Who was Thomas Becket?

Thomas Becket was an English archbishop and martyr, famously murdered by knights of Henry II at Canterbury Cathedral. After his death, his tomb and relics became a focus for pilgrimage and he was made a saint.

Read more about Becket below, or use our timeline and story map resources to explore his life - and afterlife - visually.

Life and Legend

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London, to reasonably affluent Norman parents who had settled in England some years earlier. He was given a good primary education at Merton Abbey and in Paris, becoming a financial clerk.

St Thomas Becket.
Bolton Hours, York Minster, Archive Ms Add 2 f.38v. © Dean & Chapter York
Origin/Date: England || 15th century [after 1405]

In around 1142 he entered the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. He was then sent abroad to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154 Becket was ordained as a deacon and became Archdeacon of Canterbury. Theobald was evidently impressed with Becket's work in this important administrative role, and used him as a negotiator in his dealing with the English monarchy.

Henry II succeeded Stephen on the throne in 1154, and the following year he raised Becket to the position of Chancellor of England. Becket was on excellent terms with the King and served him for seven years as a statesman and diplomat, and even as a soldier, leading troops into battle against the French during the attempt to regain the lands of Henry's queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He had the outward appearance of a worldly cleric who fitted in with the extravagant tastes of the royal court, and even supported the King in his disagreements with the Church. It seems that Becket may have taken on a role of a particular advisor to the King, who was twelve years his junior, and may have been the true originator of many royal reforms of administration.

Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and Henry proposed that Becket should be appointed as his successor. Becket initially resisted, warning the King that their friendship would be compromised and that he would not be able to accept the reductions of ecclesiastical privileges that he knew Henry was seeking. However, after encouragement from Cardinal Henry of Pisa, who urged him to accept the new role as a service to religion, Becket eventually agreed to become the senior churchman within England. Still only a deacon, he was ordained as a priest on Saturday 2 June 1162, and consecrated as bishop the following day. Despite Becket's warnings, Henry evidently expected that the new archbishop would continue to be a strong ally.

Pilgrim Badge associated with St Thomas Becket.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, PS 342181
Origin/Date: England || 13th century

However, a sudden change came over Becket and he reformed himself, as he said, from 'a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls'. He took his new responsibilities seriously, lived very austerely and was generous in almsgiving. He quickly came into conflict with the King when he resigned the chancellorship. There were many points of issue between them, such as taxation and the state of the King's soul, but crucially they differed over the relative rights and responsibilities of Church and state over clergymen who were convicted of crimes, and the freedom of the English Church to appeal to the Pope against the monarch's wishes. The positions of King and archbishop became entrenched; the other bishops were divided in their views.

In 1164, following a difficult royal council at Northampton, Becket took refuge in France. He was offered help by the King of France, lived initially in the Cistercian abbey at Pontigny and then, from 1166, at Sens. Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, himself living in exile from Rome at Sens. The Pope sought hard to find an appropriate solution, and Becket came increasingly to the view that the issue was a matter of deep principle. He even attempted to resign his post, although Alexander refused to allow this.

Saints Thomas Cantilupe (left) and Thomas Becket (right). Main light window, St Mary's Church, Credenhill, Herefordshire.
© David Griffith
Origin/Date: Herefordshire || mid-14th century (1330?)

Matters reached a head when Henry arranged for his son to be crowned by the Archbishop of York, in contravention of the tradition that the role of crowning English monarchs is reserved to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, the Pope and the French King were outraged. In the case of the King this was because his own daughter, Margaret of York, was daughter-in-law to Henry and had not been present at her husband's coronation. The Pope threatened to interdict Henry's French provinces. This left Henry with little option other than capitulation, and he met, and was apparently reconciled with, his Archbishop of Canterbury in July 1170. Becket returned to his see on 1 December 1170 and was received with acclamation by the monks of the cathedral as well as the local people.

Becket also went to London to meet with the crowned heir to the English throne, an event which seems to have particularly angered Henry. The King was in Normandy at the time, and when told of Becket's doings he flew into a rage. This was the point at which he uttered reckless words which, almost certainly unintentionally, led directly to the murder of Becket, as he asked who would rid him of this turbulent priest. Four knights secretly hurried across the Channel to England, believing they were doing the King's will.

Arriving in Canterbury during the early evening of 29 December 1170, they came upon the archbishop in a side chapel of the cathedral. They demanded the absolution of the excommunicated bishops, but Becket refused. It seems that the knights left the cathedral for a short time, then returned with a band of armed men and tried to drag the archbishop outside but could not manage it. They eventually killed him where he stood. Becket is said to have died like a true saint. According to his cross bearer, Edward Grim, who was an eyewitness to the crime and was himself wounded in the struggle, Becket commended his cause to God and accepted death 'for the name of Jesus and in defence of the Church'.

Cult

Archbishop Thomas Becket appears in a vision. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel Ambulatory nII-21.
© Dean & Chapter Canterbury
Origin/Date: England || c.1213-20

The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket stunned the whole of Christendom. All across Europe he was acclaimed as a martyr, and in 1173 Pope Alexander II - who had never been unqualified in his support of Becket's position against the King - canonised him. Within ten years of his death 703 healing miracles had been recorded at his tomb. Representations of his death appeared all over Europe, with extant examples from places as diverse as Iceland, Sicily and Armenia.

Becket's shrine at Canterbury, which displaced interest in a number of earlier local saints, rapidly became one of the most important three or four European pilgrimage centres. The shrine, which was destroyed during the Reformation, was of unparalleled splendour, and was perhaps the richest tomb of any saint. It was apparently covered in considerable quantities of gold and jewels. The pilgrimage routes from London and Winchester to Canterbury can still be traced, and Chaucer's pilgrims, who journeyed to this shrine, form one important literary example of medieval pilgrimage (see Chaucer's Canterbury Tales).

Reliquary depicting St Thomas Becket's murder and entombment.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, WA 1947.191.255
Origin/Date: Limoges, France || 12th century

Other shrines to Becket are also known, usually based around relics. Thus, for example, his chasuble was venerated at Sens, and a fragment of his tunic and some of his brain at Sta Maria Maggiore, Rome. The earliest extant representation of Becket is at Monreale in Sicily and dates from before 1182. Monreale seems to have been especially important in the propagation of the cult, perhaps because William II of Sicily's wife was the daughter of Henry II of England. Meanwhile, even secondary relics of the saint were powerful: Caesarius of Heisterbach (c.1180-1240) relates a miracle allegedly performed by the bridle of the saint's horse.

Although the life of Becket before he became archbishop was not notable for its sanctity, this aspect has been glossed over in much hagiographical writing. Some legends have attached themselves to his early life, perhaps in an effort to make him appear more like a 'typical saint'. For example, it is sometimes said that his father was a crusader and his mother a Saracen princess who helped him escape from captivity in Palestine. She followed him to England knowing only two words of English, 'Gilbert' (his name) and 'London'. She was ultimately baptised under the name Matilda and married her crusader in Old St Paul's Cathedral. It is also said that his mother Matilda used to weigh her growing son each day and give the same weight of bread - or bread, meat and clothing - to the poor. These types of stories link Becket's origins to concepts of charity and conversion. They also provide him with a romantic aspect that is often associated with saints, for example the picaresque narratives of the virgin martyrs.

Although Henry II was pardoned by the Pope for his part in the events in May 1172, it was not until 12 July 1174 that he underwent public penance at the tomb. He was scourged by monks as part of a ceremony where he formally recognised that his enmity had led to the crime, and spent a day and a night in prayer before the saint's relics. He also returned (almost) all of the lands he had seized from the see of Canterbury and agreed to build a monastery at Witham (Somerset) as part of the penance. The King now admitted the freedom of the English Church to make appeals to Rome, but in most areas of his disagreement with Becket the Crown ultimately retained power. This historical reality does not significantly impinge on the reputation of the saint, who is still revered as a true martyr of the Christian faith.

Sam Riches

Shrine

In origin a Germanic word meaning a chest or reliquary, this term describes something which contains a sacred object. It can thus be applied to an elaborate tomb around the body of a saint, a cabinet containing a relic or to the whole architectural complex where such a body or relic rests.

Baptism

The  Sacramental  rite of admission into the Christian Church. The candidate is immersed in or sprinkled with water in the name of the Trinity and may also be anointed with oil.

Miracle

An event evoking wonder, in which a person is believed to be the agent of God's power. In the Bible. miracles tend to be associated with key people at critical periods of history, such as the Exodus. the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles.  

Chaucer, Geoffrey

(c.1342-1400) English author, poet, administrator, courtier and diplomat, who’s most famous work is The Canterbury Tales.

Archbishop

Bishop who also presides over a group of dioceses or provinces. There are two archbishops in England, located in Canterbury and York.

Canonisation

Process of examination of the claims of an individual to sainthood culminating in official recognition by the Papacy.

Martyr

From the Greek ‘martus’ meaning ‘witness'. One who suffers death on account of faith.

Cathedral

Church which contains the throne of the bishop and hence the mother church of the diocese, from the Latin ‘cathedra' meaning ‘throne.' 

Penance

Sacrament involving contrition, confession, satisfaction (e.g. prayer, fasting, almsgiving or pilgrimage) and absolution. From the Latin ‘poena’ meaning 'punishment'.

Reformation

Term given to the movements of church reform which in the 16th century resulted in Protestantism. The Reformation took different forms in different parts of Europe, sometimes being promoted by rulers, as in Germany and England, sometimes expressing itself as a popular movement. While different reformers promoted different doctrines. They were united in their rejection of pilgrimage and visual images which were viewed as idolatrous and superstitious, their emphasis on salvation through faith rather than the sacramental systems, masses and good works and their desire to promote the study of the Bible and the conduct of worship in the vernacular. The origins of these reforms can be traced to religious movements in the Middle Ages, such as the English Lollards. The criticisms of Protestantism provoked a time of reform within the Catholic Church usually known as the Counter-Reformation and expressed in the pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1562-3).  

Saint

In the New Testament this applied to all Christians. Later used of those who were martyred or showed exceptional holiness and whose status was confirmed by the church. The practice of venerating the saints and their relics and asking for their intercessions (prayers) can be observed from the second and third centuries onward and played a central role in popular medieval religion.

Cross

Instrument of torture and execution used in the Roman Empire. The means by which Christ was put to death and therefore the primary symbol of the Christian faith, representing the means by which he is believed to have won forgiveness for humankind. The Cross may be represented as Tau-shaped (like a capital T), with a shorter cross-bar, or with a circle enclosing the upper intersection (Celtic). In medieval art a cross made of living branches signifies the Tree of Life. St Helena mother of the Emperor Constantine. is said to have discovered the True Cross (i.e. The Cross on which Christ died) in 326 during a visit to Jerusalem.

Monk

Member of male religious community.

Cistercian Order

The order of White Monks (named from their clothing of undyed sheep's wool) was founded at Cîteaux in 1098 in Burgundy with the aim of returning to the Benedictine ideal. Simplicity and strict adherence to the Benedictine Rule were emphasised. Following the admission of St Bernard of Clairvaux, the order spread rapidly, choosing remote locations, such as Rievaulx (1132) in Northern England. The order also expanded to included female houses. Medieval England had 62 abbeys of Cistercian monks, two official abbeys of Cistercian nuns, and numerous unofficial houses of nuns. Cistercian monks and nuns still exist today.

Abbey

1. Community of monks or nuns under the rule of an abbot or abbess. This is the higher grade of monastery, as opposed to the lower priory. 2. Building which they occupy. 

Rome

This Italian city was the capital of the Roman Empire and, with the primacy accorded to the bishops of Rome (the popes), the centre of the Western Church from the late-Antique period onwards. Rome was not only the administrative centre, but an important source of innovation, relics and liturgy. Missionaries from Rome played an important role in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England from late 6th century onward.

Pope

Head of the medieval church in the West. Used as a title preceding the name of the Bishop of Rome, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.  

Diocese

A geographical area composed of a number of parishes, under the administrative and spiritual jurisdiction of a Bishop.

Crusader

The term for those who had 'taken the cross' - that is made a vow to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and had a cross sewn into their garments as a sign of this vow. This term is often applied more specifically to those who formed the armies sent to recapture the Holy Land from Muslim powers and establish Christian rule from 1095 onwards. From the thirteenth century onwards, 'crusades' were also declared against other groups of non-Christians such as the Lithuanians, and heretical groups such as the Albigensians. Participation in any enterprise declared to be crusade carried indulgences and those who died on crusade might be regarded as martyrs.

Christ

From Greek ‘Christos’ a translation of the Hebrew for 'Messiah’: the anointed one of Jewish prophecy. Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus. as fulfilling this prophecy.

Canterbury

City in the south east of England; the seat of England's senior archbishop, who is also bishop of the diocese of Canterbury. It was here that St Augustine of Canterbury (d.609), who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English in 597, established his ecclesiastical headquarters. In the Anglo-Saxon period Canterbury's monasteries were places of learning and artistry. After the Norman Conquest the cathedral was magnificently rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc and embellished by Archbishop Anselm. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 added to the cathedral's prominence as a place of pilgrimage and the east end of the church was dramatically remodelled in the Gothic style.

Canon Law

 Collection of ecclesiastical rules governing faith, morals and discipline.

Deacon

An ordained minister who ranks immediately below a priest in the hierarchy of the Church. 

Archdeacon

Administrative officer of the Bishop. responsible for church buildings and the supervision of the morals of clergy and laity in all or part of the diocese. Presided over ecclesiastical courts. Unpopular in the medieval church and often suspected of corruption.

Bishop

Bishops exercised pastoral care over a diocese and authority to confirm and ordain.

Alms

Gifts, usually of money to the poor and needy.

Secondary Relic

Item which has been in physical contact with or used by a saint.

Hagiography

The body of literature and knowledge gathered from both written and oral sources which relates to the lives and posthumous miracles of the saints. A common form of written source for hagiography is the biographical vita (Latin 'Life'). Hagiography is now also the name given to the study of saints and their cults.  

Virgin Martyrs

A group of pseudo-historical saints who are either undated or associated with the period around 200-400 CE. The saints who are generally recognised as part of this group, such as St Katherine, St Barbara, St Margaret, St Juliana, St Agnes, St Dorothy, St Ursula and St Wilgefortis, are all female, but some historians claim that the legends of certain male saints, particularly figures such as St George and St John the Evangelist, are strongly influenced by the standard formulation of the virgin martyr story.