Our latest special episode is on Thomas Becket, the boy from Cheapside who rose to the extraordinary heights of Archbishop of Canterbury and then to the (perhaps less desirable) status of martyr. We trace the whole of his life and look in depth at how his rapid rise ended with his tragic and brutal murder in 1170. You can listen a preview of the special episode below or read on to find out more about Thomas Becket and how to purchase the episode.
Thomas Becket (not a’Becket!) was born on 21 December 1119 in Cheapside, London, the son of Gilbert and Matilda. His parents were from Normandy but came to London before he was born, where Gilbert became a draper’s merchant and later served as a London sheriff (in the days before they had mayors). He was by no means of royal or aristocratic breeding (something he seems to have been quite sensitive later in life) but his family were far from poor. He went to a grammar school (possibly St Paul’s) and his father then paid for him to study in Paris, although he does not seem to have worked particularly hard! Tragically, he was forced to return to London after a couple of years when his mother had died and his father lost a lot of money when properties he was renting were destroyed in fire.
Becket was forced to go to work, using his education to become a clerk – initially in the banking house of a relation but he was soon given a golden opportunity when he was employed by Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There was probably a family connection that allowed Becket to get a meeting with Theobald but he must have impressed as the other clerks were far more educated than Becket. However, Becket now applied himself and prove a fast learner and a very capable employee and was soon clearly seen as Theobald’s protege, being sent for further education in Bologna and then conducting diplomatic missions to the Pope in Rome.
Theobald was Archbishop at a particularly challenging time in England due to an ongoing civil war (popularly known as The Anarchy) when King Stephen had taken the crown when it was meant to go to the previous king’s daughter, Matilda. Theobald (and presumably Becket) played a crucial role in bringing about a peace treaty at Wallingford in 1153 when Stephen agreed to recognise Matilda’s son, Henry, as his successor. When Stephen died the following year, the young Henry became Henry II and Becket’s career was really about to take off.
Henry II was a young man full of energy and possessing a sizeable amount of territory (essentially the left of France) and in his first few years as king he succeeded in restoring order to England. A highly intelligent and capable king who could never sit still, he surrounded himself with like-minded people and sure enough, just six weeks after his coronation, he appointed Becket as his new Lord Chancellor (probably influenced by Theobald’s advice, who hoped to improve the relationship between himself and Henry through Becket).
This was a huge step up for Becket and he took full advantage, transforming the position into the major office of state. He could attend all meetings of the king’s council, was the chief custodian of the king’s seal (sort of like a medieval Prime Minister) and worked closely with Henry. By tradition, they established a close friendship though it was very much on Henry’s terms – Henry had a notorious temper that could explode at any moment but also a wicked sense of humour where he liked to tease and undermine his courtiers and remind them who was boss. Still, the partnership achieved an awful lot – in 1158, Becket conducted a magnificent embassy to Paris and secured the promise of a marriage between the daughter of the king of France (Louis VII) and the eldest son of Henry II. Bizarrely, Becket also established himself as a soldier, taking part in Henry II’s campaign in Toulouse in 1159 with great enthusiasm.
With his lavish lifestyle and military campaigning, he was not behaving in quite the way that his previous master, Theobald, had in mind. Theobald was particularly upset at Becket’s subsequent tax to pay for the campaign which hit some of the largest churches very heavily. When Theobald died in 1161, he did not send a final blessing to Becket nor give him any mention in his will, apparently totally disillusioned with the path his protege had chosen. For Henry II, however, Becket’s rather secular approach as Chancellor made him the ideal candidate to succeed Theobald.
Archbishop of Canterbury
Henry II had succeeded in restoring the power of the monarchy and central government over the nobles after The Anarchy. However, he felt that the church still had much more power than it had done during the reign of his grandfather, Henry I, and was determined to do to the church what he had done to his nobles. In Becket, he saw an ideal ally who would have no qualms in wearing the robes but in reality doing the king’s business.
Unfortunately for Henry, Becket did not prove so pliant. He is often portrayed as having had something of a “Road to Damascus” moment in becoming Chancellor, but actually he had always been devout. He prayed regularly and was secretly scourged while Chancellor. He was also very aware that he was far from the most suitable candidate and did not have the support of his fellow bishops – he was determined to be a proper Archbishop and so he dedicated himself to his studies and to the upkeep of his diocese.
Becket’s independence was demonstrated to Henry almost immediately. Before Henry had even returned to England to see him, Becket had resigned the role of Chancellor (claiming a conflict of interest, despite the practice of holding both offices on the Continent). He then set about recovering lands pillaged during the Anarchy by the nobles in a very high-handed manner, excommunicated one of Henry’s tenants without warning and prevented the marriage of Henry’s younger brother on the grounds of consanguinity. Henry now had an archbishop who was much more stringent and stubborn than his predecessor and things were soon going to get nasty.
One of the areas where Henry felt the church had too much power was in relation to justice. Church employees were not liable to the king’s justice but were put on trial in church courts, which had different rules from the secular courts, most notably that blood could not be spilt as punishment. Consequently, if a priest committed a murder, the worst that could happen to him was that he would be defrocked. However, it was not just priests and bishops to whom this applied but any church employee – clerks (essentially civil servants) account for about 1/6 of the adult male popular and since 1162 had been responsible for over 100 murders.
Henry assembled a national church council at Westminster in 1163 where he made various complaints about how the church was governed (not just criminous clerks but also appeals being made above his head direct to the Pope). However, Becket took the lead in resisting Henry, arguing that the clergy were immune from his jurisdiction. A furious Henry then changed tack, claiming that clerks had been subject to royal justice under Henry I and therefore the bishops should acknowledge these ancient customs. When they did so only with the caveat “saving their order” Henry dismissed this as “poisonous sophistry” and stormed off.
A meeting between Henry and Becket to clear the air saw Henry berating Becket for his ingratitude (if there was one thing Henry could not forgive it was betrayal). Becket was persuaded by papal envoys that agreeing to the customs was acceptable as in reality Henry would not ask him to do anything contrary to his order and just wanted to save face. Unfortunately, Henry wanted to save face publicly and called another council at Clarendon for Becket to agree to the customs publicly. However, Henry had deceived Becket and instead of asking him to agree to the vague concept of ancient customs he had gone to the bother of having them all written out. Initially, Becket and the bishops resisted, but Becket seems to have lost heart and then submitted without consulting the bishops before then retracting his position again.
Despairing of his position, Becket tried to flee to France but was caught (according to the Codes of Clarendon, leaving the country was illegal for a bishop without the king’s permission) and given a show trial at Northampton in October 1174. Henry put various charges of financial irregularity before Becket dating back to his time at Chancellor and seemed determined to make Becket pay. Concerned at how far he was pushing things, the bishops persuaded Henry to let them go to the Pope and ask him to have Becket deposed as archbishop. Henry agreed, but in all the uncertainty Becket put himself on the front foot, leaving the court and succeeding in slipping away into exile in France.
Henry hoped that his envoys would make quick work of Becket in appealing to Pope Alexander III. A papal schism (in which the Holy Roman Emperor had recognised a separate pope and controlled Rome) meant that Alexander was in exile in France and needed the support of European rulers such as Henry. However, Henry did not reckon upon Becket’s gift for melodrama – he threw himself at Alexander’s feet, spread out his copy of the Codes of Clarendon and lamented his failure to protect the English church before offering his episcopal ring in offer of resignation. Some of Alexander’s advisers thought he should accept and get the whole business dealt with but the Pope was moved by Becket’s appeal, returned his ring and promised he would not be removed as Archbishop.
Becket had won this opening diplomatic encounter, but for the next few years a stalemate ensued. The Pope had protected Becket but he was not willing to be any firmer in acting against Henry II. Becket was given refuge by King Louis VII of France but again, although Louis was keen to limit Henry’s power he was not willing to actually provoke him into war. Both Becket and Henry were stubborn men and protective of their pride – Becket refused to back down without being vindicated while Henry claimed he had never exiled Becket in the first place. The pope tried to mediate but Becket (having seen Henry in action in his years as Chancellor) did not trust that Henry would keep any of his promises, while Henry felt that he had been betrayed and owed his former ally nothing.
However, by 1169 the situation had changed. Henry and Louis were on the verge of agreeing a major peace treaty involving the marriage of their various sons and daughters and settling the succession of the next generation. The problem was, the treaty was (in part) predicated upon Henry’s II’s eldest son (the Young Henry) being crowned as co-king, which would require the Archbishop of Canterbury, i.e. Thomas Becket. Henry was forced to swallow his pride and negotiate for a settlement, but could either man be persuaded to compromise?
The first attempt was a grand affair at Montmirail in January 1169, with Henry and Louis and all their great nobles and bishops gathered to agree the peace treaty. Becket’s role was to submit himself to Henry, delivering a speech prepared for him by papal legates, after which he would be restored to his position and estates, return to England and crown the Young Henry. However, when the great moment came, Becket delivered the pre-prepared speech only to add his own caveat, taking everything back to the start – “saving God’s order”. Henry was furious and the assembly failed to bring about a resolution.
Initially, Becket seemed to have burned all his bridges – the papal envoys were infuriated that he had gone back on his word not to add the caveat while Louis VII was just as angry about the failure to secure the peace treaty as Henry. However, Henry’s subsequent actions in reclaiming what he saw as his territories without Louis’ permission saw Louis change his view of Henry and return to fight Becket’s corner. More talks took place and sufficient progress was made that terms were agreed and the resolution was due to take place at Montmatre in November. However, Becket still suspected Henry would go back on his promises so demanded a kiss of peace from Henry as good faith that the conflict was truly over. Henry refused, making a rather dubious claim that he had sworn an oath never to give Becket a kiss of peace, and the negotiations failed again.
The Pope now blamed Henry for the failure to find a solution and threatened to place an interdict over Henry’s lands if no peace was made by February 1170. With his back now against the diplomatic wall, Henry regained the initiative by having his son crowned by the Archbishops of York, London and Somerset – before Alexander had a chance to issue his interdict, Henry offered new terms and gave Becket the chance to re-rerun the coronation with him performing the crowning. The protection of Canterbury’s rights was a key motivation for Becket and the fear that Canterbury could (by precedent) lose this control over the coronation was enough to bring him back to the table. At Fretval in July 1170, Henry and Becket finally had a one-on-one meeting in which Henry turned on all the charm so that, despite everything, Becket was won over and agreed to return to England.
Return of the Bec(ket)
Despite the agreement, the tensions were still there. At a second meeting, Becket decided he could not hold his tongue and went on something of a rant about all the things he still felt needed resolving and the people who had wronged him in England. He also refused to lift the excommunications he had raised despite Henry’s pledge to restore Becket’s allies to their estates in England. On the other hand, Henry was almost certainly plotting to go back on his word – once Becket was restored and the Young Henry crowned, he would return to pursuing the ancestral customs. Canterbury was effectively under siege from a thuggish knight called Ranulf de Broc who, despite Henry’s orders, was still stripping the diocese of its lands.
Becket finally returned to England on 30 November 1170, having excommunicated the three bishops who crowned the Young Henry before he left France. The 12 mile road from Sandwich to Canterbury was lined with huge crowds welcoming Becket home, celebrating his standing up to the king and hoping that he would liberate them from the cruel regime of the de Brocs. On Christmas Day, Becket used his sermon to excommunicate De Broc (and others in his party), saying he had returned only to lift the yoke of servitude for Canterbury.
Meanwhile, Henry was in Bayeux, where he was sought out by the three excommunicated bishops. Henry was furious to hear about the excommunications and they then told him that he had been “careering about the kingdom at the head of a strong force of armed men” and planned to depose the Young Henry. By legend, Henry then cried out “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” – in reality, this is probably apocryphal, and he probably said something slightly less catchy such as “What miserable drones & traitors have I nourished and promoted in my realm, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” The significance was the fury with which he expressed his anger at Becket – Henry’s temper was well-known to his close adherents and they would simply wait for him to calm down for his real wishes to be known. But, tragically, there were others who hear Henry’s outburst that night and interpreted things rather differently.
Murder in the Cathedral
As well as his close courtiers, Henry was also overheard by four household knights (William de Tracy; Reginald Fitzurse; Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito) – men on the fringes of power who saw an opportunity to advance their careers. Henry sent a party to have Becket arrested but these four knights slipped out early and determined to take action themselves and gain a reward. Two days after leading Bayeux, they came to Saltwood Castle where they were welcomed by the De Broc family, and set off for Canterbury with an armed force to find Becket.
It is not clear whether the knights always intended to murder Becket or if they originally intended to arrest him. They came into Canterbury, initially demanding he come with them when they interrupted him at dinner only for him to refuse. They then went back outside to get their weapons, while Becket’s monk adherents rushed him into the Cathedral, hoping to hide him away. For whatever reason, Becket seems to have been very calm and actually ordered them not to lock the door to the Cathedral and refusing to hide.
The knights returned, fully armed, and still Becket refused to go with them but he was also not willing to take shelter or run away. Frustrated, the knights attacked him at the altar of the Cathedral while he prayed, commending his soul to God. The knights delivered a series of brutal strikes to his head, ultimately breaking into his skull and leaving him dead in a pool of blood on the cathedral floor.
The murder of an archbishop at the altar of his own cathedral was a heinous crime and sacrilege, which naturally had far-reaching consequences. The knights fled but were soon found themselves without a friend and excommunicated by Alexander III. On his orders, they went to Jerusalem to repent for their sins and serve as knights for the next 14 years in the Holy Lands, though all four were dead by 1182. Henry II narrowly managed to avoid excommunication himself but he became a pariah figure in Christendom. In 1172, he was absolved by the Pope at Avranches in return for essentially reversing all of the reforms he had tried to enforce on the church in the 1160s that Becket had resisted. In 1173 faced rebellion from three of his sons and the kings of France and Scotland along with various others. In 1174, Henry made a public act of penance at Becket’s tomb, publicly confessing his sins and being flayed by Canterbury’s monks before spending the night sleeping at Becket’s tomb. The next morning, he learned that the King of Scots, William the Lion, had been captured and he was soon victorious over his enemies, shamelessly adopting Becket’s cult for his own ends.
For Becket, he was never more successful than when he was dead! Very quickly, crowds reported miracles relating to having touched his clothes or his blood and in February 1173 he was made a saint by Alexander III, quickly becoming England’s most popular saint for centuries. Henry II would visit the tomb many times, including once with Louis VII, and Dover Castle was significantly enhanced to enable foreign pilgrims of repute to have an appropriate place to stay when arriving in England. The more ordinary pilgrims to Becket’s tomb were immortalised in Chaucer’s great work The Canterbury Tales. In 1220, his bones were translated into a new, glorious tomb in a ceremony attended by King Henry III.
However, his fame and popularity would not last. Another King Henry who would find himself at odds with religious figures who opposed his church reforms would destroy Becket’s tomb (if not his bones) and his cult status within England. Henry VIII broke from Rome with the Reformation, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (led by Thomas Cromwell) saw old Catholic symbols torn down and shrines destroyed as superstitions, with saints in particular being targeted. Becket, however, was no ordinary saint but the saint who stood up to royal power. In 1538, Henry VIII released a proclamation dismissing Becket as “a rebel who felt to France and to the bishop of Rome to procure the abrogation of wholesome laws” claiming that he was no saint but “a rebel and traitor to his prince”. There is intense debate as to whether Henry and Cromwell had Becket’s bones destroyed or if the monks were able to rescue them but Becket was effectively killed a second time, though despite what Henry VIII might have hoped, he was by no means forgotten.
To listen to the special episode in full (where we go into much more detail about Becket’s life and career and the way the dispute developed and came to its tragic conclusion), you can purchase it for just $2 by clicking the link below: