Becket and London in his lifetime

Becket's letter of excommunication to Gilbert Folio (May 1170). Starts end of first column.
© The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Parker Library, MS295 f.132v
Origin/Date: England || 1200-1225

Thomas Becket was born on December 21 in around 1120, in a large house on Cheapside next to the small church of St Mary Colechurch where he was probably baptised.  His parents, Gilbert Becket and Matilda, were moderately wealthy Norman merchants and property owners, and much of Gilbert’s property was in and around Cheapside. The family’s fortunes suffered a major setback when a fire devastated the east of the City including St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge in the 1130s. 

Thomas was sent to study at Merton Priory in Surrey, then at one of the London grammar schools. Following a year abroad in Paris, his first job was as a clerk in the household of the financier Osbert Huitdeniers (‘Eightpence’) in around 1143. Osbert may not have been a popular figure in London, as he supported the Empress Matilda in the civil war that was raging at the time, over most Londoners’ choice of King Stephen.

After a few years working for Osbert Thomas was able to get a position in the administration of Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was introduced to the archbishop by one of the guests who had stayed at his father Gilbert Becket’s house on Cheapside. As part of his new job he was made a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and drew an income from the church of St Mary-le-Strand.  His personal seal was probably acquired around this time, and he continued to use it occasionally throughout his life alongside his official seals. It was an antique gem inscribed with a figure possibly representing Mercury, to which Thomas had added the legend ‘Sigillum Thome Lund’ (The Seal of Thomas of London).

Thomas was appointed to be Henry II’s Chancellor in 1155, in part thanks to his background in the financier classes of London and his connections to the city authorities. This would have made him attractive as a chancellor to a young king like Henry in need of money. As chancellor, Thomas arranged to be made steward of the Tower of London.

Beginning the last stage of his meteoric career, Thomas’ confirmation as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 took place at Westminster with only Gilbert Foliot, bishop of Hereford, raising objections. Shortly afterwards King Henry made Gilbert bishop of London, arguably the second-most important clerical position in England after Canterbury.  For the next eight years the Bishop of London was Thomas’ fiercest enemy, either because of his firm convictions about the relationship of Church and state, a natural dislike based on his aristocratic disdain for the middle class Thomas, or disappointment at being overlooked for the job of archbishop. According to Thomas’ supporters, Gilbert was using the conflict between Henry and Becket to promote the claims of London to be made an archbishopric and more important than Canterbury.

One of the most dramatic occasions of the bishops’ quarrel was Thomas’ excommunication of Gilbert in 1169 by the presentation of letters to the priest celebrating Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day. Berengar, Thomas’ agent, went up to the altar after the Gospel had been read and pressed the letters into the priest’s hands, commanding him and the servers not to proceed with Mass until they had been read. He then turned to the congregation and declared that the bishop of London had been excommunicated. The citizens of London ‘threw insults at him and made to detain him’ but ‘to avoid tumult among the people’ he was smuggled out of the cathedral under a cloak. This was a time when St Paul’s would have been more than usually full of Londoners paying respects at their ‘mother church,’ perhaps explaining their angry reaction to the presentation of the letters. Gilbert was not allowed to say Mass while he appealed the sentence, clearly demonstrating the authority of Canterbury over London. As a piece of spectacle, Thomas knew how to make the deepest impression on the city of his birth.

Any adverse feelings towards Thomas on the part of Londoners were largely removed by his dramatic death in 1170, and London soon adopted him as its patron saint. Even after death, Thomas and Gilbert Foliot’s feud continued. One of Gilbert’s stewards is shown inadvertently causing Thomas to perform a miracle by raising the eye-wrappings of a supposedly uncured blind man on his way back from Canterbury to mock Thomas’ lack of power. This resulted in a spectacular and undeniable recovery of sight which the horrified steward could only at length be made to believe had happened. Even better, one of the miracle collections ends with the deathbed healing by St Thomas of Gilbert Foliot himself, forcing Gilbert to finally accept that Thomas was indeed a saint.


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.

Gilbert Foliot

Bishop of London 1163-1187 and one of Thomas Becket’s chief antagonists


The public exclusion of a Christian from participation in the life, sacraments and ministry of the Church.


(Also called the Eucharist. Holy Communion or Lord's Supper). The chief sacramental service of the Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest. recalling the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper and commemorating the sacrifice which he offered for the sins of mankind on the cross. In the medieval Church the Mass was celebrated daily; it was also offered for the souls of the dead.  

Ascension Day

Celebrated on the fortieth day after  Easter, commemorating the withdrawal of  Christ  into  heaven  after the  Resurrection  (Acts 1: 18). 


A consecrated table or block used to celebrate the Eucharist. In the Middle Ages it would have contained relics.


People assembled for worship


Priest who is part of a group of clergy attached to a cathedral (also called Secular Canon). 


Wax discs attached to official documents to prove they are authentic.


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

King Henry II

(1133-1189) King of England who reinforced the power of the monarchy over that of the barons and reformed the courts. In attempting to reform the ecclesiastical courts, he came into conflict with his former friend, Thomas Becket , who, as archbishop of Canterbury opposed any attempt to take away legal jurisdiction of the clergy from the church. Long, complicated, and contentious negotiations took place leading to Becket's temporary exile in France, and his murder was accidentally set in motion by some ill-considered words of Henry. Henry subsequently did penance at Becket's tomb.


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.