Freedom for the Church St. Thomas Becket

British Museum Exhibition

St. Thomas Becket (feast 29 December) was one of the most venerated saints of the the Middle Ages. He was martyred for resisting King Henry II in his attempt to subordinate the Church to the state. The state’s desire to usurp the rights and power of the Church is the “background noise” of both medieval and modern history. Here are the biographical details of the exhibition at the British Museum to mark the 850 years since his martyrdom. The text is taken from the panels on display.

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint

Three knights rush in as Becket prays at an altar. Horrified monks watch as one strikes the fatal blow.

The voice of the blood and the cry of the brains spilt and scattered by the bloody swords of the devil’s henchmen filled heaven and earth with a great tumult. (Benedict of Peterborough, Monk of Canterbury, 1173)

News of the violent crime sent shock waves across Europe. Just over two years later, the pope made Becket a saint. His shrine attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and his story has echoed through the ages.

The story of Thomas Becket (1120–1170)

Thomas Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London. The city was a hub of activity where, according to Becket’s clerk and biographer William FitzStephen, ‘...from every nation that is under heaven, merchants rejoice to bring their trade in ships'.


Around the age of 18, Becket went to study in Paris, a formative experience that laid the foundations for his rise. It was an exciting city, home to some of the greatest teachers of the time. The core curriculum focused on the Liberal Arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. In search of new opportunities he seized upon the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. At the time Canterbury Cathedral was a centre of learning and artistic patronage. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing. In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends.

In 1162, Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage. The matter remained unresolved, with neither king nor archbishop willing to concede.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

On 14 June 1170 Henry II had his son Henry, known as "the Young King", crowned joint monarch in Westminster Abbey to secure the succession. The ceremony was conducted by Becket’s rivals, the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London whereas it was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ancient right to perform coronations.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years.

At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and "low-born clerk". Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him. Canterbury Cathedral, Becket’s last sanctuary, would become the stage for his violent death.

News of Becket’s death spread across Europe like wildfire and was met with outrage. Henry II initially refused to punish the perpetrators and was widely implicated in the murder.

Miraculous cures were attributed to Becket and pilgrims in search of healing visited Canterbury.

To appease the pope [or was it in genuine remorse?], Henry II performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. He finally visited Canterbury two years later. In an astonishing act of public humiliation, the king walked barefoot through the city and knelt before Becket’s tomb. He acknowledged his involvement in the crime and was punished by monks. From then on, Henry adopted St. Thomas as his protector.

Meanwhile, Becket’s cult spread throughout Europe. In recognition of his martyrdom and miracles, the pope canonised Becket as St. Thomas of Canterbury in February 1173.

Over the next fifty years, his legacy as a defender of the rights of the Church against royal tyranny became firmly established. St. Thomas was one of medieval Europe’s most popular saints. His shrine was visited by hundreds of thousands of devoted pilgrims.

Under Henry VIII, St. Thomas’ shrine was destroyed. His cult was banned, to the shock of people across the country and throughout Europe. On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay, royal agents began demolishing St. Thomas’ shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. St. Thomas’ bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

Part of a series of unexpected attacks on St.Thomas’ cult, it was soon followed by a royal order to outlaw his name and image across the country.

St. Thomas’ memory was kept alive through the devotion of Catholics and those seeking a model of opposition to unbridled power. Catholics continued to honour him secretly at home and openly on the Continent. People fleeing religious persecution under the Tudors smuggled relics abroad to protect them, including several believed to be of St. Thomas.

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