Murder, Martyrdom and the Quest for Bones

Stained glass portrait of St Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Stained glass portrait of St Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0.

As the sun was setting late in December, four armed men strode through the Cathedral precincts determined to arrest one of the country’s most powerful men – or, at least, teach him a lesson. They had probably been drinking and the sound of their voices and heavy footsteps echoed around the silent cloisters. They tried the latch of a heavy wooden door, discovering, to their surprise that it had not been barred.

Pushing the door open, they blinked, their eyes adjusting to the gloom. Candles dripped pools of light onto the stone floor and tall shadows danced among the vaults and pillars. The vast interior echoed with the voices of monks who had been celebrating Vespers, their breath hanging on the icy air like smoke.

A solitary figure was standing by a pillar. He had met the four men earlier in the day, refusing to break off his conversation with another visitor or rise to greet the intruders. After a heated exchange, the men had been forced to leave by the man’s attendants. Thwarted, they had plotted to return later and resolve the matter.

Meanwhile, the object of their hostility had been ushered into the Cathedral for his own protection, his followers believing that he would be safe there.

But now he was alone and unprotected.

Once more, the men tried to take him prisoner, one trying to lift him from the ground and sling him over the back of another accomplice. The captive resisted, fighting back. An arm was raised. A blow was struck. Then another. The man fell to the ground, his skull slashed open, his brains spilling onto the icy stone floor.

On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, former Chancellor of England and erstwhile friend of the king, lay dead on the floor of the Cathedral. It was the end of a tumultuous career and the beginning of a legend.

Becket’s murder is so notorious that most of us assume that we know every detail. However, a closer examination of Becket’s life – and legacy – reveals some intriguing facts.

  • Becket was born in Cheapside, London, to Norman parents. His first language was French but his command of Latin – the language of bureaucracy, law and religion – was imperfect.
  • He loved hunting and hawking.
  • He initially earned his living keeping the accounts of a rich relation.
  • He became a favourite of King Henry II who appointed him Chancellor.
  • Becket participated in Henry’s military campaigns in France, taking an active part in the fighting and, on one occasion, commanding 700 knights.
  • Henry appointed Becket to the Archbishopric of Canterbury – an unpopular decision with both the English bishops and the monks of Canterbury, the latter regarding the election of the Archbishop as their prerogative.
  • Becket was not a priest when appointed to the See of Canterbury. He was ordained the day before his consecration as Archbishop.
  • He had a taste for the high life, accruing many wealthy livings. It was only after a meeting with the Pope that he became deeply committed to the Church, defending its rights and privileges against those of the State – a course of action that was to set him on a collision course with King Henry.
  • Henry II came to the throne after a period of civil war during which the rights of the crown had diminished while those of the Church had increased. He took particular exception to the fact that the Church protected ‘criminous clerks’ who would otherwise have been punished by secular courts.
  • Henry put Becket under pressure to agree to the Constitutions of Clarendon which sought to extend the Crown’s rights and privileges and redress the problem of criminal clergy. Becket initially agreed but later recanted.
  • Having incurred the King’s displeasure, Becket fled the country and lived on the Continent for four years, seeking the protection of both the Pope and King Louis of France, Henry’s rival.
  • Becket returned to England in 1170 but his truce with the King did not last. On Christmas Day, Becket excommunicated all those who had violated the rights of the Church. He also refused to lift sanctions against all those bishops who had supported the coronation of Henry’s younger son by the Archbishop of York, a ceremony usually performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Three of the bishops travelled to France where Henry was holding his Christmas court at Bayeux and complained of Becket’s conduct.
  • It is doubtful that Henry coined the famous phrase “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Rather, he is recorded as saying: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”
  • An official mission was sent to England to arrest Becket. The four knights responsible for his murder appear to have acted independently.
  • Becket died on 29 December 1170. The first miracle attributed to him was reported on 4 January 1171.
  • Becket was canonized in 1173 and his shrine became one of the most popular sites for pilgrimage in Europe, almost certainly inspiring Rochester Cathedral to ‘discover’ its own saint William of Perth.
  • Becket’s remains were originally laid in a marble sarcophagus in the Cathedral crypt. They were transferred to a magnificent shrine in the Trinity Chapel in 1220.
  • Louis VII of France visited Becket’s tomb in 1179. He donated the Regale de France, an enormous ruby, which was incorporated into the shrine and which, following the Dissolution in 1538, was turned into a thumb-ring for King Henry VIII.
  • Becket’s bones were reportedly destroyed during the Dissolution. However, in subsequent centuries stories arose of the bones being rediscovered, a subject covered in “The Quest for Becket’s Bones” a fascinating book by John Butler.
  • In 1990, two former Foreign Legionnaires were arrested in the precincts. They were charged with going equipped to burgle the Cathedral. They claimed that they intended to show that the tomb of the Huguenot Odet de Coligny was actually the resting place for Becket’s bones.

Additional reading

Thomas Becket Frank Barlow

The Quest for Becket’s Bones John Butler

The Plantagenets David Wilson

This entry was posted in Canterbury, Cathedrals, History, King Henry II, Plantagenets, Rochester, St Thomas Becket, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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