The brutal murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in his own cathedral, outraged the Christian world

After 1164, the previously intense relationship between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket deteriorated beyond recovery.  Frequently, when former friends fall out, arguments are bitter and very personal and so it was with Henry and Thomas.  The King demanded money, which he claimed was owed to him from Becket’s term as Chancellor of England.  Henry II summoned the Archbishop to a council in Northampton and required him to answer charges of ‘contempt of royal authority’ and ‘malfeasance in office’: it all ended in tears and angry scenes.

For good reasons, Thomas believed that his life was in imminent danger so he decided to flee the country.  Fortunately, he was popular with common people, so when he made his move on a stormy evening in October 1164, Becket found plenty of willing hands to help speed him on his way to France.

Thomas lived in exile for the next six years; he was befriended by the French King and stayed at the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny and then at Sens.  Appeals were made by both sides in the dispute to Pope Alexander III, who tried to find an acceptable solution. Unfortunately, Henry II was determined to ruin Thomas: he seized the Archbishop’s property and lands in England and persecuted his supporters.

In 1170, the Pope secured a tentative peace agreement and Thomas Becket returned to his diocese in England via the port of Sandwich in Kent, where he received a hero’s welcome.  Thomas probably realised that peace between him and the King was only temporary: evidently he was quite prepared to die for his beliefs.

Stained glass from a window at Chartres, depicting the return and welcome of Thomas Becket

In June 1170, the Archbishop of York, together with the bishops of London and Salisbury took an unusual step; they crowned the King’s son, ‘Prince Henry the Younger’,  at York, during the life and reign of his father Henry II.  This practice was intended to clearly identify the King’s successor and thus, prevent the anarchy seen during the 19 year reign of King Stephen.  This ‘crowning’ was a breach of Canterbury’s privilege of coronation and in November of that year, Thomas Becket responded by excommunicating the three men who had officiated at the ceremony.

Henry II was in Normandy when he was told about Becket’s response and he exploded with rage.  Several accounts of the King’s reaction have entered popular culture; the best known suggests that Henry asked ‘who will rid me of this turbulent (or low-born) priest’.  This was interpreted by four knights as a royal command.  So it was that Richard le Breton, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald Fitzurse and William de Tracy set off to confront this troublesome Archbishop; they arrived in Canterbury on 29th December 1170.  The contemporary eye-witness account of Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the subsequent attack, tells us what happened next.

During that evening, as Vespers was being sung, the Archbishop entered Canterbury Cathedral via the north-west transept. Almost immediately, Thomas was confronted and attacked by the four, armed knights.  Becket received several violent blows to the head but it was Richard le Breton who delivered the fatal swipe with his sword, partially decapitating the Archbishop. It seems that the final strike was so forceful that the tip of the sword shattered when it hit the stone floor. An altar, close to where Thomas was murdered, was known thereafter as the ‘Altar of the Sword’s Point’. The tip of the offending weapon was placed there but in 1538, the original altar was destroyed.

News of the killing shocked Christendom and reactions were not confined to England, indeed representations of Thomas’ martyrdom appeared in various forms, all over Europe.  Two days after the murder, miracles were reported at Thomas’ tomb and 26months later on 21st February 1173, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III.

Immediately after the violent episode, Thomas’ mutilated body was placed in a marble tomb at the east end of the crypt but on 7th July 1220, 50 years after the assassination, Canterbury Cathedral witnessed one of the greatest ceremonies of the age; in the presence of King Henry III and all England’s Bishops and Abbots, the remains of Thomas Becket were transferred to a glorious new shrine in the rebuilt Trinity Chapel.

For centuries, the tomb of Thomas Becket was the greatest pilgrimage site in England.  The highly influential legends and practices that evolved around this man’s final resting place, shaped England’s medieval culture.  Geoffrey Chaucer immortalised Saint Thomas by weaving his marvellous 14th century tale around the characters who travelled the  ‘Pilgrims Way’, between London, Winchester and Canterbury. Several of Canterbury Cathedral’s 13th century, stained glass panels, illustrate the importance of Saint Thomas Becket to ordinary people.

In 1538, King Henry VIII had the fabulously rich shrine destroyed; cartloads of jewels and treasure were carried off by the King’s Commissioners including the ‘Regale of France’, a great ruby sent by Louis VII of France as an offering to Becket. The ruby was later set in a thumb ring and was worn by King Henry to symbolise the triumph of his State over the Church.  Henry VIII may have destroyed the shrine, but he could not eliminate the cult.  During or after the Reformation, Thomas underwent something of a stylistic makeover and was referred to thereafter as Thomas a Becket. The revised name was intended perhaps to glamorise the former Archbishop’s place in history and to put him on equal terms with Thomas a Kempis, a highly revered, 14th century German monk, who wrote an extremely popular book on devotion.

Today, the site of the former shrine is marked by a candle on the floor at the east end of Canterbury Cathedral. Stone steps in the aisle of the Trinity Chapel are worn by the feet and knees of the many thousands and perhaps millions of pilgrims who passed that way.  On 29th May 1982, Pope John Paul II knelt with the Archbishop of Canterbury and prayed on the stone where Thomas Becket was killed.

A lowly candle marks the site of Thomas Becket's shrine in the Trinity Chapel