Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was the sidekick of the king. What changed, asks Ettie Neil-Gallacher

The shrine of Thomas Becket was the most popular pilgrimage destination in England until the Reformation, and his murder just after Christmas was a medieval shock. Yet prior to this he was sidekick of the king, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher. So what, exactly, happened?

For more, what can be discovered when your mind wanders wickedly from the sermon? Read royal coat of arms: spotted nave gazing to find out. And for many, a darkened cathedral and boy’s treble solo is the true start of Christmas. Read cathedral choirs: sweet singing in the choir.


The murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the cathedral, just after Christmas, was the medieval equivalent of the assassination of JFK. It sent shock waves across the country and further afield. Small wonder then that his shrine became the most popular pilgrimage destination in England until the Reformation, and that his story has gone on to inspire poems, plays, paintings and books – even an opera.

Thomas Becket. Canterbury

The Archbishop’s marder at the hands of four knights, at Canterbury Cathedral.

The story that persists in the public imagination – of knights responding to a disgruntled monarch’s despairing lament by slaying the meddlesome cleric at the high altar on Christmas Day – isn’t entirely apocryphal. Indeed, one of the reasons it persists is its perennial popularity with writers. It was embedded in the canon of our literature in the 14th century by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and it has been trawled over on stage and screen, most famously in the 20th century by TS Eliot in his verse drama Murder in the Cathedral.

But the legend we’re all familiar with omits key political, ecclesiastical and personal details that give context. There was little about Becket’s background to suggest he would ascend to the realms of sainthood and contemporary celebrity. Born in London in 1120 to well-connected but neither rich nor powerful French immigrant parents, he studied firstly at Merton Priory and then in Paris. He then got a job through those family connections working for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec. Becket, quick-witted and agreeable, impressed his new employer, who duly recommended him to Henry II for the post of Lord Chancellor in 1155, and he swiftly made himself indispensable to the king by securing his traditional sources of revenue. Becket “showed to the full his brilliant abilities, razing castles, repairing the Tower of London, conducting embassies, and raising and leading troops in war,” according to Professor Michael David Knowles.

Thomas Becket. Pilgrims

Pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury Cathedral.

The king and the cleric became close, “hunting, gaming and travelling around Europe together”, according to Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, curators at the British Museum, where an exhibition on Thomas Becket to mark his 850th anniversary is currently on hold. Knowles speculates that Becket’s efficiency and intelligence would have been a welcome contrast to the thuggish and difficult barons, and that Becket may have enjoyed moving in social circles he wasn’t born to.

Becket certainly enjoyed the high life, and was hugely indulgent in many regards, decorating lavishly, partying hard and sailing to France on his own ships. Knowles notes that he “gave with prodigality and acted with panache”. But sources agree that his behaviour diverged from Henry’s in one particular regard: the former always took his vow of chastity seriously. Perhaps this should have alerted Henry to the fact that Becket wasn’t all parties and no piety.


But it didn’t. Small wonder, then, that when Theobald died, Becket was proposed to take his place. It would be a mistake, however, to think this was simply Henry promoting a pal. Professor Anne Duggan points out, “the friendship was very unequal: it was on the king’s terms and he had appointed his Chancellor as Archbishop of Canterbury to increase his direct power over the Church, with Thomas as his catspaw”. Henry resented the independent machinations of the Church, which had its own legal system, and whose loyalty to God and the Pope came before loyalty to the Crown. Henry wanted more control over the Church, though Knowles cautions that this wasn’t for enlightened reasons so much as authoritarian ones. Duggan agrees: “Henry ruled by force and fear.”

Thomas Becket. Chester

A stained-glass window in the cloisters at Chester Cathedral depicting St Thomas and King Henry II.

Henry hadn’t anticipated the effect this appointment would have on his wingman. Becket had an almost Damascene conversion, from party-loving loyalist to devout ascetic, upon his consecration in 1162. “When Thomas refused to discharge the role that Henry had created, the king’s fury was all the greater; and that fury never subsided,” summarises Duggan. Becket resigned the Lord Chancellorship and set about re-estabilishing and even extending the jurisdiction of the Archbishopric. This precipitated years of wrangling over the primacy of Church versus State, and matters came to a head with the Constitutions of Clarendon, which sought to stem ecclesiastical privilege and curb the authority of church courts and papal authority. Henry II wanted to reassert the royal authority weakened under his predecessor, King Stephen. Becket intimated that he would agree but instead appealed to the Pope.

Henry was furious and summoned Becket to trial. Becket fled to France, where he was protected by Louis VII and supported by the Pope. He spent six years in exile, living simply. Overtures to resolve the impasse were made but came to naught: Henry and Becket traded property seizures and exiled relations for excommunication threats. The final act of provocation was Henry having his son crowned co-king by the Archbishop of York in flagrant disregard for the sole right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to perform this task. Becket excommunicated all those involved, which frightened Henry politically. An entente was reached, Becket agreed to return but dug his heels in by not rescinding some of the excommunications.


At this point, Henry uttered the oft-quoted line: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” While doubt has been cast as to its accuracy, there is little doubt as to what happened next: four knights headed for Canterbury to tackle Becket. He refused their demands, they reached for their weapons and followed him into the cathedral. There is more than one eyewitness account of what happened but that of Edward Grim, a visiting monk, is particularly evocative (and is the one Eliot drew on heavily when writing Murder in the Cathedral). His testimony – written several years after the event and in the full flush of the cult that grew up around Becket – attests to defenceless Becket’s readiness to die for his faith, and to the merciless behaviour of the knights who fell on him and finally “scattered his brain and blood” about by standing on his neck.

Within days, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage and he was canonised within three years (speedy even by medieval standards). Henry sought public absolution by paying penance. Churches were dedicated to Becket and he was immortalised in statues and illuminations. His shrine was one of Europe’s foremost and people – such as Chaucer’s pilgrims – travelled from far and wide, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when “Henry VIII despoiled his shrine, burned his bones and erased his name from all service books. Thenceforth, Thomas was a hero to Catholics and a traitor to Protestants” (Knowles).

Thomas Becket. Lithograph

Lithograph depicting St Thomas Becket.

But a fundamental question remains: did Becket deserve the adulation that has been heaped upon him for centuries? Knowles points out that doubt has been cast on the blamelessness of his character: “Impressed by the legal and administrative reforms of Henry II, [modern historians] have seen Thomas as an ambitious and fanatical nuisance”, who was both stubborn and changeable, having previously been decidedly unpriestlike in his behaviour.

But this all happened decades before the Magna Carta enshrined any checks on the king’s power. Knowles concedes that “his courage and sincerity cannot be doubted”, and Duggan argues that Becket was “heroic” in standing up to his assassins, knowing he was going to die but dying in the knowledge his martyrdom would enable him to intercede for the people. Such ideas may have fallen out of fashion but the symbol of Becket, defenceless, standing up to evil, surely still resonates today.


While St Thomas Becket is perhaps our best-known medieval saint, there are plenty of others who made tremendous sacrifices, had miraculous experiences and then met grisly ends. Here’s The Field’s, entirely subjective, top five medieval British saints.

Thomas Becket. St Martin

Thomas Becket and St Martin, by Timoteo Viti.

St Robert of Knaresborough: a celebrity hermit who championed the downtrodden and dispossessed. Displaying little respect for authority, he made the infamously short-tempered King John wait until he’d finished his prayers when he made one of several visits to his cave by the River Nidd, where he lived on a diet of water, herbs and roots. When a local noble mocked him for complaining that the king’s deer were eating his crops, Robert herded them like tame beasts and put them to work. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb to be healed by the medicinal oil which flowed from it after his death.

St William of Perth: this 12th-century martyr is the patron saint of adopted children, though they don’t come out of the story very well. He found a child on the steps of the church and took him in, teaching him his trade as a baker. William took David the Foundling to the Holy Places, first Rochester and then the plan was to go to Canterbury. However, David double-crossed him, killing him in order to rob him. The legend reports that a local lunatic found the body and made a garland for his head, which she then placed on her own, whereupon her sanity was restored.

Sir John Schorne: while never technically canonised, Buckinghamshire cleric Schorne was a devout figure and doubtless popular with medieval bon viveurs suffering with gout, for whom he performed a large number of miracles. He was also adept at curing toothache. Legend tells that he once cast the devil into a boot and he is often depicted thus; there is an idea that this is where jack-in-the-box toys have their origin.

St Kenelm: a boy king, slain by his ambitious sister’s lover during a hunting trip. Kenelm was warned of his impending doom in a dream when he lay down to nap, and reprimanded his assassin telling him that he was to be killed elsewhere. As proof, he drove his rod into the ground and it immediately took root and flowered and in time became known as St Kenelm’s Ash. As he died, his soul rose in the form of a dove carrying a scroll and flew to Rome where the gruesome tale was relayed to the Pope, who contacted the Archbishop of Canterbury about it and a search party was duly put out to find the body. When his body was lifted up, a spring burst forth with health-giving properties. His sister, who had assumed the throne, ridiculed the story when she was told of her brother’s death, saying: “If that be true, may both my eyes fall out upon this book”, whereupon her eyeballs rolled out into her psalter.

St Cuthbert: one of the foremost Anglo-Saxon saints, Cuthbert was a monk at Melrose and Lindisfarne, a bishop and a hermit. He knew he was being called when he saw a light descend to earth and rise back up taking a soul with it the night that Aidan, the founder and first bishop of Lindisfarne, died. Possessing the gifts of healing and second sight, after he died various miracles were attributed to him. When his body was dug up it was found to be uncorrupted. His shrine was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monastries but his relics remain.