Where history happened: the cult of Thomas Becket
Anne Duggan looks at seven places with links to a man whose martyrdom has inspired Christians across Europe for 800 years
This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
The brutal murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 shocked the whole of Europe, threatened the stability of the Angevin empire, made the murder victim into one of the most celebrated saints in the Middle Ages, and established Canterbury as the centre of a pilgrimage cult that embraced the whole of the Latin west. From Trondheim in Norway to Monreale in Sicily, churches, chapels and altars were dedicated to Becket, and the feast of St Thomas the Martyr was universally celebrated. Iceland had its own saga of Thomas the archbishop and 11 Thomas churches.
Becket was an upwardly mobile cleric, born of Norman parents in the heart of London on the site now occupied by the Mercers’ Company. The major breakthrough in his career came when the vigorous new king, Henry II, made him chancellor in early 1155, a position which brought prestige and power.
Breaking the tradition followed from 1070, that the archbishop of Canterbury should be a monk or member of an order of canons, Henry arranged Becket’s election to the primatial see in 1162. The king hoped to use Becket to force through a radical programme of royal supervision of the church, including its burgeoning judicial system, but was prevented by Becket’s refusal to assent to his more extreme demands at Clarendon in January 1164. The result was a show trial at Northampton Castle in the following October, from which Becket fled to France in fear of life and limb. Six years of fruitless negotiations ensued, leading to a patched-up peace at Fréteval, northern France in 1170 and his return to England in December that year.
The reconciliation was false, for Henry refused to grant the ritual kiss of peace and failed to keep the undertakings he had made, including the restoration of Canterbury properties. The king’s simmering displeasure, shared by men who had profited from Thomas’s fall from grace – including Archbishop Roger of York, Bishop Gilbert Foliot of London and Bishop Jocelin of Salisbury – was the background to the murder.
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Although Henry did not authorise Thomas’s killing, he created the conditions in which it occurred. At the Christmas celebrations at Bur-le Roi in Normandy, he ordered Becket’s arrest and railed against him. “What useless drones and traitors have I nourished in my court – who let their lord be treated with such contempt by a low-born clerk.”
Hearing this, four barons, Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito, hurried across the Channel, spending the night at Saltwood Castle, while the king’s agent Ranulf de Broc and the sheriff of Kent summoned the knights of the county to make sure that there could be no resistance.
Thus assured, the four rode to Canterbury, and when Thomas refused to surrender, they armed themselves and pursued him into the cathedral, where the monks were beginning Vespers (evensong). Catching up with him in the north-west transept they cut him down in a fierce attack.
Despite King Henry’s claims that Thomas had been murdered by “excommunicates and others from England”, the howls of outrage from Louis VII of France and others were enough to rebut the English king’s stance of injured innocence. Henry found it politic to accept penance from papal legates, and Thomas was canonised as a saint and martyr in February 1173.
The king’s reputation was tarnished, nevertheless, and his dominions in England and France were engulfed in a great rebellion, which many thought was God’s punishment for the unexpiated murder of an archbishop.
Led by Henry’s eldest son (also named Henry), his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and King Louis of France, many now seized the opportunity to seek redress for their own grievances. Among them were William the Lion of Scotland, the counts of Flanders and Boulogne, the young princes Geoffrey and Richard, and four English earls. Although the old king scored early successes against the Bretons and the French, he was summoned to defend England against a two-pronged invasion in July 1174.
The king of Scots advanced from the north, while young Henry and the count of Flanders were poised to attack by sea, intending to link up with the Scots and the rebellious earls. Henry II returned to confront his enemies, but first he sought the martyr’s grace by doing penance before Becket’s tomb – and he was rewarded. Scarcely had he left Canterbury, when he heard that King William was captured and the naval invasion disrupted by a fierce storm. “God be thanked for it,” he said, “and St Thomas the Martyr and all God’s saints.”
These events, chronicled in Latin and French, consolidated the status of Thomas as a powerful patron in the court of heaven, and pilgrims in their thousands flocked to the tomb in the crypt until the erection of the great shrine in 1220.
Seven places associated with the cult of Thomas Becket
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
Where visitors can see the site of Becket’s murder
Becket’s murder made Canterbury Cathedral the focus of one of the most popular pilgrimages in England. Up to 100,000 pilgrims were recorded in some years, providing the context for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The “hooly blisful martir”, as referred to in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lay in the crypt until 1220, when the relics were translated in a magnificent ceremony, led by the young Henry III, to the shrine erected in the St Thomas (now Trinity) Chapel on 7 July 1220.
The tomb no longer exists, but today’s visitors can retrace the steps of medieval pilgrims from the north-west transept, where Thomas was murdered. You can also see the ‘altar of the broken sword’, displaying Brito’s sword, which broke as he sliced it down on Becket’s head as he lay dying on the ground.
At the top of the much-worn stone steps is the ambulatory, illuminated by 8 of the original 12 windows celebrating the life and miracles of the martyr. Other highlights include ‘Becket’s crown’ – the chapel now dedicated to all martyrs, which enshrined the fragment of the martyr’s skull cut off by Brito – and the Trinity Chapel, where the shrine stood for some 300 years.
The shrine was destroyed in 1538. Yet the empty space it left – adorned with marble columns in rose-pink and white, the colours of martyrdom – remains as a poignant witness to the martyrdom and the martyr.
Outside Canterbury, you can also retrace the path taken by the penitent king on 12–13 July 1174. Having landed at Southampton, he reached the leper house of St Nicholas at Harbledown, about two miles from the city. There he paused and assigned the hospital 20 marks a year (£13.6s.8d) from incomes in Canterbury. This pension is still being paid by Canterbury City Council to the almshouse that replaced the leprosarium at the Reformation.
From Harbledown, Henry rode to St Edmund’s Church, just outside the city. There he removed his outer finery and walked barefoot through the west gate to the cathedral and down to the crypt. Before the martyr’s tomb he acknowledged his part in the murder, received a penitential scourging from the monks, made substantial gifts to the monastery, and spent the night in prayer.
Saltwood Castle, where the four conspirators met and planned their final moves on the night before the murder, is not open to the public, but its gatehouse and walls still convey its formidable power. Saltwood was the headquarters of Ranulf de Broc, the king’s agent in charge of Canterbury’s estates during Becket’s exile, and an implacable enemy. Together with Gervase of Cornhill, sheriff of Kent, he gave full support to the conspirators, to the extent of leading the Kentish garrisons to surround Canterbury.
Dover Castle, Kent
Where Henry II entertained a French king
This great fortress was regarded as one of the keys to England, protecting the main route from the coast to Rochester and London. It was at Dover Castle that Henry II entertained Louis VII of France and a large retinue in August 1179, when Louis came to pray to St Thomas for the recovery of Philip, his only son and the heir to his kingdom.
Philip recovered to become one of France’s greatest monarchs (King Philip Augustus), and Louis made lavish gifts: a gold cup and the royal ring of France to Thomas’s shrine, and an annual consignment of French wine to Canterbury’s monks. Recently restored by English Heritage, the castle, and especially the royal apartments, can be seen as they were in King Henry’s time.
Knaresborough Castle, Harrogate
Where Becket’s murderers hid from justice
One of the great royal castles built to defend the north from Scottish invasions, this fortress was in the care of Hugh de Morville, one of the infamous four who murdered Becket.
The outcry provoked by the murder, on both sides of the Channel, made the four barons personae non gratae. They dared not approach King Henry; the king of Scots refused to give them sanctuary; and they were forced to take refuge in Knaresborough Castle for about a year, during which they came to the realisation that there was no option but to submit to the church’s judgment.
Violence against clerics attracted automatic excommunication and appropriate penance imposed by the pope. In the barons’ case, the violence and sacrilege were such that Pope Alexander III imposed penitential military service in the Holy Land. There all four died, and a 13th-century tradition recorded that they were buried outside the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Abbey of St Thomas in Arbroath, Angus
Where a declaration of Scottish independence was signed
Although the capture of William the Lion, king of Scots, in 1174, was regarded by Henry II as a mark of Becket’s forgiveness, William himself developed a personal devotion to the new saint. Its chief manifestation was the lavish endowment of a new monastery, colonised by Tironian monks from Kelso, in 1178. Its foundation was a significant tribute to the new martyr. However, it may also have been a symbol of opposition to King Henry, to whom William had been compelled to pay homage for Scotland in 1174, following the collapse of the rebellion in which he had participated.
The royal endowment made St Thomas’s the richest monastic foundation in Scotland. King William was buried there in 1214, and it was there that the Declaration of Arbroath was drawn up in 1320 and sent to Pope John XXII. This solemn assertion of Scottish independence remains one of the most important constitutional documents in Scottish history.Drafted by Bernard of Kilwinning, abbot of Arbroath and chancellor of Scotland, it defended the legitimacy of King Robert Bruce, the victor of the battle of Bannockburn, and proclaimed the ancient independence of the Scots.
The abbey’s seal has a fine depiction of Becket’s martyrdom, showing Brito’s sword breaking as it struck Thomas, and its point falling to the ground.
The Chapel of St Thomas Becket, St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire
Where pilgrims still pay homage to St Thomas
One significant testimonial to the cult of the martyr in Wales is the fine chapel of St Thomas Becket in the north transept of St David’s Cathedral (St David was a sixth-century bishop, and is patron of Wales).
Built in the early 13th century, remodelled in the 14th, and recently restored to its original dedication, the chapel of St Thomas is now set aside for private contemplation and prayer.
Welsh pilgrims were recorded at Canterbury in the 12th century, while some travelled to Whitchurch (in Cheshire or Shropshire) following the deposit there of relics of the martyr (fragments of his hair shirt and vestments stained with his blood). Cures of 22 people at Whitchurch, including one paralysed woman, were reported to Canterbury before 1180.
The Mercers’ Hall, Ironmonger Lane, London
Where Becket’s birthplace later became a chapel and hospital
The Mercers’ Hall occupies the site of the chapel and hospital of St Thomas of Acon (ie. Thomas Becket), itself founded in the 1230s on the site of Becket’s birthplace, which the Mercers’ Company bought after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. Earlier still, the Mercers had held their meetings there.
St Thomas’s also occupied a special place in the public life of the city. Its bell marked curfew, and newly elected mayors processed from the Guildhall to St Thomas’s and then to St Paul’s churchyard to visit the tombs of Becket’s parents. Mayor and aldermen also attended services in the chapel on his feast day.
Virtually nothing of that past remains, but a bronze image of St Thomas, based on a pilgrim badge found in the city, adorns the corner between Ironmonger Lane and Cheapside, and two plaques, one in bronze, one in ceramic, announce Becket’s birthplace. More memorable, however, is the medallion of ‘St Thomas à Becket’ set between Elizabeth I and Richard II in the stained glass that lights the great staircase of the Mercers’ Hall. Visible from the little courtyard in Ironmonger Lane, it is best seen after dark when the window is illuminated from within.
In May 2012, 16 Mercers undertook a sponsored ‘Pilgrims’ Plod’ from London to Canterbury, where they attended a service in the crypt, the ancient site of Becket’s tomb.
Church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire
Where a medieval mural of Becket’s martyrdom remains
ThIS damaged mural of Becket’s murder testifies to the continuing popularity of the cult through the later Middle Ages. St Thomas was the most popular of medieval English saints, easily outstripping the royal saints Edmund and Edward the Confessor in the success of his cult. Images would have been widely found in England, until Henry VIII ordered the destruction of all images of the former saint. South Newington’s was only rediscovered during restoration work.
The mural in the north aisle shows St Thomas, kneeling, facing an altar to the right, furnished for Mass, while behind it stands a robed figure (Edward Grim) holding a book in his left hand as his right stretches forward towards Becket, holding a processional cross (only the staff remains). Meanwhile, three mailed figures attack Becket from behind. The first (Reginald FitzUrse, identified by the device on his red surcoat) cuts at the outstretched arm of the cross-bearer (mostly lost); the second, in blue, slices at the crown of Becket’s head; the third, in white, raises his sword aloft (mostly lost), while a fourth (Hugh de Morville) turns to protect their flank.
The mural is still visible today, alongside other medieval paintings.
Anne Duggan is emeritus professor of history at King’s College London and a leading expert on Thomas Becket. She is the author of numerous books on Becket and is general editor of the Ashgate series Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West.
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