Murder of Thomas Becket Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The murder of Thomas Becket and his subsequent canonization thwarted the aristocracy’s effort to bring the Catholic Church, but not the English Church, under secular control and had a considerable influence on the evolution of ecclesiastical law and royal custom in England.

Summary of Event

Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118 to middle-class merchant parents. He was educated first at Merton Priory in Surrey and then at Paris. About 1141, he joined the household of Theobald Theobald (archbishop of Canterbury) , archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study law. In 1154, Becket became archdeacon of Canterbury, and in the following year Henry II Henry II (king of England) chose Becket as his chancellor. Loyal courtier, able diplomat, and trusted soldier, Becket became a close personal friend of the king and vigorously pursued the interests of the Crown. [kw]Murder of Thomas Becket (December 29, 1170) [kw]Thomas Becket, Murder of (December 29, 1170) Becket, Saint Thomas England;Dec. 29, 1170: Murder of Thomas Becket[2040] Government and politics;Dec. 29, 1170: Murder of Thomas Becket[2040] Religion;Dec. 29, 1170: Murder of Thomas Becket[2040] Becket, Saint Thomas Henry II (1133-1189) Alexander III (1105-1181) Gilbert Foliot Louis VII Roger of York

Theobald’s death in 1161 was followed by a long vacancy of the see of Canterbury. Henry was aware that the archbishop of Cologne was successfully serving as chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire, and he saw in his friend an ally in his lifelong effort to gain complete control of his kingdom. Henry passed over the worthy Gilbert Foliot Foliot, Gilbert and asked that Becket be invested as archbishop of the see of Canterbury. If Henry expected Becket to acquiesce in his efforts to limit the independence the church had won under Stephen, he was to be disappointed; Becket resigned the chancellorship in order to devote himself completely and wholeheartedly to the service of the Catholic Church.

A crucial dispute concerning jurisdiction over felonious clerics arose between Henry and Becket in 1163. By custom, clerics accused of a felony were tried and sentenced in church courts. Because these courts were not permitted to impose any penalty involving physical punishment, criminous clerics were usually expelled from office but were spared the capital punishment often meted out to laypeople in the king’s courts. In 1163, Philip de Brois, a canon accused of murder, was acquitted by a church court. Public opinion insisted that he was guilty, and the sheriff brought him before the king’s justice. On Becket’s protest of the action, it was dropped, but the king was determined that felonious clerics should henceforth stand trial in the secular courts. At a council held at Westminster in October, 1163, Henry insisted that all bishops swear to observe the ancient customs of the realm, without specifying what they were. Although Becket and the other bishops were aware that the unwritten customs could seriously infringe on ecclesiastical liberties, they swore to uphold them.

In January of 1164, the king held a council at Clarendon that included bishops and the lay magnates of the kingdom. In sixteen decrees, Henry proposed the regulation that should henceforth govern the relations between the Church and the Crown. The most important clause concerned criminous clerics. Henry proposed that after a cleric had been found guilty in a church court he should be stripped of his orders so that, as a layman, he could be sent to the king’s judge for sentencing and for confiscation of his chattels. Henry insisted that this was the ancient custom of the realm, observed by William the Conqueror and his sons. Becket and the bishops repeated their pledge to observe the ancient customs, but when the king put them in writing, they refused to agree to them. Since medieval custom was oral and flexible, any attempt to make custom absolute by writing was considered novel and dangerous.

The Constitutions of Clarendon Constitutions of Clarendon not only dealt with felonious clerics but also stated that no appeal could be made from English courts to the pope and that royal consent was required before a tenant-in-chief could be excommunicated, before a papal bull could be promulgated in the land, or before a cleric could leave England. Becket vacillated somewhat but ultimately took a position that was consistent with that of the Gregorian reformers on the Continent and of Alexander III Alexander III (pope) , namely that the Church had the sole right to try and punish clerics in major orders. The question of criminous clerics and ancestral custom was actually a symptom of the deeper problem of two rival jurisdictions existing together in the same country.

The assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

(G. T. Devereux)

When one of Becket’s vassals claimed that he had been denied justice and appealed to the king, the archbishop was summoned before Henry at Northampton. Becket refused the first summons so that the assembled barons judged him guilty of contempt of court. Then the king added a demand that Becket account for the money he had handled when he was chancellor. Becket’s request for time to get his accounts in order was refused. Seeing that Henry intended to ruin and imprison him or to force his resignation as archbishop, Becket fled to France, where Pope Alexander received him with honor.

During the negotiations between the pope and the French and English kings, Becket stayed at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy. When Henry threatened to expel all Cistercians from England in 1166 in retaliation, Becket moved to a Benedictine abbey at Sens under the protection of King Louis VII Louis VII (king of France) . In 1169, Becket excommunicated two English bishops who had opposed him, and he threatened to place all England under interdict. In June of 1170, Henry had Roger Roger of York , archbishop of York, crown young prince Henry, a ritual that was the prerogative of the archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, followed by the pope, excommunicated all responsible for the investiture; fearing an interdict for England, Henry was reconciled with Becket at Fréteval in Normandy in July, 1170. It was agreed that the endowments of Canterbury should be restored and the exiled followers of Becket forgiven, but nothing was said about the Constitutions of Clarendon, appeals to Rome, or any of the other matters in dispute.

Becket returned to England on November 30, 1170, and was received with enthusiasm. When Becket refused to lift the excommunication of Roger of York and Foliot, Henry was furious. In a fit of rage, he uttered the words, “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Not one will deliver me from this low-born priest!” This outburst was enough to inspire four knights to travel to Canterbury and assassinate Becket within the cathedral late in the afternoon of December 29, 1170.

The news of Becket’s murder sent a shock of horror throughout Christendom. The pope refused to see any English citizens for several weeks, and Henry was afraid that his vassals would throw off their allegiance to him. The two articles of the Constitutions of Clarendon dealing with felonious clerics and appeals to Rome were dropped, but the remaining fourteen articles were observed, and Henry continued to control the English Church in the same manner as he had done before the struggle with Becket began.


Becket was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1173; he quickly became one of Europe’s best-loved saints. Thousands of pilgrims visited his tomb, and churches were dedicated to him throughout Europe. Even in death, he was a champion of the principle of clerical supremacy.

Others, however, see Henry’s continued control of the English Church and his admonishing Becket as victories for secularism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barlow, Frank. Thomas Becket. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A comprehensive biography about the complex legal questions involved in the controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becket, Thomas. The Correspondence of Thomas Becket: Archbishop of Canterbury, 1162-1170. Edited by Anne J. Duggan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A collection of Becket’s letters. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duggan, Alfred. Thomas Becket of Canterbury. London: Faber, 1967. A critical account of Becket’s life and death based on close familiarity with the sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitz Stephen, William. The Life and Death of Thomas Becket. Edited by George W. Greenway. London: Folio Society, 1961. A collection of data on Becket’s life and death arranged chronologically and with editor’s explanatory comments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ide, Arthur Frederick. Calendar of Death. Irving, Tex.: Scholar Books, 1986. A brief study of the sociopolitical factors in Becket’s attitude toward his own eminent death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knowles, David. The Episcopal Colleagues of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1951. Written by the author of several distinguished studies of Becket, this work contains an excellent account of the events of Northampton.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pain, Nesta. The King and Becket. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1966. A compelling and well-documented study that takes a negative view of Becket.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staunton, Michael, trans. The Lives of Thomas Becket. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A biographical look at Becket. Part of the Manchester Medieval Sources series. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winston, Richard. Thomas Becket. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. A balanced, equitable, and readable study of Becket that is sensitive to the virtues as well as the flaws of both Becket and Henry.

Categories: History