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Thomas Becket |
Murder by miscall

Thomas Becket is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 88, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

England’s Henry II thought his faithful servant Thomas Becket would help him control the church, but Becket answered to a higher authority and paid for it with his life

Thomas Becket - Murder by miscall

Thomas Becket - Murder by miscall
This eighteenth-century depiction of the assassination of Thomas Becket from the Hutton Archives shows the crime being committed by four knights acting on the angry words of King Henry II. Later wracked with guilt, Henry had himself lashed at Canterbury Cathedral as a penance. Becket quickly became a renowned martyr.

In the late afternoon of December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket, aged fifty, lay bleeding on the stone floor of England’s Canterbury Cathedral, hacked to death in the interests of his former companion King Henry II. It was the bitter end of a fast friendship.

Henry had become king of England sixteen years earlier, at twenty-one years of age, and was also feudal lord over about a quarter of the future France. Already a seasoned warrior, he devoted himself to sound governance for his vast domains. In England he introduced the concept of common law and would be hailed by some historians as the greatest king in English history. But Henry was a stern leader, intolerant of any dissidence–a man one followed and a man one feared.

Becket, the son of a London merchant, after an indifferent academic career, had joined the staff of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Theobald was a shrewd man who recognized administrative talent and persuaded Henry to make Becket chancellor of England, and by all accounts he became the king’s most faithful and effective servant. A superb administrator and a brilliant military commander, Becket helped establish law and order throughout England and also became the king’s hunting companion, drinking companion, and partying companion. They were friends in every sense of the word.

Thus, as Henry schemed to limit the power of the church, it occurred to him that Thomas Becket would make an excellent archbishop of Canterbury. As occupant of the country’s highest ecclesiastical office he could greatly advance the royal plans. To his amazement, however, Becket not only balked but predicted dire implications and a tragic outcome. “Our friendship,” he warned, “will turn to bitter hatred.” But the king insisted, and on June 3, 1162, Becket’s consecration took place.

Although the appointment was highly popular, the new archbishop soon dismayed admirers by refusing, for example, to lavish money on such things as sumptuous entertainment. “I am not the man I was when I was chancellor,” he warned. “Church funds are for the church and for the poor.” Even more alarming, he became determined to extend the legal powers of the church, not the king. He was blunt about it: “I have gone from being a patron of play actors and a follower of hounds to a shepherd of souls.” The astonished Henry began to suspect that he had installed an intractable man in a key position–and lost a friend.

Conflict mounted. To Henry, Becket was so consistently interfering in state matters that he wondered whether his archbishop was deliberately provoking him. Even Pope Alexander III, who had consistently supported Becket, cautioned him to be more submissive to his monarch. In 1164 the situation came to a crisis when Becket refused to ratify the Constitutions of Clarendon, which, as Becket saw it, were central to Henry’s efforts to control the church. The king, Becket insisted, could legitimately claim no such authority for the state.

Henry summoned him to account for his refusal to sign, and Becket defied the summons. God and the pope were his only masters, he declared. To the king, politically frustrated and personally offended, this was a final and unconscionable outrage and Becket was a traitor. Hastily fleeing England, the archbishop began six years of self-imposed exile in France.

In the absence of his archbishop of Canterbury, Henry had his son crowned as his successor by the archbishop of York, the kingdom’s second-highest ecclesiastical official. Becket, discerning this affront to his office, became bitter. He intensified his efforts to restrain the monarchy, seeking from the pope unlimited power to excommunicate the king. “The more potent and fierce the prince is,” he argued, “the stronger the stick and the harder the chain needed to bind him and keep him in order.”

Thus, on December 1, 1170, although fully aware of the peril involved, Becket left Flanders and returned to Canterbury. “I go to England,” he said, “whether to peace or to destruction I know not.” At a last meeting with Henry he prophesied his own doom: “My Lord, my heart tells me that I part from you as one whom you shall see no more in this life.”

His next defiant move was to excommunicate the bishops who had crowned Henry’s son. This news soon reached Henry in France, with one of the excommunicates indignantly informing him that Becket wanted “to tear the crown from the young king’s head.” Henry exploded in one of his famous rages. “What a pack of fools and cowards I have nourished in my house,” he roared at his courtiers. “Not one of them will avenge me of this turbulent priest!”

Advisers urged caution, but it was too late. Four knights, taking this outburst at face value, had slipped quietly away and sailed for England. William de Tracy, Richard le Bret, Reginald FitzUrse, and Hugh de Morville were bound for Canterbury to confront a man they considered a dangerous traitor.

Becket, in his Christmas homily at Canterbury Cathedral, had hinted at his imminent death, and on Monday, December 28, while his enemies brooded twelve miles away at Saltwood Castle, he went to bed with foreboding. Next afternoon the four knights rode to Canterbury and confronted him, demanding that he absolve the excommunicated bishops. When Becket refused, the knights left–but only to arm themselves.

His terrified monks hustled him to safety in the cathedral, but he insisted the doors be left unbarred: “The Church of Christ is not to be made into a castle.” Soon came the four knights, FitzUrse roaring, “Where is that traitor?” Becket, wearing his miter and holding his episcopal cross, stood on the steps leading up to the high altar. “Here I am,” he calmly replied, “not a traitor but a priest.” Again he refused to absolve the bishops and, as the knights tried to drag him from the building, contemptuously called FitzUrse a “pimp.” Finally, while he commended his soul to God, his killers cut him down. Within seconds he lay still in his blood-soaked vestments.

The murder of Thomas Becket traumatized England and the continent, some calling it the worst crime since Christ’s own death. Pope Alexander III excommunicated his murderers and four years later would declare him a martyr. Accounts rapidly spread of miracles wrought over his bloody vestments. Soon his tomb became Europe’s most famous, to be immortalized over two centuries later as the destination of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

King Henry, informed by New Year’s Day of his old friend’s death, appeared utterly devastated. For three days he secluded himself and fasted while his court feared he might die of grief himself in the belief that his rash words made him as guilty as the actual assassins in the cathedral. Soon he began what a later generation would call damage control, however, writing letters to the pope to exonerate himself by questioning Becket’s character. Yet he also made a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb, where he did public penance that included a scourging.

In 1172 Pope Alexander formally absolved King Henry of the murder of Thomas Becket, but the assassination permanently damaged him. Weakness was unacceptable in a medieval king. Rebellions flared in his realm; his sons fought over the succession; under papal pressure he had to repeal laws that displeased the church. Thus, the great King Henry II spent his last years fighting a rearguard action against the forces set in motion by his disastrous outburst.

This is the end of the Thomas Becket category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 88, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Thomas Becket from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at