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Thomas Becket Life Summary Essay

The Murder of Thomas Becket, 1170


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A sword's crushing blow extinguished the life of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on a cold December evening as he struggled on the steps of his altar. The brutal event sent a tremor through Medieval Europe. Public opinion of the time and subsequent history have laid the blame for the murder at the feet of Becket's former close personal friend, King Henry II.

Becket was born in 1118, in Normandy the son of an English merchant. His family was well off, his father a former Sheriff of London. Becket benefited from his family's status first by being sent to Paris for his education and from there to England where he joined the household of Theobold, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket's administrative skills, his charm, intelligence and diplomacy propelled him forward. The archbishop sent him to Paris to study law and upon his return to England made him Archdeacon of Canterbury.

A Medieval Mass
Becket's big break came in 1154, when Theobold introduced him to the newly crowned King, Henry II. The two hit it off immediately, their similar personal chemistries forming a strong bond between them. Henry named Becket his Chancellor. Archbishop Theobold died in 1161, and Henry immediately saw the opportunity to increase his influence over the Church by naming his loyal advisor to the highest ecclesiastical post in the land. Henry petitioned the Pope who agreed. There was only one slight hindrance. Becket, busy at court, had never been ordained. No problem, Becket was first invested as a priest. The next day he was ordained a Bishop, and that afternoon, June 2, 1162, made Archbishop of Canterbury.

If King Henry believed that by having "his man" in the top post of the Church, he could easily impose his will upon this powerful religious institution, he was sadly mistaken. Becket's allegiance shifted from the court to the Church inspiring him to take a stand against his king. In those days, the Church reserved the right to try felonious clerics in their own religious courts of justice and not those of the crown. Henry was determined to increase control of his realm by eliminating this custom. In 1163, a Canon accused of murder was acquitted by a church court. The 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. Becket vacillated in his support of the king, finally refusing to agree to changes in the law. His stand prompted a royal summons to Henry's court at Northampton and the king's demand to know what Becket had done with the large sums of money that had passed through his hands as Chancellor.

"Who will rid
me of this
meddlesome
priest?"

Seeing the writing on the wall, Becket fled to France where he remained in exile for six years. The two former friends appeared to resolve their dispute in 1170 when King Henry and Becket met in Normandy. On November 30, Becket crossed the Channel returning to his post at Canterbury. Earlier, while in France, Becket had excomunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for their support of the king. Now, Becket remained steadfast in his refusal to absolve the bishops. This news threw King Henry (still in France) into a rage in which he was purported to shout: "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."

The king's exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.

The death of Becket unnerved the king. The knights who did the deed to curry the king's favor, fell into disgrace. Several miracles were said to occur at the tomb of the martyr and he was soon canonized. Hordes of pilgrims transformed Canterbury Cathedral into a shrine. Four years later, in an act of penance, the king donned a sack-cloth walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him with branches. Henry capped his atonement by spending the night in the martyr's crypt. St. Thomas continued as a popular cultist figure for the remainder of the Middle Ages.

Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from the safety of a hiding place near the altar. He wrote his account some time after the event. Acceptance of his description must be qualified by the influence that Becket's sainthood had on Grim's perspective. However, the fundamentals of his narrative are no doubt true. We pick up the story after the knights have stormed into the cathedral.

"The murderers followed him; 'Absolve', they cried, 'and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.'

"He answered, 'There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.'

'Then you shall die,' they cried, 'and receive what you deserve.'

'I am ready,' he replied, 'to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.'

"Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him 'pander', and saying, 'Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.'

"The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. 'No faith', he cried, 'nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.'

The murder of
Thomas Beckett
from a contemporary
manuscript
"Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

"Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, 'For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.'

"Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

"Let us away
knights:
He will rise
no more."

"As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, 'Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.'

References:
   Abbot, Edwin A., St. Thomas of Canterbury (1898); Compton, Piers, The Turbulent Priest (1964); Hollister, Warren C., Medieval Europe: a short history (1975)

How To Cite This Article:
"The Murder of Thomas Becket, 1170" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1997).

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in December 1170. Becket’s death remains one of the most famous stories associated with Medieval England. 

In Medieval England the Church was all powerful. The fear of going to Hell was very real and people were told that only the Catholic Church could save your soul so that you could go to Heaven. The head of the Catholic Church was the pope based in Rome. The most important position in the church in Medieval England was the Archbishop of Canterbury and both he and the king usually worked together. 

A king of England could not remove a pope from his position but popes claimed that they could remove a king by excommunicating him – this meant that the king’s soul was condemned to Hell and people then had the right to disobey the king.

For people in England , there was always the real problem – do you obey the king or the pope ? In fact, this was rarely a problem as both kings and popes tended to act together as both wanted to remain powerful. On two occasions they fell out – one involved the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and the other Henry VIII.

In 1162, Henry II, king of England, appointed Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the most important religious position in England. No-one was surprised by Henry’s choice as both he and Thomas were very good friends. They enjoyed hunting, playing jokes and socialising together. Becket was known to be a lover of wine and a good horse rider. Henry II loved to ride as well but his personality was troubled by his fearsome temper. He tried to keep his temper under control by working very hard as it distracted him from things that might sparked off his temper.

Henry II also controlled a lot of France at this time. William the Conqueror had been his great-grandfather and he had inherited his French territories as a result of this. When Henry was in France sorting out problems there, he left Becket in charge of England – such was his trust in him. Becket became Henry’s chancellor – the most important position in England after the king.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1162, Henry saw the chance to give his close friend even more power by appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury – the most important church position in England. Why would Henry do this ?

In Henry’s reign, the Church had its own courts and any member of the Church could decide to be tried in a Church court rather than a royal court. Church courts usually gave out easier punishments to churchmen who had done wrong. Henry believed that this undermined his authority. As king, he was concerned that England was becoming too lawless – there was too much crime. He believed that Church courts did not set a good example as they were too soft on offenders. For example, a royal court would blind or cut off the hand of a thief; a Church court might send a thief on a pilgrimage.

Henry hoped that by appointing his good friend Becket, he might have more of a say in how the Church punished offenders. He hoped that Becket would do as he wished and toughen up the sentences passed out by Church courts.

Becket did not want the job. As chancellor, he was as powerful as he wished to be. He also had an excellent relationship with Henry, and he did not want to spoil this. In fact, on being offered the post, Becket wrote to Henry that “ourfriendship will turn to hate.” However, Henry persuaded Becket and he agreed in 1162 to the appointment. His letter was indeed to become prophetic.

The post of Archbishop changed Becket. He dropped his luxurious lifestyle; he ate bread and drank water, he had a luxury bed but preferred to sleep on the floor; he wore the rich clothes of an archbishop, but underneath the fine tunics he wore a horse hair shirt – very itchy and unpleasant to wear. He gave his expensive food to the poor.

In 1164, the first sign of a split between Henry and Thomas occurred. Henry passed a law which stated that any person found guilty in a Church court would be punished by a royal court. Becket refused to agree to this, and knowing of Henry’s temper, he fled abroad for his own safety.

It took six years before Becket felt safe enough to return to England. However, they quickly fell out again when Becket asked the pope to excommunicate the Archbishop of York who had taken sides with the king. This was a very serious request and a very serious punishment for someone who could claim that he was only being loyal to the king. Henry was furious when he found out what Becket had done. He is said to have shouted out “will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest ?” Four knights heard what Henry had shouted and took it to mean that the king wanted Becket dead. They rode to Canterbury to carry out the deed. The knights were Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracey, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton. On December 29th 1170 they killed Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. After killing him, one of the knights said “Let us away. He will rise no more.”

Becket’s body was still on the cathedral floor when people from Canterbury came in and tore off pieces of his clothes and then dipped these pieces in his blood. They believed that they would bring them luck and keep evil away.

The burial of Becket

Where Becket died quickly became a place of pilgrimage. The pope quickly made him a saint. Henry II asked the pope for forgiveness and he walked bare foot to Canterbury to pray at the spot where Becket was killed. Monks whipped him while he prayed.

People left valuables at the spot of his death. It became a shrine to him and people claimed that a visit to the shrine left them free of illness and disease. No-one dared to touch the valuables there until Henry VIII shut down the monasteries and churches and took away any valuables he wanted. It took 21 carts to remove the valuables from Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

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