Exhibitions and events
Thomas Becket: the murder that shook the Middle Ages

The assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 changed the course of history. Becket was one of the most powerful figures of his time, serving as royal Chancellor and later as Archbishop of Canterbury. Initially a close friend of King Henry II, the two men became engaged in a bitter dispute that culminated in Becket’s shocking murder by knights with close ties to the king. It is a story of betrayal, of the perceived abuse of power and those who fall for standing in the way of the Crown. Here we explore Becket’s rise and fall, and unpick the events that led to the murder that shook the Middle Ages…

Who was Thomas Becket?

Becket was a second-generation French immigrant, born around 1120 in Cheapside, in the City of London, to Gilbert and Matilda, who had left Normandy following the Norman Conquest. His father was a well-connected merchant but the family were neither excessively wealthy nor powerful. Becket was sent to school at Merton Priory and, after a few years studying in Paris, he eventually gained employment through one of his father’s friends as a clerk for Theobald, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was described by his contemporaries as intelligent, charming and authoritative and, in 1155, he got his biggest break. Recognising his talents, Theobald suggested that Henry II appoint Becket as Chancellor of England. He and the king quickly became close friends, hunting, gaming and travelling around England together. Becket embraced life in the royal court: he is said by his contemporary biographers to have enjoyed vast wealth, throwing lavish parties, decorating his residences with beautiful furnishings and making numerous journeys to France on his own ships.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Rise and fall

When the position of Archbishop of Canterbury became vacant, Becket was put forward. Given his lifestyle and reputation he was an unlikely candidate but the king had other ideas. Henry was keen to appoint his close friend to the role but, crucially, he wanted him to continue as Chancellor. With Becket in both positions, Henry saw an opportunity to exercise greater authority over the Church as well as the state. Becket was appointed Archbishop on 23 May 1162 and consecrated (officially blessed) on 3 June. However, at some point during the rest of that year, and against the king’s wishes, Becket resigned as Chancellor. His actions drove a wedge between him and the king which would never be repaired. From this point on, Becket’s relationship with Henry began to deteriorate. A series of disputes ensued regarding the division of power between the Crown and the Church. By 1164, tensions were at an all-time high and, in October, Becket was summoned to appear before the King’s council and ordered to forfeit all his personal property. He refused to accept the terms of his punishment and, fearing further repercussions from the king, he fled to France.

Life in exile

Becket remained in exile in France for six years. During this time Henry flexed his power in England. His most blatant snub of his old friend’s authority was his decision to have his son, Henry the Young King, crowned in June 1170 by Becket’s long-standing enemy, the Archbishop of York, . Becket appealed to the Pope and, under significant pressure, Henry agreed to reopen negotiations. Following this, the Archbishop and the king spoke privately for the first time since 1164, and Henry promised to restore Becket’s rights as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was reassured that it would be safe to return to England. However, his final act was to punish those involved in the unauthorised coronation. Before leaving France Becket issued three letters expelling (excommunicating) the Archbishop of York and two bishops from the Church. This act was to have devastating consequences upon his return to England.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

The lead up to the murder

Becket returned from exile on 1 December 1170. Contemporary reports record that he was greeted on his journey back to the Cathedral by cheering crowds and rejoicing monks, but he faced increasing hostility by the authorities loyal to the king. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury, furious that they had been excommunicated, travelled to Henry’s royal court in Normandy where they relayed Becket’s actions to the king. Henry was outraged and, although it is unclear whether he ever specifically ordered retribution for Becket’s actions, his furious outburst prompted four knights – Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret – to travel to Canterbury in search of Becket. One of Becket’s biographers records Henry’s words as:

What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!

Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (California: University of California Press, 1986), p. 235.

The crime scene

We are fortunate to have five eye-witness accounts of Becket’s murder, all of which broadly agree on the details of what took place. One key account was written by a man named Edward Grim, who was so close to Becket during the skirmish that he was wounded by one of the knight’s swords. Grim tells us that when the four knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, Becket was in the Archbishop’s Palace. They attempted to arrest him but he refused. Becket was persuaded by the monks to take refuge in the church, but the knights pursued him, bursting into the Cathedral with swords drawn, terrifying those inside by shouting:

“Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?” the knights then rushed at him… roughly manhandling and dragging him, intending to kill him outside the church, or carry him away in chains.

The Lives of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 201.

Alabaster sculpture, c. 1450–1550, England.
Here, Becket is shown kneeling at an altar, his eyes closed and his hands clasped in prayer, all the while four knights draw their swords behind him. To Becket’s right is the monk Edward Grim, whose arm was injured by one of the knight’s swords.

As Grim recounts, Becket held tight onto one of the Cathedral’s pillars to prevent them seizing him, and it was at this point that one of the knights raised his sword for the first time, bringing it down on Becket, slicing off the crown of his head. Two of the other knights then started to attack Becket and most of the monks fled. The third blow brought the Archbishop’s life to an end. Gruesomely, by the end of the attack, Becket’s crown had:

“separated from the head so that the blood [turned] white from the brain, and the brain equally red from the blood.”

The Lives of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 203.

The murderous knights were accompanied by a clerk, who, because of his involvement, became known as ‘Mauclerk’ or ‘evil clerk’. Following the attack, this Mauclerk:

put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered the brains with the blood over the pavement. “Let us go, knights”, he called out to the others, “this fellow will not get up again.

The Lives of Thomas Becket, ed. and trans. by Michael Staunton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 203.

The aftermath

Chaos ensued following the murder, and with none of those present knowing what to do next, the body remained where it had fallen for several hours. Some individuals dipped parts of their clothes in his spilled blood, or collected it in small vessels to take away in anticipation of Becket’s future sanctity. After spending the night on the high altar of the Cathedral, he was buried by the monks the next day in the crypt. Reports immediately circulated of miraculous healings connected to Becket. Facing increasing pressure from the people of Canterbury, the monks opened the crypt of the Cathedral so pilgrims could visit his tomb. An extraordinary wave of miracles was recorded and, in recognition of this, Becket was made a saint (canonised) by the Pope on 21 February 1173. It was one of the fastest canonisations in history. Becket’s reputation as a miracle-working saint spread quickly and people from all over Europe started to flock to Canterbury in the hope that they would be healed. As well as visiting the tomb, pilgrims could also purchase a mixture of his blood and water, called St Thomas’ Water, which was bottled and sold by opportunistic monks in small lead vessels called ampulla. Henry II, in a public act of penance for his involvement in the murder, visited the tomb in 1174, granting royal approval to Becket’s cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.
This small vessel, which is decorated with an open-work image of Becket flanked by two of his sword-bearing murderers, would have been filled with some of the saints’ miracle-working, watered-down blood. It is inscribed: “Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick”.

Becket’s death and subsequent miracles transformed Canterbury Cathedral into one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe. In 1220 his body was moved from the crypt to a glittering new shrine in a purpose-built chapel upstairs in the Cathedral. Geoffrey Chaucer famously captured something of the atmosphere of pilgrimage to this shrine in his Canterbury Tales. In death Becket remained a figure of opposition to unbridled power and became seen as the quintessential defender of the rights of the Church. To this end you can find images of his murder in churches across Latin Christendom, from Germany and Spain, to Italy and Norway. Becket was, and remains, a truly European saint. His relics at Canterbury were visited by people from across the continent until 1538, when Henry VIII would label him a traitor, order the destruction of his shrine and try to wipe him from history altogether. That, however, is a story for another time.

Thomas Becket will open at the British Museum 15 October 2020 – 14 February 2021. Find out more and be the first to hear when tickets are on sale.

Supported by:

The Hintze Family Charitable Foundation

The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts

Jack Ryan and Zemen Paulos