Chapter 14: Murder at Canterbury

(St.Thomas Becket)


@ The Bookworm  


     In 1154 Henry II became King of England. For twenty years England had suffered while a civil war was fought between Henry's mother Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois. When Henry I died in 1135 leaving only a daughter, the barons decided they did not want to be ruled by a woman and chose Stephen as king. Matilda refused to accept this. Although she never became queen, her fight for the Crown did win from Stephen the promise that her son, Henry of Anjou, would succeed him. 

     Within months of becoming king, Henry II appointed a new chancellor, Thomas Becket. The king's chancellor was one of the most important men in the country. It was his job to make sure that the government of the realm ran smoothly, to carry out a range of important tasks for the king, and often to act as his deputy. Thomas Becket was a Londoner, born in Cheapside (a road that still exists, although Thomas would certainly not recognize it!). His parents were Normans, from a part of Normandy near the famous abbey of Bec, but by the time Thomas was born his father owned property in London and was an important citizen there. Thomas was sent to school at Merton Abbey, then to St.Paul's grammar school, and later spent a year at the university of Paris. It seems likely that he played harder than he worked, as later he was not considered well educated.

     When Thomas was a young man, his father lost much of his money and Thomas had to start work as a clerk. After a while he was taken into the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec. As a bishop's clerk, Thomas would have been in Holy Orders, although he was not at that time a priest. He worked his way up until Theobald recommended him to the young King Henry in 1154. As Henry's chancellor, Thomas became one of the most important and wealthy men in the kingdom. The life of a top-ranking courtier was one he enjoyed. He loved hunting and hawking, rich clothes and extravagant feasts; it was even said that Thomas lived more like a king than Henry did. In 1161 archbishop Theobald died and everything changed. Henry decided it would be ideal if the new archbishop was also his chancellor - Thomas! The monks of Canterbury, who claimed the right to elect the archbishop, did not agree with him, but in time Henry managed to get Thomas approved as archbishop by the pope. Unfortunately for Henry, things did not go as he had planned. After he was ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop, Thomas threw himself into his new religious life with the same energy and determination he had shown as chancellor. He took to wearing a hair shirt, and carried out his new duties zealously. To Henry's fury he resigned the job of chancellor so that he could concentrate on his work as archbishop. Worst of all, from Henry's point of view, he was determined to uphold the rights of the Church, whether or not it suited the king. It wasn't long before the two men quarreled. The main problem was that there were two sets of law courts in the country - the king's courts, and the Church courts. Monks, priests, and other minor clergy could only be punished by the Church courts, even if they had committed an offence - like stealing, or even murder - that had nothing to do with religion. King Henry wanted to bring back an older English system, under which the royal courts could punish these men, but Thomas refused to agree. In 1164 Thomas was summoned by the king to a council at Northampton, where events took such a turn that the archbishop was convinced he was going to be arrested or worse. He escaped by night with a few supporters, and fled to France. 

     Thomas found himself stuck in exile for the next six years. The quarrel rattled on, with angry letters written on all sides. Some of the other English bishops supported Thomas, but many thought he had made a big mistake in antagonising the king. The pope supported Thomas, but only up to a point. He had troubles of his own, and did not want to make an enemy of King Henry. In 1170 the king and the archbishop finally came to an agreement, and Thomas was able to return to England. Almost immediately they started to quarrel again. King Henry was renowned for having a dreadful temper, with tantrums during which he literally threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming. When he heard that Thomas was causing trouble again Henry lost his temper, shouting "Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest?" Four of the knights at his court took his outburst literally, and left immediately for Canterbury. They found the archbishop in his own quarters. His servants persuaded Thomas to take sanctuary in the cathedral, but he refused to bar the door and the knights followed him. They tried to drag the archbishop out of the Church, but Thomas resisted. The knights drew their swords and attacked him. The first blow chopped off the top of his head; a second killed him, and his brains were spilled onto the floor of the cathedral with the point of a sword. The man who had been a worldly royal chancellor was now a martyr.

     After Thomas's death, his old friend Henry was full of remorse. He agreed not to interfere with the Church in future and did public penance; in return the pope absolved him of causing the murder. Within days of Thomas's death there were claims that drops of his blood were working miracles. Thomas was canonised (officially made a saint), and his shrine at Canterbury became one of the great pilgimage destinations of the middle ages. 

PRAYER: O God, for the sake of whose Church the glorious Bishop Thomas fell by the sword of ungodly men: grant, we beseech Thee, that all who implore his aid, may obtain the good fruit of his petition. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who livest and reignest with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirt. Amen.

FEAST DAY: December 29th

TIMELINE: Born c.1120; died 1170

There is a legend that Thomas Becket's mother was a woman his father met on crusade in the Holy Land, but this has no basis in fact.


If All the Swords of England by Barbara Willard

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Kathryn Faulkner 2005. All rights reserved.