Archbishop of Canterbury: Thomas Becket

Archbishop of Canterbury: Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury and got killed at the end of 1170 - his death is still to this day one of the most well known associated stories with Medieval England.

The Church in Medieval England had great power and people’s worst fear was going to Hell - the Catholic Church told them they were the only way for souls to be saved and enter into Heaven. The head of the Catholic Church was the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury was the church’s most significant position as he usually worked with the king.

A pope could not be removed from his position by an English king, but popes said they were able to remove a king through excommunication - where the king’s soul was condemned to hell so people could freely disobey him.

England did not need to choose between obeying the king or pope - this was not in fact an issue as kings and popes would normally act jointly since both of them wanted to remain powerful. They disagreed just two times over Thomas Becket and Henry VIII.

Stained glass window image of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral
Stained glass window image of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

While Henry II was England’s king in 1162, he appointed Thomas Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury which was recognised as England’s most important religious role. Since Henry and Thomas were known to be very good friends this was not a surprising choice. Both of them enjoyed pastimes like hunting, playing jokes and general socialising with each other. Becket enjoyed wine and was very skilled at horse riding, while Henry II also liked riding but he struggled with a bad temper. He attempted to control it by working hard since it acted as a distraction from situations which might spark his anger.

William the Conqueror was Henry II’s great-grandfather so he inherited his territories in France. While he was dealing with problems in France, William made Becket oversee England as he had so much faith in him, and Becket became chancellor to Henry - this was seen as England’s highest ranking role, second only to the king.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury passed away in 1162, Henry viewed it as a way of assigning even more power to his close friend by making him the new Archbishop - the most important church position in England.

The church had its own courts during Henry’s reign and any members had the decision to be tried in a court of the church instead of a royal one. Church court punishments were normally more simple but Henry saw this as undermining his authority - as king he was concerned that England was not lawful enough because of the amount of crime. Henry believed church courts did not act appropriately enough by being too gentle on the offenders - e.g. a royal court would be prepared to blind a thief or cut their hand off, but a church court may have sent them on a pilgrimage.

Henry was hoping for more input within the way the church punished offenders if he made Thomas Becket, his close friend, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry wanted Becket to be in agreement with his ideas, increasing the strictness of the sentences passed by church courts.

Becket did not actually want to step into the role as his chancellor position had already made him very powerful, and the fact that he had a very close relationship with Henry and did not want anything to affect it. Upon being offered the Archbishop position he actually wrote to Henry that ‘our friendship will turn to hate, but Henry kept persuading him until he finally agreed in 1162.

The Archbishop post changed Becket’s life of luxury - he ate bread and drank water, chose to sleep on the floor rather than his luxury bed, wore the rich clothes of an archbishop but underneath had horsehair tunics that were uncomfortable and itchy, and gave his expensive food to the poor.

Henry and Thomas first looked set to split in 1164 once Henry declared a law that anyone found guilty in a church court would face punishment from a royal court. Becket refused and escaped abroad just to keep safe since he knew of Henry’s bad temper.

It was six years later before Becket felt he could safely return back to England. The pair soon fell out once more when Becket requested that the Pope would excommunicate the Archbishop of York as he had joined sides with the king. For someone who claimed he was only loyal to the king, this was a serious request and would be severely punished. When Henry found out he was very angry and is said to have shouted "will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?"

He was overheard by four knights called Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton and they assumed he wanted Becket dead, so rode out to kill him in Canterbury. Becket was killed by them on 29 December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral and one of the knights said afterwards:

"Let us away. He will rise no more."

Locals came into Canterbury cathedral when Becket’s body still lay on the floor, and they took off strips of his clothes to dip in his blood as they had the belief it would grant them luck and protect them from evil.

Becket’s death spot soon became a pilgrimage destination and the pope made him a saint soon afterwards. Henry II asked to be forgiven by the pope and began a journey to Canterbury barefooted in order to pray at the spot where Becket died whilst monks whipped him.

Valuables were left by locals at the place where Becket died and it became his shrine. People believed it cured them of disease and sickness when they visited. No person felt brave enough to touch the valuables left there until the monasteries and churches were closed down by Henry VIII and retrieved any valuables he chose. A total of 21 carts were needed to remove them all from Canterbury Cathedral.

See also: Henry VIII

MLA Citation/Reference

"Archbishop of Canterbury: Thomas Becket". 2015. Web.

Key facts

Name: Thomas Becket
Birth Date: 21 December 1118 or 1120
Death: 29 December 1170
Buried: Canterbury Cathedral
Key role: Archbishop of Canterbury between 1162 - 1170
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