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St Thomas Becket: what was the connection?

Updated: May 9, 2023

Thomas Becket’s death was one of the most infamous events of Medieval England. It is also one of those national events that impacted on the lives of a local community for hundreds of years.

Thomas Becket was born in 1118, the son of a prosperous London merchant. He was well educated first at Merton priory, then in a City of London school, and finally in Paris. Deeply influenced in childhood by his devout mother, Thomas entered adult life as a city clerk and accountant in the service of the sheriffs. After three years he became a member of the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who subsequently made him an archdeacon and sent him on several missions to Rome.

Archbishop Theobald was impressed by the brilliance of Becket's mind; on his recommendation King Henry II appointed him Chancellor and he quickly became his friend and confidant, sharing a lover of wine and hunting. His contemporaries described Becket as a “tall and spare figure with dark hair and a pale face that flushed in excitement.” His memory was extraordinarily tenacious and, though he was neither scholar nor artist, he excelled in argument and repartee and he made himself agreeable to everyone. Like Henry, he was preoccupied with the rights of his office and those of the crown after the civil war of the previous 'nineteen long winters' between King Stephen's reign and Matilda, Henry's mother. He also acted as Henry's foil, taking on those aspects of kingship that Henry found wearisome. When Henry was in France dealing with troubles in his many possessions there, Becket wasleft in charge of England.

When Theobald died in 1161, Henry made Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important religious position in England. Becket did not want the position because, as chancellor, he already possessed a great deal of power and had an excellent relationship with Henry. In fact, on being offered the position, Becket wrote to Henry “our friendship will turn to hate.” However, Henry persuaded Becket and in 1162 he agreed to the appointment. His letter was to be prophetic.

King Henry II & Archbishop Becket. Depicted c.1220 in a stained glass window of Chartres Cathedral.

The office of Archbishop changed Becket. He became devout and austere and embraced the constitution of the papacy and its canon law. He transformed himself from a pleasure-loving courtier into a serious, simply dressed cleric. He dropped his luxurious lifestyle; ate bread and drank water, preferred to sleep on the floor and beneath the fine clothes of an archbishop wore a horse hair shirt. He also donated his costly food to the poor.

In 1164, the first sign of a split between Henry and Thomas occurred. Henry hoped that by appointing his trusted friend he might have more of a say in how the Church punished offenders. The king and his archbishop's friendship was put under difficulty when it became obvious that Becket would now support the church in its dissension with the king. Church courts usually gave out lighter punishments to criminous clergymen. Henry believed that this undermined his authority. In 1163 the church court acquitted a Canon accused of murder. Public outcry demanded justice and the Canon was brought before a court of the king. Becket's protest halted this attempt, but the action spurred King Henry to change the laws to extend his courts' jurisdiction over the clergy. He passed a law stating that a royal court would punish any person found guilty in a Church court. Becket refused to agree to this, saying this was punishing them twice and in 1164, he was found guilty of treason at the Great Council held in Northampton.

Avoiding whatever adverse consequences might arise from this verdict, and knowing of Henry’s temper whilst realising the extent of his displeasure, he fled into exile to France and remained there for several years. He was joined by many of his distinguished household and lived ascetically, first at Pontigny Abbey and then, when Henry threatened the monks, at an abbey near Sens.

Henry meanwhile had seized the properties of the Archbishop and his supporters and had exiled all Thomas’ close relatives. It took six years before Becket felt safe enough to return to England. Henry II virtually withdrew England from papal obedience and in 1170 he had his eldest son crowned as co-king by the archbishop of York, Becket’s rival. This was a flagrant breach of papal prohibition and of the immemorial right of Canterbury to crown the king. Becket, followed by the Pope, excommunicated all those responsible. Henry, fearing an interdict for England, met Becket at Fréteval and it was agreed that Thomas should return to Canterbury and receive back all his possessions. Becket returned in November 1170.

However, Becket and the king soon clashed again. Thomas returned to Canterbury and was received with exuberance, but further excommunications of the hostile royal servants, refusal to lift the excommunication of the archbishop of York and the bishop of London, as well as his ready receipt of tumultuous acclaim by the people infuriated Henry back in Normandy. He was enraged when he found out what Becket had done and is said to have proclaimed “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?

Four knights heard what Henry shouted. On the 29 December 1170, believing King Henry wished Becket out of the way the four knights sailed to England and then rode to Canterbury to carry out the deed. The knights were Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracey, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton. They confronted Becket in Canterbury Cathedral finding him before the High Altar as he had gone there to hear Vespers. They drew their swords and began slashing their victim finally splitting his skull and it is recorded that they cracked open his skull spilling his brains onto the cathedral floor apparently crying out; “Go hence, thou art a prisoner; it is not to be endured that thou shouldest live any longer.” Becket's last words were said to be an acceptance of death in defence of the church of Christ. Becket’s body was left on the cathedral floor. The brutal event sent a tremour throughout Medieval Europe. Within a few days after Thomas’ death, his tomb became a destination for pilgrimage, later immortalised for ever in the national psyche by Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Becket going to heaven & becoming a saint. Depicted c.1220 in a stained glass window of Chartres Cathedral.

The death of Becket unnerved the king. He was horrified when he heard the news believing it was his own words that had been the cause of Becket’s death. The knights who carried out the deed to gain the king's favour, fell into disgrace. Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III in February 1173 and Becket became one of the most revered medieval saints. Hordes of pilgrims transformed Canterbury Cathedral into a shrine. In 1174 in an act of penance, the king wearing sackcloth walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him with branches. Henry also spent the night in the martyr's crypt and was thus absolved. St. Thomas continued as a popular cultist figure for the remainder of the Middle Ages.

Becket's assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle held by Hugh de Morville, where they remained for about a year. Pope Alexander excommunicated the four knights. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome and were ordered by the Pope to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years. Sir William de Tracy was one of the knights and Tracy is purported to have struck the archbishop twice and his last blow was the one that dissected the crown of Becket's head. De Tracey held considerable property in Devonshire and Gloucestershire as well as being lord of the manor of Moretonhampstead in Devon. He was recorded as being stricken with a horrible disease whilst setting out for the Holy Land and by an undated charter, he granted the manor of Doccombe to the chapter of Canterbury (see Blog 'Who was William de Tracy?').

December 29th 2020 will mark the 850th anniversary of Becket's death. For much of that time the manor of Doccombe remained affected by that event with its Canterbury overlords, its own area of Canterbury, its woods called St Thomas Cleave and its farmers blaming mishaps on 'the curse of Becket'.

St Thomas Becket depicted in one of the oldest known paintings of him (early C13th) in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily.

This copy of the Monreale Cathedral painting was made on site by Alan Bennett, a Moretonhampstead artist and MHS member.


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