The Death of Thomas Becket


A Stained Glass Window in Canterbury Cathedral depicts the murder of Saint Thomas.

On 29th December 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights inside Canterbury Cathedral.

The son of a successful London merchant, Thomas Becket was born in Normandy in 1118. Thanks to his father’s wealth, Thomas received a good education in Paris and soon became an agent to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him on several missions to Rome.

As he was working with one of the most influential religious figures in the kingdom, Becket was soon noticed by King Henry II. Impressed by his abilities, Henry made Thomas his chancellor, and they became good friends. When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry appointed Becket to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury on 2nd June 1162.

Once Thomas had reached such high status in the English church he transformed himself from the fun loving courtier that had been such good friends with the king, into a serious cleric. It was not long before their friendship began to feel the strain, when Becket began to side with the church rather than purely support the decisions of the king.

By 1164, Becket’s disagreements with the Crown had become so serious that he was forced to flee into exile in France. It wasn’t until 1170 that Thomas and Henry II resolved their differences, and on 30th November 1170 he dared to return to Canterbury. His reunion with his cathedral was short lived however, for Henry II discovered that while Becket had been in France he had excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for their support of the king. Thomas refused to reverse the excommunication and King Henry, who was still in France, is reputed to have gone into a terrible rage, shouting, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest.”

Misunderstanding these words as orders from King Henry II, four of his trusted knights murdered Becket behind the altar of his cathedral on 29th December. Horrified by the cleric’s death and fearful of divine retribution, the king didn’t intervene when Thomas Becket was made a saint in 1173. A year later in an act of penance, Henry II put on a sack-cloth and walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him with branches, before spending the night in the martyr’s crypt.

To this day, the death of St Thomas Becket remains one of the most notorious murders in English history, and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral is still an important focus for religious pilgrimage.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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