Thomas Becket. Archbishop of Canterbury.

Saint Thomas Becket. England 12th century bishop

St. Thomas à Becket

Thomas Becket. Archbishop of Canterbury (1118-1170).

It is not a little remarkable that the only Romish shrine which has been publicly brought to notice in England during the last few years is that of à Becket, the representative of the unyielding supremacy of that church, which still demands not only spiritual but temporal power. Those relics which Sir Thomas More was so anxious to remove from the Cathedral of Canterbury when Henry VIII. was ready to defy the Papal power had been potent in the days of the Second Henry, who had, by a few words of furious passion, caused what was instantly regarded as the martyrdom of a Saint. It remained for a few persons who, perhaps, because they knew that Henry Manning (once an English clergyman, but now a Roman Catholic Cardinal, and so-called Archbishop of Westminster) held in his keeping one of the two mitres of Thomas à Becket, to try to revive a Canterbury pilgrimage in the year of grace 1875. Not much notice was taken of this journey. The so-called pilgrimages to French shrines had preceded it, and such observances were felt to be (apart from any supposed religious excitement) inconsistent with present modes of living and means of travelling. A pilgrimage by railway is ananachronism. Chaucer’s wonderful party, which started from the old inn in the borough of Southwark, is almost the only account of such an excursion which the English people now regard with interest. And yet it cannot be denied that the story of the Saxon scholar and knight who, in the court of the Norman, held rank and power next to the king himself, is full of that kind of romantic vicissitude which excites the imagination, and frequently stirs the sentiments and the passions of men.

Thomas à Becket.

Holy Well at Northampton 1297. Dedicated to St. Thomas à Becket. The well is named after the saint is due to a legend that he stop his famous night escape from the castle on October 19th, 1165. Source: “Old England”: A Pictorial Museum of Regal, Ecclesiastical, Baronial, Municipal, and Popular Antiquities; published by Charles Knight and co., London 1845.

To the student no less than to the general reader the history of Thomas à Becket offers vivid attractions. The chronicles of Fitz-Stephen, Gervase of Canterbury, Diceto, Peter of Blois, and other writers, give us some consecutive accounts of this remarkable career, and as Fitz-Stephen was not only biographer but secretary to a Becket we are able to estimate the position which was held by the man who united the two distinctions of opposing the Norman influence, and at the same time of upholding the sacerdotal power against a king, whose desire it was to oppose the growing arrogance and authority of the church and of the rival Popes, Victor IV., who was established at Rome under the protection of the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa, and Alexander III., who had found an asylum north of the Alps.

Tarring, West Sussex. Thomas Becket Archbishop

Tarring, West Sussex. Given to the archbishops of Canterbury in the 10th century. Visited by Thomas à Becket.

Thomas à Becket was the son of a London tradesman, and was born in 1117. His father was not of Norman but of Saxon race, and the youth, who had many of the sympathies which belonged to his lineage, was the first of the Saxon people who rose to any great distinction under the Norman rule. To the advantages of a handsome person and are markably engaging address, he added great accomplishments and no little learning, for his father sent him to study first at Merton Abbey, afterwards to Oxford, and then to Paris, where he applied himself to the subject of civil law. Coming back to London he was employed as a clerk in the office of the sheriff, and attracted the attention of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him to complete his studies at the famous school of Bologna, where he became a pupil of the learned Gratian. On returning to London he took deacon’s orders, and was raised by the primate to the dignity of Archdeacon of Canterbury, a position which demanded no church duties, and left him still in the position of a courtier and diplomatist. In this latter capacity the young and versatile favourite was sent to the court of Rome to conduct some important negotiations, and there, by his address, he obtained from the pope letters which defeated the project for crowning Eustace the son of Stephen. This brought him more prominently into notice, and thenceforward he became the chosen friend and companion of Henry II. À Becket was now Lord High Chancellor, and distinguished for the magnificence of his retinue and his sumptuous style of living, which was almost equal to, even when it did not exceed, that of his royal master. The greatest nobles of the court were glad to sit at his table, where Henry himself was sometimes a guest. The rich baronies of Eye and Berkham were bestowed on him, and his revenues were large and increasing. Though a churchman in deacon’s orders, he joined in the gay amusements of the court; kept a stud of hunters,and with a large following of knights and retainers travelled in princely state. At Toulouse and on the borders of Normandy he took part in military affairs, and everywhere held a foremost place not only by his personal accomplishments but by his wit and scholarship.

Old Porch, Warblington Church, Hampshire.

The wooden porch of the Church of St. Thomas à Becket at Warblington, Hampshire, England. The church dates to the late 12th century. Medieval documents refer to the Church of Our Lady (or St Mary) of Warblington but the present dedication is to St. Thomas à Becket. This change of name took place in 1796. Illustration by G.W. Fairbank.

It had long been the desire of Henry II.to diminish the power of the church and to define the ecclesiastical authority, and a Becket had seconded these efforts with no little ability, so that on the death of the primate Theobald, the king proposed to raise his trusted councillor to the see of Canterbury. This was effected without much difficulty, and a Becket assumed the archiepiscopal dignity. From that moment his mode of life was entirely changed. He was no longer the courtier and the man of pleasure, but the churchman who sought to discharge the duties of his high office—first, by relinquishing his chancellorship; secondly, by a life of simplicity, to which was frequently added considerable austerity; thirdly, by upholding that ecclesiastical authority which his appointment to the see of Canterbury was intended to limit. Henry was astonished at the change which had suddenly come upon his friend and favourite, and it is not easy to explain it by attributing it to anyone cause. The archbishop became the avowed champion of the church, and began at once to take measures for asserting its authority. Instead of supporting the royal power, he opposed it with an intensity and a persistency that must have arisen from some deep and earnest conviction. Perhaps his Saxon birth was the mainspring of his motives, for never since the Norman Conquest had a Saxon attained a position which made opposition to the throne effective. He was inclined to assert his ecclesiastical authority to the utmost, and to enforce it with all the powers of censure and even of excommunication. His first demonstration was to order the Earl of Clare to resign the barony of Tunbridge, which though it had been the property of the family ever since the conquest, had formerly belonged to the see of Canterbury.

This was followed by other interpositions with regard to church property, and by an almost arrogant defiance of the royal authority. The great point of dispute at that time was the subjection of the clergy to the civil power in civil and criminal cases. Councils of churchmen had always demanded that priests were not liable to be tried by courts which were instituted by and for laymen, and consequently crimes committed by the clergy were not liable to be punished by the magistrate, but only brought the culprits under the censure of the church. Henry declared that the ancient laws of the kingdom could not be superseded by the ecclesiastics; a Becket took the other side, and refused to deliver up to punishment a clerk in holy orders who had been guilty of murder. The king then summoned a council to meet at Clarendon, where they drew up the famous “Constitutions of Clarendon,” against the prevailing abuses of ecclesiastical power. To these a Becket refused to assent, and it was only when he stood alone in his opposition, and found that he was in danger of being deserted by the clergy themselves, that he gave in his adhesion. But Pope Alexander refused to ratify the articles, and a Becket thereupon withdrew his consent, and professed to regard his former compliance as a fault requiring penance and the absolution of the pope.

Ecclesiastical Chasuble, Mitre, and Stole of Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury.

Chasuble, Mitre, and Stole of Archbishop Thomas à Becket of Canterbury.

Unable to move the obstinate prelate on these grounds, the enraged king at once began to humble his fortunes, by suing him for large sums of money said to be due to the crown, and as a Becket did not appear in person, confiscating his property for contempt of court. À Becket saw that it was intended to work his ruin, and at once refused to acknowledge the authority of the court which condemned him, appealed to the pope, and ultimately succeeded in escaping to Sens, where Alexander received him with great distinction, while Lewis of France and Philip of Flanders both gave him a cordial welcome. Henry was powerless. He could fine and banish the friends and family of a Becket, but meantime, sustained by the support of the pope, the primate was pronouncing sentence of excommunication against the king’s ministers who had favoured the Constitutions of Clarendon. Henry dreaded the moment when his own turn would come to be anathematized and at once began to negotiate for a reconciliation, which was only effected bygreat concessions to the former favourite; in return for which all that he obtained was absolution for the excommunicated ministers, and the withdrawal of threatened censure to himself.

Étoile de Saint Thomas Becket. Monastic clothing. Archbishop England

Étoile de Saint Thomas Becket.

Amidst the acclamations of the people, but not without attempted hindrances from the nobles, à Becket returned to Canterbury, but only to resume the demonstrations of that ecclesiastical authority, which he demanded for the church as superior to the civil power. He issued severe censures against the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury, who in his absence had usurped the right of officiating at the coronation of his former pupil, the young Prince Henry. He excommunicated Robert de Broc, Nigel de Sackville, and others who had assisted at the ceremony. All these people had been his personal enemies, and had tried to ruin him. The prelates left England for the Continent, where they appealed to Henry, who was still at Montmirail.

When Henry heard of this resumption of hostilities he was seized with an ungovernable fit of rage, and is said to have ejaculated, “What sluggard wretches, what cowards have I brought up in my court! Not one will deliver me from this low-born priest.” The words led to swift action. Without deliberation four knights, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Brez, stole from the court, embarked by different routes to England, and met near Canterbury. On the evening of the 29th of December these four men entered the chamber of the archbishop, who, though he had been warned by a letter, seems to have scorned to appear afraid. His visitors declared that they only sought to bring the primate to allegiance, and demanded that he should absolve the bishops. He refused, and words ran high, à Becket not sparing epithets and denunciations. The knights went out calling, “To arms, to arms! king’s men, king’s men!” The attendants of the archbishop saw his danger, and implored him to take refuge in the church. He at first refused, but as the sound of the vespers reached him he consented to enter the sacred precincts, as it was his duty to be present. He had not reached the altar when the four knights rushed in fully armed, and heed less of sacrilege. After great confusion and contention Fitzurse struck at the primate’s head with his sword, but the blow was warded by an attendant, whose arm was broken by the force of the blow, which fell more slightly on his master. The archbishop was wounded, and with the blood running down his face said, “For the name of Jesus, and in defence of the church, I am willing to die.” The blows of two others of his assailants followed, and he fell close to the foot of St. Bennet’s altar, a third stroke from a sword cleaving his skull, so that his brains were scattered on the pavement.

Thomas Becket assassination scene. Medieval costumes.

Death of St. Thomas Becket.

Martyr Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London

Assassination scene of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

Martyrdom of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Medieval Saint. Archbishop England Canterbury

Martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket in 1170.

The terrified priests and the crowd which had assembled at once proclaimed him a martyr; and the title attained strength from the discovery of the monks, who, in preparing the body for burial, found by the marks of penance that the proud and once luxurious a Becket had practised austerities to which they themselves were strangers. Soon the story of these marks of humility and self mortification was made known. People who had dipped cloths and handkerchiefs in the blood of the martyred archbishop began to speak of miracles effected by their means. In spite of the prohibitions and threats of Robert de Broc, the monks buried the body with great solemnity in the crypt of the cathedral. The king himself was alarmed at the effects of his words spoken in passion, and disclaimed any such intention as had been attributed to him. In order to avert the probable consequences of the act, which might have brought upon him the excommunication of the pope, shut himself up to fasting and solitude, and ultimately proffered an oath upon the holy Gospels and relics at Avranches that he had neither ordered nor desired the murder of the archbishop. This oath was sworn before the two legates of the pope and a large concourse of clergy and people; and having been accompanied by large payments of money, sufficed to obtain absolution, though, as he could not deny that his wrathful words had been the occasion of the crime, he also agreed to maintain 200 knights during a year for the defence of the Holy Land, and to serve himself if it should be required of him. At the same time he engaged to restore to the family and friends of à Becket all their possessions, and to relinquish such customs against the church as had been introduced in his time.

RELICS ASSOCIATED WITH THOMAS À BECKET.

Ecclesiastical Dress. Mitre of Thomas Becket. Middle ages Archbishop of Canterbury.

Relics associated with the medieval Saint Thomas Becket.

1. Ivory Grace Cup of Thomas à Becket; in the possession of P. H. Howard, Esq., of Corby.
2. Mitre of Thomas à Becket; preserved in the Abbey of Sens, Normandy.
3. Mitre of Thomas a Becket; in the care of Cardinal Manning.
4. 5, 6, 7. Leaden Tokens. Bought by Pilgrims at Canterbury, and worn by them to show they had visited the shrine of Thomas à Becket.
8. Leaden Ampulla.

From the book: Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History by Thomas Archer. London 1878.



Associated to

  1. Monachism. Monastic costumes history.
  2. Costumes of the 12th century. Monastic, Nobility, Citizens, Knights.