December 29 is the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, the great English martyr. Becket was murdered in 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II of England. Becket had once been Chancellor of the realm and a supporter of Henry, whom the king had elevated to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The appointment backfired on Henry, however, as Becket swiftly came into conflict with the king over the rights of the Church.
After Becket excommunicated several of Henry’s supporters in the winter of 1170, King Henry, from his castle at Bur in Bayeaux, France, expressed his desire that someone would rid him of his meddlesome opponent. Four of Henry’s vassals—the knights William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, and Richard le Bret—took the king at his word, and, making their way to Canterbury, confronted Becket and murdered him in the cathedral on the night of December 29. Becket was later canonized as a martyr, becoming one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. King Henry II was compelled to do public penance for the killing by being scourged at Becket’s tomb.
Such is the story most of us are familiar with. There is, however, much more to the tale of St. Thomas Becket, much of which you may not be familiar with. In a story as popular as Becket’s it is inevitable that much has been obscured by legend, hagiography, and even Hollywood. In this article, we will set the record straight with six things you likely didn’t know about St. Thomas Becket.
1. Becket Was Not a Layman When He Was Appointed Archbishop
There is a common misconception that St. Thomas Becket ascended to the Archiepiscopal throne immediately from the lay state. This no doubt reflects the influence of the popular 1964 film Becket starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. In the movie, Thomas Becket (Burton) is depicted as a layman and companion of King Henry II (O’Toole). In order to consolidate his control over the Church, King Henry proposes making his layman buddy into the Archbishop of Canterbury.
While this certainly adds to the dramatic narrative of the film, it is unhistorical. In reality, St. Thomas Becket had already entered Holy Orders before filling any secular office. He had spent some time at the cathedral school of St. Paul’s as a young man and also did a year at the University of Paris, where he would have certainly taken Minor Orders. In 1154 he entered Major Orders with his ordination to the diaconate and was created Archdeacon of Canterbury by Theobald of Bec, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. As archdeacon, St. Thomas was the highest cleric in the diocesan government outside the archbishop himself. Becket held this position for eight years before he was elevated to the Archiepiscopate upon Theobald’s death, so he was hardly a layman at the time of his appointment.
2. It Was a Bishop Who First Suggested Killing Becket
We know that the four knights who killed St. Thomas Becket did so after King Henry II, in a paroxysm of rage, exclaimed, “Won’t someone rid me of this troublesome priest?” There is considerable dispute over Henry’s actual words, but every source agrees that he made some comment to this effect, which prompted Fitzurse, Tracy, Moreville, and le Bret to go kill the archbishop. What is not so well-known is that it was actually a bishop who first planted the idea of killing Becket in the king’s mind.
As King Henry brooded about his French castle of Bur over the Christmas holiday, he frequently queried his vassals about how to handle the Becket situation. In his company were many knights and nobles, but also three English archbishops, those of York, London, and Salisbury, all of whom considered themselves Becket’s opponents. After discussing the matter at length, the Archbishop of York, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, said to Henry, “Ask counsel from your barons and knights; it is not for us to say what must be done,” then pausing for dramatic effect, the prelate added, “as long as Thomas lives, you will have neither good days, nor peaceful kingdom, nor quiet life.” It was this comment which threw King Henry into the fury wherein he uttered his famous line. Archbishop Roger hated Becket; the saint had excommunicated him earlier that month for participating in what Becket believed to be an illicit coronation of Henry’s son. Roger’s words were clearly meant to plant the idea of assassination in Henry’s mind without calling for it directly.
3. King Henry Tried to Stop the Knights Who Went to Kill Becket
The exact culpability of King Henry II in Becket’s murder has long been disputed, going right back to the time of the killing. When Henry muttered his famous line, “Won’t someone rid me of this troublesome priest?” (or some variant thereof) what did he really mean? Was he really pleading with his retainers to go murder the problematic archbishop? Or was he merely venting his frustration in emotive hyperbole?
A strong argument can be made that Henry did not, in fact, intend for anyone to harm Becket. Evidence for this is in the behavior of the king and the four knights after their departure from Henry’s court at Bur. While making their way to the coast to sail for Canterbury, the four knights split up and took four separate routes. If they considered themselves to be carrying out the king’s will, why would they have taken the precaution of traveling separately? Presumably they feared Henry would suspect their motive and try to stop them, which in fact he did. As soon as Henry realized the four knights had departed, he swiftly dispatched three couriers to intercept them and bring them back to Bur. The three couriers were unable to find them, however, and arrived at the coast after the four had already crossed the Channel. This suggests that Henry either never meant to go through with killing Becket or had thought better of it, since he attempted to halt the knights from crossing back to England.
4. The Knights Did Not Intend to Kill Becket at First
Though the four knights came to Canterbury fully armed and prepared for violence, it appears that killing Becket was not their initial plan of action. When they first arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, they left their weapons outside, going in merely to talk with Becket—a strange course of action for anyone bent on assassination!
Their first encounter with Becket was during dinner, but the conversation went poorly and got heated, and they went out to retrieve their weapons. Even then, it does not seem that murder was their intent, but rather kidnapping. When they accosted Becket again, they exclaimed, “Come with us—you are our prisoner!” and attempted to carry him off forcibly. They even attempted to place him upon their shoulders to haul him away! Their plan seems to have been to drag him over to France to hand over to King Henry. It was only when Becket resisted that they began striking him with their weapons, subsequently killing him.
5. Becket Was Killed in a Tussle
Hagiography has depicted Becket docile and passive, hands folded in prayer, being stabbed from behind. This is far from the truth. In reality, Becket died in the midst of a tussle.
Being resolved to kidnap Becket, the knights tried dragging him forcibly from the chapel. One of them, Reginald Fitzurse, grabbed Becket by the cloak. Becket wrenched his cloak from the man’s grasp, calling Fitzurse a “detestable fellow.” The other knights piled on, attempting to pick Becket up and put him on Hugh de Tracy’s shoulders so he could be carried off. Becket fought vehemently, saying he would never be parted from his church, and pounded his fists against the man, causing them both to fall to the pavement. Becket called them “wretches” and shouted that he must not be touched, after which, in fury, Fitzurse swung his blade at Becket’s head, taking off his cap. The other knights followed, striking Becket mortally multiple times. Becket commended his life to God, St. Denis, and St. Alfege before expiring. He was anything but passive at the moment of his martyrdom; rather, we see him killed in a struggle with his attackers, who seemed bent on kidnapping him at first.
6. Becket Was Not Killed Praying at the Altar
St. Thomas Becket was killed during the liturgical office of Vespers. It is common in hagiography therefore to depict St. Thomas Becket praying at the altar at the time of his martyrdom. This is historically inaccurate. Becket was not killed at the altar of Canterbury. Rather, he was murdered standing in front of a pillar at the base of a staircase in the transept of a side altar dedicated to St. Benedict. Becket confronted his murderers before this pillar; here he tussled with Tracy and Fitzurse, and here he was struck down. The confusion over the location of his death is due to the fact that, years after his martyrdom, the chapel was renovated, and an altar erected at the spot of his murder. This led future generations of pilgrims to assume that Becket was killed at the altar, when in fact the altar was intentionally placed on the site of Becket’s martyrdom after the fact.
A Great Resource on Becket
If you found any of this interesting, you might want to check out The Murder of Becket and the Canterbury Shrine by Arthur Penrhyn Stanely (Cruachan Hill Press, 2022), from which I drew the material for this article. This is an older book, written in the 19th century by an English scholar during the height of the historical revival of the Victorian era. I was privileged to edit and layout a new hardcover edition from Cruachan Hill Press, that this gem of scholarship should not be lost to today’s audience. Beginning only a month before Becket’s death, the book reads like a 12th century true crime story, taking the reader through the last days and hours of Becket’s life in extreme detail. It also contains fascinating sections on the fate of Becket’s murderers and the history of the Canterbury shrine that emerged as part of Becket’s growing cultus. With an original introduction by Ryan Grant, The Murder of Becket and the Canterbury Shrine is a must-have for anyone interested in the life of the great English martyr. St. Thomas Becket, ora pro nobis!
Image: Master Francke, “Saint Thomas of Canterbury”, c. 1424 (photo in Public Domain)