Thomas Becket

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...the impious knight... suddenly set upon him and [shaved] off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God... Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow... his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church... The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights... placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, "We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again." [17]

Another account appears in Expugnatio Hibernica ("Conquest of Ireland", 1189) by Gerald of Wales. [18]

An ivory piece portraying the knights involved in Becket's assassination. One knight holds an axe with which to break down the door of the Cathedral. Ivory carving St. Thomas a Becket.jpg
An ivory piece portraying the knights involved in Becket's assassination. One knight holds an axe with which to break down the door of the Cathedral.

After Becket's death

After his death, the monks prepared Becket's body for burial. [1] According to some accounts, it was found that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop's garments — a sign of penance. [19] Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and on 21 February 1173 – little more than two years after his death – he was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St Peter's Church, Segni. [1] In 1173, Becket's sister Mary was appointed Abbess of Barking as reparation for the murder of her brother. [20] On 12 July 1174, amidst the Revolt of 1173–74, Henry humbled himself in public penance at Becket's tomb and at the church of St. Dunstan's, which became a most popular pilgrimage site.

Becket's assassins fled north to de Morville's Knaresborough Castle for about a year. De Morville also held property in Cumbria and this too may have provided a hiding place, as the men prepared for a longer stay in the separate kingdom of Scotland. They were not arrested and Henry did not confiscate their lands, but he did not help them when they sought his advice in August 1171. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome, where the Pope ordered them to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of 14 years. [21]

This sentence also inspired the Knights of Saint Thomas, incorporated in 1191 at Acre, and which was to be modelled on the Teutonic Knights. This was the only military order native to England (with chapters in not only Acre, but London, Kilkenny, and Nicosia), just as the Gilbertine Order was the only monastic order native to England. Henry VIII dissolved both of these during the Reformation, rather than merging them with foreign orders or nationalising them as elements of the Protestant Church of England.

The monks were afraid Becket's body might be stolen, and so his remains were placed beneath the floor of the eastern crypt of the cathedral. [21] A stone cover over it had two holes where pilgrims could insert their heads and kiss the tomb, [1] as illustrated in the "Miracle Windows" of the Trinity Chapel. A guard chamber (now the Wax Chamber) had a clear view of the grave. In 1220, Becket's bones were moved to a new gold-plated, bejewelled shrine behind the high altar in the Trinity Chapel. [22] The shrine was supported by three pairs of pillars on a raised platform with three steps. This is shown in one of the miracle windows. Canterbury's religious history had always brought many pilgrims, and after Becket's death the numbers rapidly rose further.

Cult in the Middle Ages


Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket Murder.JPG
One of the earliest known depictions of Becket's assassination, c.1175–1225
Church Latin Church
See Canterbury
Appointed24 May 1162
Term ended29 December 1170
Predecessor Theobald of Bec
Successor Roger de Bailleul (Archbishop-elect)
Ordination2 June 1162
Consecration3 June 1162
by  Henry of Blois
Personal details
Born21 December c.1119
Died29 December 1170 (aged 50 or 51)
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, Kingdom of England
BuriedCanterbury Cathedral
Denomination Catholicism
  • Gilbert Beket
  • Matilda
Previous post(s)
Coat of arms BecketArms.svg
Feast day29 December
Venerated in
Beatifiedby  Pope Alexander III
Canonized21 February 1173
by Pope Alexander III
ShrinesCanterbury Cathedral
Cult suppressed1538 (by Henry VIII)
Lord Chancellor
In office
St Thomas Becket's consecration, death and burial, at wall paintings in Santa Maria de Terrassa (Terrassa, Catalonia, Spain), romanesque frescoes, c. 1180 158 Santa Maria de Terrassa, cicle de Tomas Becket.jpg
St Thomas Becket's consecration, death and burial, at wall paintings in Santa Maria de Terrassa (Terrassa, Catalonia, Spain), romanesque frescoes, c. 1180
Candle marking the former spot of the shrine of Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury - Ehemaliger Standort des Schreins von Thomas Becket.jpg
Candle marking the former spot of the shrine of Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral

In Scotland, King William the Lion ordered the building of Arbroath Abbey in 1178. On completion in 1197 the new foundation was dedicated to Becket, whom the king had known personally while at the English court as a young man.

On 7 July 1220, the 50th jubilee year of his death, Becket's remains were moved from his first tomb to a shrine in the recently built Trinity Chapel. [1] This translation was "one of the great symbolic events in the life of the medieval English Church", attended by King Henry III, the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton and many dignitaries and magnates secular and ecclesiastical.

Fresco depicting the murder of Thomas Becket, on the left is the figure of Saint Lanfranco in act of blessing. Church of San Lanfranco, Pavia Martirio di Thomas Becket - chiesa di San Lanfranco.jpg
Fresco depicting the murder of Thomas Becket, on the left is the figure of Saint Lanfranco in act of blessing. Church of San Lanfranco, Pavia

So a "major new feast day was instituted, commemorating the translation... celebrated each July almost everywhere in England and in many French churches." [24] It was suppressed in 1536 with the Reformation. [25]

The shrine was destroyed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries on orders from King Henry VIII. [1] [26] He also destroyed Becket's bones and ordered all mention of his name obliterated. [26] [27]

As the scion of a mercantile dynasty of later centuries, Mercers, Becket was much regarded as a Londoner by citizens and adopted as London's co-patron saint with St Paul: both appear on the seals of the city and of the Lord Mayor. The Bridge House Estates seal has only a Becket image, while his martyrdom shown on the reverse.

The cult included the drinking of "water of Saint Thomas", a mix of water and the remains of the martyr's blood miraculously multiplied. The procedure was frowned upon by the more orthodox, due to the similarities with the eucharist of the blood of Jesus. [28]

Local legends regarding Becket arose after his canonisation. Though they tend towards typical hagiography, they also display Becket's well-known gruffness. "Becket's Well", in Otford, Kent, is said to have been created after Becket had been displeased by the taste of the local water. Two springs of clear water are said to have bubbled up after he struck the ground with his crozier. The absence of nightingales in Otford is also ascribed to Becket, who is said to have been so disturbed in his devotions by the song of a nightingale and commanded that none sing in the town ever again. In the town of Strood, Kent, Becket is said to have caused the inhabitants and their descendants to be born with tails. The men of Strood had sided with the king in his struggles against the archbishop, and to demonstrate their support had cut off the tail of Becket's horse as he passed through the town.

The saint's fame quickly spread through the Norman world. The first holy image of Becket is thought to be a mosaic icon still visible in Monreale Cathedral in Sicily, created shortly after his death. Becket's cousins obtained refuge at the Sicilian court during their exile, and King William II of Sicily wed a daughter of Henry II. Marsala Cathedral in western Sicily is dedicated to Becket. Over 45 medieval chasse reliquaries decorated in champlevé enamel showing similar scenes from Becket's life survive, including the Becket Casket, constructed to hold relics of him at Peterborough Abbey and now housed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.


See also

Explanatory notes

  1. The name "Thomas à Becket" is not contemporary. It appears to be a post-Reformation creation, possibly modelled on Thomas à Kempis. [2]
  2. There is a legend that claims Thomas's mother was a Saracen princess who met and fell in love with his English father while he was on Crusade or pilgrimage in the Holy Land, followed him home, was baptised and married him. This story has no truth to it, being a fabrication from three centuries after the saint's martyrdom, inserted as a forgery into Edward Grim's 12th-century Life of St Thomas. [5] [6] Matilda is occasionally known as Rohise. [1]

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Further reading



Political offices
Preceded by Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by