Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated on 29 December, 1170. He was almost immediately venerated as a martyr and, on 21 February, 1173, Pope Alexander III canonised him. From turbulent priest to Chaucer’s “holy blissful martir”, “stubborn man” to counter-culture agitator, Becket has been reinterpreted over the centuries to suit the purposes of the times. To mark the 850th anniversary of Becket’s death, Jemahl Evans, whose latest book retells his life as a warrior, clergyman and rebel, looks back on the reinventions of Thomas Becket.
The murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral was a seismic event that has resounded down the centuries. It had a direct and immediate impact on Henry II’s continental ambitions. Becket’s sacrifice was a victory in the wider struggle between church and state that would culminate in the supremacy of Pope Innocent III. Since 1170, the saint has continued to hold an interest as Thomas has been adopted and reinvented by successive generations.
After the murder, Henry would be forced to do humiliating penance for the words that sent his knights on a rampage, although he would always protest it was unintended. Of course, he also wasn’t above using Becket’s memory for his own purposes, once the meddlesome priest was actually out of the way. In 1174, Henry would claim success in putting down his sons’ revolt was because of his support for Becket’s cult.
By his death, Henry II was widely unpopular and again in open warfare with his sons; even John, Henry’s supposed favourite, deserted his father at the last to support Richard. The Lionheart’s long absence on crusade, however, left the Angevin Empire rudderless at home. The French crown gradually reasserted its authority over Angevin territory. Under Philip Augustus, the Capetians would rapidly retake much of France, and even Normandy (part of the English crown since 1066) was lost.
It was a complete reversal in dynastic fortunes: Henry II was mired in succession problems after Thomas’s death, while his rival (and Thomas’s ally) Louis VII’s childless years ended with the birth of a son. In succession, King John’s abject failure as a monarch contrasted with Philip Augustus’s unprecedented success. The point was not lost on the monkish chroniclers who despised and castigated John. Thomas Becket’s murder cast a long shadow over the Angevin and later Plantagenet kings.
The struggle between church and state was mirrored across Europe, in the Holy Roman Empire and France as well as in the fading Angevin Empire. The growth of national states and the nature of a transnational church would always cause friction, but this early phase was ultimately won by the Papacy. Thomas’s death was a major victory for Rome in that struggle.
The reign of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) saw the Papacy able to manipulate monarchs and unseat Emperors, and the Battle of Bouvines (1214) established the temporary supremacy of the Roman Church over the secular rulers of Europe. It would not last, as the slow development of national states continued regardless, but it is not hard to draw a direct line from Thomas Becket’s murder to the defeat of King John and his German allies 44 years later.
The consecration of Becket’s shrine in 1220 was Archbishop Stephen Langton’s triumph. Langton had been a leader of resistance to John, and the dispute over his election to Canterbury had ended with England placed under Papal interdict and ultimately in Magna Carta. Langton would spend the first years after his election in exile, just like Thomas. However, John’s catastrophic reign (and it was catastrophic, despite some valid revisionism), put the seal on England’s continental ambitions for a generation.
Henry III would prove more pious and malleable than his father, grandfather, or paternal uncles, and would closely associate himself and the now English Plantagenet dynasty with Becket’s growing cult. For the rest of the medieval period, English monarchs made a point to venerate the saint’s cult and increasingly wealthy shrine in Canterbury.
It would be another royal Henry who flipped Becket’s reputation on its head. Henry VIII was caught up in his messy first divorce, and saw Becket as a symbol of Papist power. In 1538, he issued a proclamation that Thomas Becket was no saint, his shrine was to be broken up and sold off, and his bones burnt and discarded. The proclamation described Thomas as a traitor who had defiled Henry II’s honour. The amount of gold bullion, and gemstones retrieved when the shrine was destroyed was estimated at £1 million – perhaps four hundred times that today. Saint-smashing was very lucrative business under the Tudor monarch.
The Pope finally excommunicated Henry VIII after hearing about the shrine’s despoiling, but Thomas’s reputation would not be rehabilitated under successive Tudor monarchs, who brushed off repeated excommunications and multiple catholic martyrdoms. The saint’s image was quietly removed from the Seal of London in 1539, and in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), Becket was described as: “not a Martyr, but a stubborn man against his King”.
During the Enlightenment and Victorian period, Becket’s legacy still had that Tudor cloud over him. Henry II was increasingly viewed as an architect of the English state, and Thomas as dogmatically holding back progress. David Hume (1711–1776) would criticise his stubbornness and see his martyrdom as an essential step on the way to modern England.
In the 20th century, Thomas was rehabilitated in film and books. TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral began the process for many in the 1930s, with Becket as the poetic martyr sacrificing himself for his loyal congregation. The Oscar winning film Becket (1964), starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, cast Thomas erroneously as a Saxon commoner resisting Norman power, whilst reflecting 1960s counter-cultural ideals of resistance to the state.
This ability to project onto Becket’s life has become part of his story. Henry II shamelessly started that process in 1171, and it continues to this day. Kay Slocum recently described him as a “kaleidoscopic personality” whose life can be seen in so many ways it’s become part of his enduring legacy. Having spent a lot of time with Thomas over the last year or so, I think he would be quite pleased with that reputation.
Jemahl Evans is the author of the critically acclaimed Blandford Candy series set during the 17th century. His latest novel, Becket: A Turbulent Priest, is published by Sharpe Books and available on kindle and print, and audiobook narrated by Bill Allender.
Find out more about A Turbulent Priest.
Slocum KB (2018). The Cult of Thomas Becket: History and Historiography through Eight Centuries. London, Routledge.
The murder of Thomas Becket, detail from reliquary, Limoges (early 13th century): Musée de Cluny via Wikimedia
Henry II and his children, from the roll of the genealogical line from Stephen to John and his descendants (early 14th century): British Library via Wikimedia
Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, miniature from English psalter (c1250): Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia
Thomas Becket faces King Henry II in a dispute, from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle of England (early 14th century): British Library via Wikimedia