Reformation and destruction of his cult

St Paul's Cathedral.
The City of London before the burning of St Paul's steeple by Giles Godet
By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge
Origin/Date: London || 1565

As part of Henry VIII’s rejection of the Roman Catholic church and the establishment of the Protestant Church of England with the king at its head, the symbolic and devotional roles of Thomas Becket in England were comprehensively attacked. Becket had rebelled against his king in defence of the Church, and as such was a figure completely incompatible with Henry VIII’s vision. In 1538 Henry proclaimed that Becket had been ‘a rebel… who shall no longer be named a saint’ and decreed that ‘his pictures throughout the realm are to be plucked down and his festivals shall no longer be kept, and the services in his name shall be razed out of all books.’

In London, the city of Becket’s birth and of which he was patron saint, as far as can be told these instructions were followed to the letter. The City was a potential site of rebellion against the king, not just because of its long-standing devotion to Becket but also as Catholic preachers were trying to champion him as a defender of the poor. Protestants in the City acted quickly to root out potential rebels. Three months after the proclamation Henry Totehill, a Londoner who lived by Tower Hill, was reported to the authorities for his devotion to Becket, who he believed had saved him from hanging.

The Hospital on Becket’s birth site was already in the hands of the Mercers’ Company by the Reformation. The monastic community there was disbanded and the Mercers’ Company quickly removed any references to Becket being a saint. In the hospital chapel the stained glass depicting Becket’s life and martyrdom, the statues, vestments and hangings with images of him, boards with accounts of his miracles, and any other items associated with his cult were either destroyed or mutilated. Following this, churches throughout the city removed any Becket symbolism from their buildings.

The chapel on London Bridge took down its statue of Becket, changed its seal in 1542 ‘forasmuch as the ymage of Thomas Beckett… ys graven therein’, and changed the dedication of the chapel to that of St Thomas the Apostle. The hospital of St Thomas at Southwark was closed down, and when it was reopened by the City authorities they similarly changed its dedication from Thomas Becket to the Apostle Thomas. The entrance to St Thomas’ Tower at the Tower of London was renamed Traitor’s Gate, as Becket was seen to be a traitor to his king.

In the reign of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI, the chapel in the Pardon Churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was said to have contained the graves of Becket’s parents, was pulled down. In the later sixteenth century some of the civic ceremonies still used the rebuilt Mercers Hall, on the site of Becket’s birthplace, as a stage of processions, although all references to Becket were obliterated. The city’s pageants of Becket’s life and martyrdom were replaced with satirical plays such as John Bale’s King John which attacked Becket as a traitor.

As a result of the Reformation, and the focus of the reformers on stamping out Becket’s memory in London, his position as patron saint of the City and of a number of its important buildings were forgotten. Yet his cult and patronage had shaped the City during some of its most formative years, and left its mark even after his name and image had disappeared.


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.  


Most commonly used to signify Christians recognising the spiritual authority of the pope. 'Roman Catholic' can be used after about 1560. Technically, 'Catholic' means universal, and the creed recited by most Christians in this period affirms belief in 'the holy catholic church'. Thus, in theological terms, Protestants would also claim to be 'Catholic'.


Term originally applied to the German princes (followers of Martin Luther) who 'protested' against the Catholic Emperor Charles V's attempt to withdraw their religious privileges. By the mid-1550s in England, however, came to signify the whole group of Christians who had rejected virtually all aspects of late-medieval Catholicism, and who opposed the revived Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. Protestantism was an international movement with variant strands. All Protestants emphasised the religious authority of the Bible, and insisted that faith not 'good works' was the basis of salvation. Lutherans and Calvinists disagreed about the exact meaning of the communion service, and about the importance of the doctrine of predestination (the idea that God had long since decided which people were to be saved, and which damned in hell). In the later sixteenth century, most English Protestants were Calvinists. From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, Protestants in the Church of England who rejected Calvinism, and who accepted the utility of some religious ceremonies, can be described as 'Anglicans'. Since the sixteenth century, Protestantism has been the principal western European Christian alternative to Roman Catholicism. It has become increasingly widespread (in America, Australasia, Africa) and broadly based with evangelicals as one subset of the wider Protestant movement.  


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).  

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.