The Murder of Archbishop Becket

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William & Mary

On December 29 in the year 1170, Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry II, was murdered by four knights in a cathedral. How did this startling crime come about? And what role did King Henry II play—intentionally or unintentionally?

Cooper memorial Window, St Peter’s Berkhamsted by Nathaniel Westlake, in memory of industrialist William Cooper (1813-1885). St Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.
19th-century depiction of St Thomas Becket, showing a sword piercing his head. (Image: Photographed by Cnbrb/Public domain)

During the 1150s, Henry Plantagenet acquired a vast conglomeration of lands prior to his coronation as King Henry II in 1154. Henry II had a long reign. He died in 1189—with 35 years on the throne—and was, in certain respects, quite a successful ruler. He had come to the throne after almost 20 years of civil war between his mother, Matilda, and King Stephen of England, and he succeeded in undoing much of the damage that had been done to the country during that war. His innovations in royal justice laid the groundwork for English common law, in many respects. But his long reign was not without major problems.

Appointing a New Archbishop

One of his major problems was bad family relationships. He did not get along particularly well with Eleanor of Aquitaine later in their marriage, and his sons were frequently in a state of rebellion against him. The first rebellion began in 1173, and at the time of his death in 1189, he was at war with his own son, Richard the Lionheart, who was about to become the next king of England.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Perhaps of greater importance than his wars with his sons, though, was the murder of Thomas Becket while Henry II was king of England, a murder for which many would hold him responsible. Even in its own day, the murder of Thomas Becket generated enormous publicity. It was one of the most famous events in the 12th century.

14th-century depiction of Becket with King Henry II
Thomas Becket was a personal friend of Henry II (Image: By Unknown author – Liber Legum Antiquorum Regum, British Library Cotton MS Claudius D. II/Public domain)

Thomas Becket was, earlier in his life, a personal friend of Henry II. In 1155, Henry II decided to entrust the most important position within the English government to Thomas Becket: the position of Chancellor of England. The chancellor is essentially the head of the royal bureaucracy within the kingdom of England.

When another very important office opened up just a few years later—the office of Archbishop of Canterbury—Henry II could think of no better person to fill the highest ecclesiastical office in England than his good friend, Thomas Becket—someone whom, surely, he could trust.

Technically, bishops, archbishops, and abbots were supposed to be elected by members of the clergy, but, in practice, kings such as Henry II often let it be known ahead of time who should be elected, or simply forewent the process of election entirely and appointed someone.

The appointment of Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury raised a few eyebrows. It raised eyebrows because it was, indeed, an appointment. Technically, bishops, archbishops, and abbots were supposed to be elected by members of the clergy, but, in practice, kings such as Henry II often let it be known ahead of time who should be elected, or simply forewent the process of election entirely and appointed someone. It raised some eyebrows because Thomas Becket was a bureaucrat, a government official, and a rather secular individual. Many thought that he was not suitable to hold the highest church office in England. Little did they know, though, just how adamantly Thomas Becket was going to try to defend the English church against his one-time friend, Henry II.

Learn more about Europeans living between 1000 and 1300 

Becket Turns against His Friend

Ordinarily, kings, when they appointed bishops or abbots, could look forward to many years of cozy and mutually profitable relationships that would benefit both the king and those who had been appointed. However, Henry II had not reckoned with Thomas Becket. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, Thomas Becket underwent a dramatic personal transformation after his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead of looking out for royal interests, as Henry II believed his friend surely would, he became determined to defend ecclesiastical interests, especially when those interests ran contrary to royal interests. And there was one area in which kings had clearly not been acting in accordance with church law: the matter of appointments and elections.

This was something that Thomas Becket had personal experience with. After all, Becket had been appointed by the king of England, but once he became Archbishop of Canterbury, he began to denounce Henry II for interfering in matters of ecclesiastical appointments of bishops and abbots, regardless of the fact that that was how he himself had come to hold his position.

Henry II was stunned by what he regarded as a personal betrayal by a friend, and, indeed, although he was ordinarily a rather clear-headed individual, he let his personal feelings about Becket cloud his judgment…

Henry II was stunned by what he regarded as a personal betrayal by a friend, and, indeed, although he was ordinarily a rather clear-headed individual, he let his personal feelings about Becket cloud his judgment, and, at times, he acted rather rashly with regard to Thomas Becket. Relations grew so tense and so bad between Becket and Henry II that in 1164, Becket had to flee England entirely.

He went to France; where else would a disgruntled Englishman go during the High Middle Ages? Those who were going to cause problems for the kings of England could always count on a very warm reception in Paris, and Becket had to live in exile on the European continent for six years.

Learn more about the armored warriors who came to form a hereditary aristocracy with unique legal privileges

In 1170, Becket was permitted to return to England, and Henry II believed that the troubles between the two had been put behind them, and that Becket would restrain himself in his harsh criticisms of Henry II. It was not to be. Almost from the second that Becket set foot on English soil again, he resumed his attacks on Henry II and continued to denounce the ways in which Henry II interfered in matters that pertained solely to the church.

Murder in the Cathedral

Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral.
Thomas Becket was killed by four knights with close ties to Henry II. (Image: By Unknown author – Original in British Library/Public domain)

The story goes that Henry II grew so exasperated by Thomas Becket that one day, in public, he asked of no one in particular, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The question was meant to be rhetorical, but four of his knights took the question literally. They traveled to Canterbury and they murdered Thomas Becket in the cathedral, on December 29, 1170.

The part about Henry II’s rhetorical question is probably apocryphal, but the murder of Thomas Becket surely took place, and he was, indeed, killed by four knights with close ties to Henry II.

Even by medieval standards, the cold-blooded murder of an archbishop in a cathedral was considered to be bad form and beyond the pale. Ecclesiastics quickly turned the tragedy to their advantage. They hailed Becket, with good reason, as a martyr who had died defending the church and ecclesiastical prerogatives against meddling secular rulers. He was canonized as a saint in record time, and the cathedral at Canterbury quickly became one of the most popular shrines in Europe. People would travel from far and wide to visit Becket’s tomb and the site at which he had been killed, hoping for cures, in many cases, for their physical ills, thanks to their contact with such a saint.

Learn more about the various “Inquisitions” that existed in medieval and early modern Europe

Henry II was suspected of having been more deeply involved in the murder than he let on, and, even if he wasn’t, having any role in the murder of someone who was hailed as a saint in record time was bad for public relations. He had to allow himself to undergo an especially humiliating form of penance as a result of the murder of Thomas Becket. Henry II had to allow himself to be whipped by the monks of Canterbury to signal his atonement for the fact that he had, supposedly unwittingly, led to the murder of the most important church official in England.

Common Questions About Thomas Becket

Q: Why is Thomas Becket important?

Thomas Becket was murdered by four of King Henry II’s knights. He refused to give the King power over the church and thus became a martyr in the sovereignty of church over state.

Q: Was Thomas Becket a member of the Catholic Church?

Thomas Becket was an Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England. He was made a saint and a martyr of the Catholic church as well as the Anglican Communion

Q: How did conflict ignite between King Henry and Thomas Becket?

After many power struggles back and forth between Thomas Becket and King Henry over government ruling in church affairs, including an exile of Thomas Becket to France, Becket excommunicated three church bishops who had coronated young King Henry. This was the final straw with King Henry II.

Q: What was the outcome of Thomas Becket’s death in terms of the church?

Thomas Becket’s death was actually somewhat of a victory for King Henry II. With Becket out of the way and perhaps as an example, he had more power than ever when dealing with the church.

This article was updated on 9/20/2019

Keep Reading
Britain’s Medieval Castles
Britain’s Medieval Cathedrals
Philosophical Views of the Middle Ages