On the first day of winter in 1118 or 1120, Thomas Becket, future Archbishop of Canterbury whose brutal assassination shocked the medieval world, was born in Cheapside, London. Despite the name of the neighbourhood, his family was fairly well off; his father was a landowner who served as the sheriff of London for a time, and both Thomas’s parents were buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
As a young man, Thomas took a position in the household of Theobold of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was sent on several important missions to Rome. Thomas was also sent to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154, Thomas was made Archdeacon of Canterbury, and his skill and efficiency in this and other ecclesiastical posts led Theobald to recommend his appointment to the vacant Lord Chancellor’s post, the second highest ranking position in the kingdom. Becket was instated by King Henry II in 1155. In 1162, several months after Theobald’s death, Thomas was nominated for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. His election was confirmed on 23 May, a couple of weeks before he was even ordained a priest.
Almost immediately, a rift grew between Thomas and the king. Henry expected his new archbishop to continue finding ways to rake in money for the crown, but Thomas was taking his religious vows seriously and had started to become an ascetic. What’s more, Thomas believed secular courts should have no jurisdiction over English clergymen, and he sought to extend the rights of the archbishopric. Henry gathered most of the higher clergy at Clerendon Palace in January 1164, seeking less clerical independence and a weakened connection with Rome. He somehow managed to persuade all but Becket, though eventually even Thomas agreed to the substance of what became known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. He refused to sign the documents formally, however, and was summoned to appear before the council and answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. He was convicted and fled to the Continent, where he received protection from Louis VII of France. He remained in France for two years, threatening Henry with excommunication and interdict, until the pope finally sent in arbitrators in 1167, and again in 1170. On the second try, Henry offered a compromise that allowed Thomas to return to England.
In June 1170, Henry’s son, also Henry, was crowned the Young King at York (despite the fact that his father was still alive and continued to reign—this particular practice was common at the time). Thomas was not, as was his privilege, permitted to perform the coronation, and he retaliated by excommunicating the three clergymen who participated. He went on something of an excommunication rage against his enemies, finally getting old King Henry’s attention. Henry is said to have raged, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Unfortunately, a clutch of noblemen took him seriously, and Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Mornville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton set off to confront the Archbishop.
They arrived at Canterbury on 29 December 1170 and ordered Becket to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and headed towards the church for vespers. The four knights pulled out their weapons, caught up with him, and gruesomely killed him and desecrated the body by scattering his brains across the floor.
News of the murder spread quickly and became a huge scandal. Before long, Becket was being venerated as a martyr throughout Europe, and he was canonised just two years after his death. The king himself had to do public penance at Becket’s tomb as well as at the church of St Dunstan’s in order to help quell the Revolt of 1173-74. As reparation for the murder, Becket’s sister, Mary, was appointed Abbess of Barking Abbey.
The actual assassins fled to Knaresborough Castle, where they holed up for a year. They were never arrested or punished by the king for what they did, but the pope excommunicated them, which at the time was considered a particularly harsh punishment (essentially a one-way ticket to one of the worst parts of hell). They travelled to Rome to try and get themselves out of trouble, and the pope ordered them to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for 14 years.
Becket’s tomb became an important pilgrimage site (so famous, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is all about people going to visit it). That all came to an end when Henry VIII, who respected absolutely no one, had Becket’s tomb and remains destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, a lit candle marks the spot on the cathedral pavement where Becket’s shrine once stood.