Murder In The Cathedral

Nicholas Orme

29 December 1170 saw the most infamous event in Canterbury Cathedral's history.
The murder of Becket
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On Tuesday afternoon, 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was hustled by his staff from his palace into his cathedral. There had been an angry exchange between him and four knights from the court of Henry II in France. Frustrated by the presence of his servants, the knights withdrew to get reinforcements. Their self-appointed mission was to force the archbishop to remove the penalties he had imposed on certain of Henry’s supporters and, if he refused, to arrest him. In the cathedral the monks were singing vespers. Becket stood by a pillar in the north transept, accompanied by his chaplain, Edward Grim. He had forbidden the cathedral doors to be closed, and the four knights and their retainers found him at about half past four. Again they demanded that he remove the penalties, and again he refused. They tried to seize him and he resisted. Then, while Hugh de Morville kept the spectators away, Reginald FitzUrse struck at him, cutting off the top of his head. William Tracy and Richard Brito joined in, the latter breaking his sword with the force of the blow. Becket fell and his blood and brains spilled on to the pavement.

Henry II

Thomas Becket had been a close friend of Henry, who had arranged his appointment as archbishop in 1162. Henry expected an ally in charge of the Church. Instead Becket made himself the champion of the Church’s claims against the king and became someone with whom it was impossible to compromise. When relations worsened in 1164, Becket went into exile in France and the king confiscated his lands. In May 1170 Henry had his eldest son Henry crowned as his successor, and since Becket was absent, the ceremony was done by other bishops. Later that year king and archbishop met and agreed to be reconciled. Henry extended his peace to Becket’s supporters and promised to restore his lands. Becket, who had imposed excommunications and suspensions on some of Henry’s side, did not reciprocate. Instead at the end of November, he returned to England where he prepared to take measures against the coronation bishops and even the prior and monks of his own cathedral. When his actions were reported to Henry’s court in France, there was general indignation. The king appointed the earl of Essex to lead a mission of remonstrance, but the four knights decided to go by themselves and, as fate would have it, they got to Canterbury before the earl.

Thomas was buried next day in a marble coffin in the cathedral crypt. No funeral was held because the spilling of blood rendered a church unconsecrated, and services had to be moved to the chapter house. Almost everyone who had dealt with Thomas found him exasperating, but equally many were shocked by the murder of the head of the English Church in his own cathedral. In the next few days local people – and eventually the monks – gathered up the blood and brains in cloths and a basin. On the following Monday, 4 January 1171, a miracle was claimed when contact with some of the blood apparently caused a poor local woman named Brithiva to recover her sight. During the next few months the miracles multiplied. At first they were confined to people from Kent, but by the summer they were spreading to London and to the Midlands as far north as Chester and Lincoln.

The miracles involved men, women, and children from the ranks of knights, citizens, and the poor, and brought about healing from blindness, dumbness, lameness, sicknesses of various kinds, and mental illness. The saint’s cult thus began as a medical one but it soon became political. Clergy could represent Thomas as a martyr for the liberties of the Church. Henry’s opponents in France including its king, Louis VII, could use the event to wrong-foot him. Accordingly Henry was forced to recognise the saint by going to Canterbury and being ceremonially scourged by the monks in front of the tomb. The cult then became a royal asset: an English possession that drew devotees from abroad. By 1300 the name ‘Thomas’ was even used in the royal family. Meanwhile, within three years, the saint was formally canonised on 21 February 1173.

If Becket had lived in 1070 or 1270, he would never have been murdered. The kings of these other years would have dealt with an archbishop before he became troublesome. The next bishop to be murdered in England, Walter Stapledon in 1326, was not canonised. And in 1405 another King Henry (IV) had the archbishop of York (Richard Scrope) beheaded. Which shows that to become famous you need to be in the right place at the right time!

Nicholas Orme is the author of The History of England’s Cathedrals, published by Yale University Press.