Thomas Becket: a Great Medieval Murder

On 29 December 1170, four knights of King Henry II stormed into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered the Archbishop, Thomas Becket. His death provoked widespread horror and outrage, soon followed by a popular cult and rumours of miracles. Despite being hailed as a martyr and canonised in 1173, Becket remains one of the most controversial figures in English history.

Early Life

Thomas BecketBorn on 21 December 1120 (or 1118, according to some sources), Thomas Becket was the only surviving son of the prosperous London merchant, Gilbert Beket. As a boy Becket was educated at an Augustinian Priory in Merton, Suffolk and later at one of the London grammar schools. Although the youngster mastered the basic curriculum, evidence suggests that he preferred horses and hunting over academia. From 1143 Becket worked as a clerk,  securing employment in the house of  the great London banker, Osbert Huitdeniers and, in 1145, in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a huge achievement for Becket and  would dramatically change the course of his life.

The Rising Star

Although not as well educated as his colleagues, Becket quickly made friends in his new appointment and found favour with the archbishop himself. He spent a year studying law at Bologna and Auxerre before being sent on  missions to the papal curia. By 1154 Becket had secured the archdeaconry of Canterbury and was enjoying the wealth of his many benefices.

The King’s Favourite

Becket may well have played a role in securing the accession of the young Henry FitzEmpress (Henry II) to the throne of England in 1154. Either way, Becket, now serving as the royal chancellor, became a firm favourite of the new king. The two were virtually inseparable and Becket guided the young, hot-headed Henry through the early years of his reign. He played a key role in Henry’s relations with the French King, Louis VII and in the expedition to Toulouse in 1159. When Theobald died in 1161, there was little doubt in Henry’s mind that Becket was the man for the job.

Trouble Ahead?

If Henry expected his new archbishop to submit to this authority, he was very much mistaken. Although initially reluctant to take the post, Becket  threw himself into his new role and responsibilities. He recruited a large household staff, began studying theology and became particular generous in his alms-giving. But on receipt of his pallium and much to Henry’s disgrace, Becket resigned as both chancellor and archdeacon. Moreover, after attending the general council at Tours in 1163, Becket returned to England with a vow to become the defender of the rights of the English Church.

The scene was now set for their first encounter.

“Criminous Clerks”

Under the benefit of clergy, any clergymen accused of committing a crime could not be tried and punished by a secular court of law. This privilege infuriated Henry II (pictured) and in 1163 he proposed that these “criminous clerks” be stripped of their clerical protection. Needless to say, his proposal found no support among Becket or England’s bishops.

In January 1164 Henry and his baron met with Becket and  his bishops at Clarendon, near Salisbury, to further discuss this contentious issue. There, Henry presented the Constitution of Clarendon, a list of 16 clauses including his proposal for the treatment of criminous clerks. According to the chronicler, William of Newburgh, Becket and the bishops were so terrified by Henry’s ranting that they agreed to his demands and swore to abide by the constitutions. Henry may have felt victorious but, shortly after the meeting, Becket publicly repented the oath and reported the events to the Pope, who refused to confirm the new constitutions.


Henry was determined to punish Becket for his actions. During a land dispute in Pagham, in 1164, Becket was accused of contempt of court and forced to forfeit all his goods. He was next accused of embezzlement and summoned to Northampton. After much discussion, Becket refused to hear the  Council’s verdict and, that night, fled to the court of the French King, Louis VII. Becket was given asylum and returned to the Cistercian Abbey at Pontigny with his family and supporters, banished from England by Henry.

Despite numerous attempts, the two men could not be reconciled. In fact, the situation got worse. In 1166, for example, Becket excommunicated all royal servants who had acted against him and Henry appealed to the Cistercians to expel Becket from the abbey. By 1167, even the Pope was growing weary of their dispute. In 1169, Henry made the first move at a serious reconciliation and offered to  make several concessions, including the removal of any customs that Becket had previously opposed. But this was not enough for the archbishop and he further exacerbated the situation by excommunicating the bishops of London and Salisbury at Clairvaux in 1169.

A Glimmer of Hope

In May 1170, Henry had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York. Although this was a massive blow to Becket, it put them firmly on the road to reconciliation. But it wasn’t the happy occasion that everybody had previously hoped for. Henry broke his promise to meet Becket on his arrival in England and instead seized the lands of the church at Canterbury. In addition, Henry’s son refused to meet him at Windsor and Becket retaliated by excommunicating the Archbishop of York. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry heard of Becket’s latest antic and exploded with rage. It is here that Henry uttered those famous words (there are several variations); ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’

Murder in the Cathedral

Thomas BeckettFour knights – William de Tracey, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito – took Henry’s famous words to heart. They arrived in England on 28 December and travelled together to Canterbury Cathedral. A little after 2am on 29 December, Thomas Becket was dead. (Pictured is a depiction of Thomas Becket’s murder from the Book of Hours held at the British Library. Click to enlarge).

Whether or not Henry wanted Becket dead, he took much of the blame for his murder. Pope Alexander excommunicated the four knights responsible and banned Henry from taking Mass until he had completed penance. For this, Henry promised to provide money for 200 knights to go on Crusade, return all property to the church of Canterbury, abolish all customs deemed negative to the Church and to never interfere with the clergy’s appeals to Rome. He made these concessions publicly at Avranches in 1172 and, in return, secured England’s reconciliation with Rome. Henry was now absolved of Becket’s murder and continued to reign until his death in 1189.

Medieval Anarchy In An HourKaye Jones

The Medieval Anarchy: History In An Hour, by Kaye Jones and published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats.