Becket’s birth in history and legend

Thomas’s parents were Mathilda and Gilbert Becket, a Norman merchant and property owner in London who lived on Cheapside. Gilbert had been sheriff of London, so had a position of some status within the city. The name ‘Becket’ may have referred to Gilbert’s large ‘beaky’ nose, or perhaps the family had come from Bec in Normandy.

Thomas Becket's parents.
The Queen Mary Psalter
© British Library Board, MS Royal 2BVII f.289v
Origin/Date: England || 1310-20
Blue commemorative plaque for Thomas Becket, Cheapside, London. 
© Worshipful Company of Mercers

Perhaps because so little was known about Becket’s parents, or because of his relatively ‘normal’ middle-class background, a number of stories were added to his medieval biographies. The most popular of these claimed that Becket’s mother had actually been a “Saracen” princess. According to this, Gilbert Becket had been on crusade in the Holy Land when he was captured by the Emir who ruled the land.

While waiting at the Emir’s table in his captivity, the Emir’s daughter fell in love with him and came to visit him in prison. She helped him escape, and he fled back to London. The Emir’s daughter then fled the palace as well, and, knowing only how to say ‘London, London’ in English, managed to board a boat to England.

When she got to London her appearance attracted a lot of attention from the citizens, and eventually Gilbert Becket heard that she was looking for him. He consulted a meeting of bishops at St Paul’s Cathedral, and they told him to have her baptised as a Christian and then to marry her. One of the bishops prophesied that she would give birth to a saint. Following this advice, she was baptised and they were wed. She gave birth to Thomas and Gilbert returned on crusade to the Holy Land.

Thomas Becket's mother.
The Queen Mary Psalter
© British Library Board, MS Royal 2BVII f.289v
Origin/Date: England || 1310-20

This strange tale may have come about because of confusion over the name of the order of St Thomas of Acre who ran the Hospital on the site of Becket’s birth, leading Londoners to think that Thomas himself had roots in Acre (in modern-day Israel).

Details in the story suggest it probably originated in London in the 1240s, and it was a popular part of poems and sermons about Becket throughout the Middle Ages.

In some versions Becket’s mother was said to be Jewish or a Middle Eastern ‘pagan.’ The story was taught as fact until the 19th century!

In the 15th century it was believed that Becket’s parents were buried in the ‘Pardon Cemetery’ at St Paul’s Cathedral. Probably because of her royal status and Gilbert’s position as sheriff of London, their supposed tomb became an important site of civic ceremonial, particularly at the annual installation of the new mayor when the civic dignitaries would process there to sing hymns and say prayers.


Medieval term for a Muslim or, more generally, a non-Christian particularly in the Middle East.


Arabic ruler of a city, state, or region in the Middle East. From the Arabic ‘amīr’ meaning ‘commander’


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.

Order of St Thomas of Acre

Founded in Acre in 1191 for the care of pilgrims to the Holy Land and dedicated to St Thomas Becket. The Order was always very small and poor with few hospitals. From 1227 the main hospital for the Order was in London, on the site of Becket’s birth.


Holy war authorised by the Pope. Most were directed towards the liberation of the Holy Land from Muslim control but they were also undertaken against heretics in Western Europe.


Religious poetry set to music and sung during worship. New Testament writers talk about Psalms and Hymns, the scriptural poems of the Old Testament and new songs, some of the texts of which may be incorporated into the Bible (for example, Philippians 2: 5-11). In the Middle Ages the term hymn can be broadly applied to Christian songs, it is perhaps most frequently used to designate works that do not fulfill a more specific role within the liturgy 


Coming from the Normandy region of northern France, or associated with the ruling aristocracy of the region who successfully invaded England in 1066.

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.


 The chief royal official in a county or region, with particular responsibility for law enforcement

A riche burgees of lond & lede,
Of lundon cite his fadir was born
Gilbert Beket wyse man in dede
His name is callyd thus aforn
Beforn ȝow alle more & lasse
To ȝow I say this storye
His modir was born in henes
In the lond of Iurie

A rich townsman of landed property,
His father was born in London city.
Gilbert Becket, a wise man indeed,
Was what he was called.
Before you all, both high and low,
To you I tell this story
His mother was born a heathen

In the land of the Jews.

South English Legendary (Bodl. MS Rawl. poet. 225) 15th century