his remains. Supported by the circulation of new liturgies, miracle stories, sacred objects and holy relics, the cult of Becket soon dominated the landscape of Christendom, from Trondheim to Tarsus and Rochester to Reykjavik.
As we mark the anniversary of Becket’s killing, there’s never been a better time to explore his extraordinary life – and afterlife; to ask ourselves how a merchant’s son born in Cheapside nine centuries ago can, today, still draw thousands of pilgrims to the site of his death and burial.
Listen: 850 years ago, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was brutally murdered in his cathedral. Dr Emily Guerry explains what happened next, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Due in part to the sensational story of this death – and the swift process of his canonisation – historians today know more detail about Becket (from his dietary habits to his mood-swings) than perhaps any other English person who lived during the Middle Ages.
Thomas Becket was born in c1120, on the feast day of the Apostle Thomas (21 December), to a merchant named Gilbert Becket and his wife, Matilda. He studied in London and Paris, returned to England with a number of powerful social connections, and, by 1145, he had entered the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Becket quickly became one of the prelate’s favourites, and he often helped with important negotiations, including those concerning the royal family and their ongoing dynastic disputes.
Soon after the coronation of Henry II on 19 December 1154, the new king appointed the trustworthy and capable Becket as his royal chancellor. The two men became close friends, and although Becket was still technically Henry’s servant, the king showered him with gifts: Becket wore the finest clothes at court, he travelled with a dazzling entourage, and he had unobstructed access to the royal treasury.
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For those who would go on to write biographies of Becket, the flashy outward appearance of the future saint was mere performance. This truly ascetic man, they suggested, was just biding his time, pretending in splendour.
After the death of Theobald, Henry championed the appointment of Becket to the vacant see (seat of authority) of Canterbury, and he was consecrated on 3 June 1162. In his new capacity as the highest-ranking prelate in the kingdom and a ‘vicar of Christ’, Becket now claimed a direct authority from God and the pope, totally independent and separate from the Plantagenet crown. From that day onwards, the relationship between the royal master and his former servant would be forever changed – and highly strained.
Henry used his power to strip Becket of land and money; Becket used his to excommunicate the king’s allies
Within a year, the two most powerful men living in the British Isles entered into aggressive, public conflicts over ecclesiastical jurisdiction. To enforce obedience, Henry presided over the Council of Clarendon in January 1164 and demanded Becket’s loyalty, claiming that he (not the church) had the authority to punish criminous clerks. Becket refused to concede. Before long, Henry used his royal power to strip Becket of land and money, and Becket used his ecclesiastical power to excommunicate the king’s closest friends and supporters. Later that same year, as relations between archbishop and king deteriorated further, Becket left for France, where he spent six years in exile, living at Sens and Pontigny. He returned to Canterbury in December 1170.
Five eyewitness accounts of Becket’s martyrdom survive, and each of these biographers (or rather hagiographers) paints a dramatic portrait of his gruesome death. The most influential version of events was written by an injured bystander named Edward Grim, a clerk from Cambridge who nearly lost an arm during the assault.
Just days before, four knights – Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret – had crossed the English Channel together, after staying with the king at Bur-le-Roi in Normandy for Christmas. They had overheard Henry II voicing his frustration with Becket, and it is from this explosion of royal resentment that the colloquial phrase (of spurious origin): “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” derives.
The knights evidently interpreted the king’s outcry as a directive and hastened to Canterbury, arriving at the cathedral on 29 December. They entered the precincts in the late afternoon, confronted Becket in his archiepiscopal palace, and tried (but failed) to arrest him without force. They then rushed out and returned with weapons.
In the meantime, the Canterbury monks encouraged Becket to take sanctuary inside of the cathedral (some of the sources report that he had to be dragged there) while Vespers was taking place; the monks were singing and (as it was Christmas) the townspeople were present for prayer. It would have been around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a time of darkness in the Kentish winter, and they proceeded from the archiepiscopal palace along the monastic cloister into the north transept. It was here that Becket – dressed in black robes – took his final footsteps.
Moments later, the conspirators charged through the church door, now wearing armour and carrying swords. Grim reports that they cried out: “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?” They were now joined by a subdeacon named Hugh of Horsea, who would be remembered as ‘Mauclerk’ for the nasty part he played in the murder. The choir and people fell silent, and Becket proclaimed: “Here I am. Not a traitor to the king, but a priest,” emerging from a pillar situated between the altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Benedict.
The conspirators charged through the church door, now wearing armour and carrying swords
The assailants now hurled threats at the archbishop and manhandled him, attempting to remove him from the church. Becket clung to the column. In the midst of this, the archbishop called FitzUrse a pimp, an insult that infuriated the knight, who drew his sword. Knowing that the hour of his death was at hand, Becket composed himself, bowing his head and praying.
FitzUrse struck at Becket’s head and sliced open the top of his skull, nearly chopping off Grim’s arm in the process. A second blow struck Becket’s head again, and a third blow caused him to fall to his elbows and knees, with his brain exposed. Grim relates that from this prostrate position, Becket prayed in a low voice: “For the name of Jesus Christ and the well-being of the church, I am prepared to embrace death.” The fourth blow, dealt by Le Bret, severed his skullcap and caused the tip of this knight’s sword to shatter.
Grim describes this horror using memorable, allegorical language: “The crown… was separated from the head, so that the blood white from the brain, and the brain equally red from the blood, brightened the floor with the colours of the lily and the rose, the virgin and mother, and the life and death of the confessor and martyr.”
The final strike came not from a knight but the clerk, Hugh, who “put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and – horrible to say – scattered the brains with blood over the pavement”. Pleased with his work, Hugh exclaimed: “Let’s be off, knights. This man will not get up again!”, and they left the cathedral. Not even in Game of Thrones could such violence and malice co-mingle in so sacred a context.
Profane crime scene
The king’s men had turned Canterbury Cathedral, founded by Saint Augustine in the sixth century, into a profane crime scene – and the monks and people of Canterbury stood together in absolute shock. The townsfolk used their clothes as rags to mop up the blood; others dipped their hands in it, collected it in their own vessels for safekeeping, and rubbed it around their eyes.
These actions might strike the modern-day person as odd but, in the Middle Ages, this ritualistic behaviour signified something extremely important: the archbishop of Canterbury had just transformed into a martyr, and his blood could serve as a powerful and miracle-working relic.
According to William FitzStephen, a friend of Becket’s, a miracle took place that very night when a certain man in Canterbury placed a cloth soaked in Becket’s blood in water, and then gave this to his ailing wife. She drank the mixture and was cured. This would be the first of many miracles related to the cult of Becket. It initiated a special, site-specific ritual practice of drinking ‘The water of Saint Thomas’, a holy combination of flecks of Becket’s blood mixed with water, prepared by Canterbury monks, and offered – often in ampullae – to Canterbury pilgrims as a curative drink.
Meanwhile, the terrified monks hurried to bury Becket before the knights could subject his body to further desecration. They turned him over and tried to fit his severed cranium back on his head. One eyewitness named Benedict of Peterborough remarked that the archbishop’s face looked peaceful and perfect – except for a single line of blood that stretched diagonally across his left cheek to his right temple. In a number of miracles, in which Becket would visit people in their dreams, the saint appeared with this same line across his face; it became an uncanny signature of his saintly identity.
When Henry II heard the news of the assassination, he was afraid. Contemporary historians relate that the king had no intention of this murder, nor any idea that it would take place. However, Henry admitted to strongly disliking the archbishop, so he called himself a sinner and asked for forgiveness.
On 21 May 1172, Henry admitted – swearing upon a book of the Gospels – that he was to blame for inadvertently causing the death of Becket. Part of his penance would include donations in Becket’s name, and the restoration of property and positions to his friends and family. On 12 July 1174, Henry agreed to an act of almost unparalleled royal humiliation to express his shame. He removed his crown and walked barefoot in humble clothes from St Dunstan’s Church through the West Gate and through the streets of the city of Canterbury, leading his own penitential parade to the cathedral. He then spent that night fasting by the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, trembling and sobbing.
On 5 September 1174 – less than four years after Becket’s death – tragedy once more struck Canterbury Cathedral, when a fire ripped through its east end. Far from diminishing the building’s status, however, this event would elevate it to the status of one of Europe’s most sacred sites – and help explain why the cult of Becket proved so alluring to so many people for so many years.
Over the 14 years following the fire – first under the stewardship of the French architect William of Sens, and then (after William fell 50 feet from scaffolding), directed by a monk named William the Englishman – Canter-bury was transformed into a Gothic masterpiece. The walls were vaulted with pointed arches and flooded with colourful glass; the experience of the space was enhanced by maximising height and light; and the building’s most sacred site, the Trinity Chapel, was overhauled because, as Gervase of Canterbury observed, “a chapel of Saint Thomas was to be built there”. William the Englishman also directed the construction of the Corona chapel to house the top of Becket’s skull, which he completed in 1184.
The windows in Becket’s shrine were like billboards advertising his many miracles
With the new Gothic fabric in place, the stone walls would be filled with the vivid stories of Becket’s miracles, illustrated in the c1180–1220s stained glass surrounding the Trinity Chapel. If the ambulatory around the shrine was a highway for the traffic of pilgrims, then the windows were the billboards, advertising Becket’s miracle-working power.
This traffic came to a crashing halt in 1538, when Henry VIII ordered – as part of the dissolution of the monasteries – the destruction of Becket’s relics and shrine. Most historians agree that Becket’s bones were burned and the ashes scattered, though some claim that they were shot out of a cannon, or thrown into the river Stour. Others maintain, with limited evidence, that they could have survived in some secret place (and assume that a skeleton unearthed in 1888 in the crypt might actually be that of the saint).
A glittering ruby once affixed to the shrine – thought to be a gift of King Louis VII of France, which was admired by countless pilgrims – is said to have been converted into a ring by Henry VIII, which some scholars believe he wore on his thumb.
Resurrected and retold
But not even a figure as formidable as that of Henry VIII could totally extinguish interest in Becket. After a protracted silence – and with a little help from playwrights like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and actors such as Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton – the archbishop’s story has been resurrected and retold. From the enduring appeal of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Becket’s martyrdom continues to captivate the public imagination today.
This was evidenced in 2016, when what was purported to be a fragment of Becket’s elbow was ‘returned’ to the cathedral for a brief visit by its guardians in Esztergom, Hungary in a ceremonial procession. In the near future, a fragment of a vestment he once wore, now venerated in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, will return to Canterbury, on loan for an exhibition.
Even though Becket’s body has been absent from Canterbury Cathedral for nearly five centuries, his presence can still be seen and felt today. Eagle-eyed visitors can spot the former outline of the Trinity Chapel shrine and in the visible indent of the paving stones, left behind by the imprint of countless curved knees pressed – again and again – into the marble. Suspended from the central vault of the crypt, an evocative sculpture by Antony Gormley (pictured below), installed in 2011, hovers above the former location of Becket’s body.
But perhaps the most meaningful, physical legacy of Becket at Canterbury is the Gothic cathedral itself, erected to enable the archbishop to become a major martyr, to explicate his power in art and architecture and facilitate the experience of devotion for pilgrims. If Becket’s body – and severed ‘crown’ – once served as the battery for an encounter with the holy, then the Gothic design of the cathedral is a machine charged with meaning.
Just look closely whenever you next visit Canterbury and you’ll see some trace of the saint whose blood and brains once covered the floor, and whose spirit and story gave solace to so many people.
Emily Guerry is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Kent. She is a co-organiser of the conference Thomas Becket: Life, Death and Legacy, due to be held online in April 2021
A major exhibition, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, is scheduled to run at the British Museum in 2021
You can view reconstructions of Becket’s shrines on the web resource The Becket Story