Thomas a Becket

Px04830_800x540 - 8 Oct 2015

Above: A replica pilgrim’s badge being sold today at the Canterbury Cathedral souvenir shop.

Thomas a Becket (1118-70), English statesman, archbishop and martyr, is one of the most interesting characters from the 12th century London. The day he was slain was 29 December — his so-called ’feast day’. Here is an outline of his life.

Becket was born near the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Poultry in the City of London, the son of a London merchant of Norman blood. While growing up, he would have known the streets in the City of London very well indeed, especially the busy markets held in and around Cheapside and Poultry.

As was common for young boys born to wealthy parents, Becket was brought up in a priory at Merton from the age of 10. Life was rather like boarding school today. Remember that there were very few schools in England at the time and the only people who could read and write were mainly monks. It is believed that Becket later went to a grammar school in London — possibly the one at St Paul’s Cathedral. In his late teens he became a student at the University in Paris. All the sons of wealthy parents would have been able to speak French so living in France would have been no problem for him. He studied law at the University of Bologna, in Italy, and then at Auxerre, in France.

A few years later Becket’s father, Gilbert, fell on hard times and Becket had to find work. His first job was back in London where he became a Sheriff’s clerk.

Being well educated, Becket went on to be made Chancellor of England and in 1155, aged about 37, he was Chancellor to Henry II.

Having served as a priest in several churches, Becket was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury on 3 June 1162. Two years later, in 1164, Becket was exiled until 1170 over a dispute between himself and Henry II who wanted to re-assert the primacy of the Royal Courts.

Px04831_with background_800x500_(c) - 9 Oct 2015

Above: Pilgrim badge depicting the return of St Thomas Becket from exile in France in December 1170, only a month before his murder. Here he is shown on board the ship with three companions: a knight, a clerk holding a book, and a third standing next to St Thomas. The knight’s shield is charged with a cross. A sailor attends to the rigging in the stern of the ship. (The badge is in the Museum of London).

In 1170 Becket returned to England from being in exile. His relationship with Henry II was not an easy one. According to tradition, the king was heard to say “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”. Whether they are the exact words does not really matter. The meaning of what had been said was taken to be a royal command and it was duly acted on by four knights.

Believing they were carrying out the king’s command, the knights rode to Canterbury to carry out what they believed was the King’s request. They were: Richard le Breton, also called Richard de Luci; Reginald FitzUrse; Hugh de Moreville; and William de Tracy. A fifth person, William FitzStephen, also witnessed the murder. The knights entered the cathedral on 29 December 1170 and found Becket near the altar, in the north transept — a place now known as ‘The Martyrdom’. Using their swords, they slew Becket and, leaving his body lying in the building, the knights returned to London.

Because the knights considered that they were acting on the orders of Henry II they did not see their actions as murder. They were men of honour and it was not an act of revenge on their part — rather an act of carrying out the instructions of the king. However, they were to learn that they had been over-zealous in their deed and that the king had not intended that Becket should be killed. Being men who followed a high code of conduct, they must have been devastated to realise that it had been a huge mistake. What three of the knights did about it is not recorded. In the case of the fourth knight — Richard de Luci — we know that he decided to found a monastery, as an act of penance, on land in an area of London now known as Abbey Wood. It was at a place called Lesnes, parts of which are land called Lesnes Woods. The abbey was later torn down but the outline of its stone foundations are still to be seen in the grass. It is the only extensive abbey remains anywhere in London. It is just over the border of Inner London — in the London Borough of Bexley.

Becket’s body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral and a lavish tomb was later erected. This anniversary was commemorated every year at Canterbury with a festival known as the Return of St Thomas (Regressio Sancti Thomae).

Just three years after Becket’s death, he was declared to be a saint on 21 February 1173. This led to a stream of pilgrims making their way to his tomb — notably people like the pilgrims described in the ‘Canterbury Tales’. The ‘Tales’ describe how they travelled from Southwark to see the tomb. The story of Becket’s death spread across Europe and pilgrims came from distant parts to see his shrine at Canterbury. In fact, Becket’s shrine became one of the most visited shrines in all of England.

Lest you might think that tourist shops and tacky souvenirs are a modern-day invention, it should be pointed out that pilgrim badges and ornamental silver-ware were sold throughout the centuries to devout pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. The picture of the lapel pin at the top of this article, depicting Becket, was purchased at Canterbury this year. Places like the Museum of London have many pilgrim brooches showing the figure of Becket, clad in his bishop’s gown or riding on a horse, that have been found on archaeological digs. They date from several periods in history.

Pilgrims setting off from the City of London to visit Becket’s tomb walked over London Bridge which had its own chapel actually built onto the bridge. The bridge had been completed in 1209 and Becket’s death in 1170 was fresh in everyone’s minds so the chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr, in remembrance of Becket’s death. Just off Borough High Street a hospital was founded about the same time and that too was named after the saint. Today we know it as ‘St Thomas’s Hospital’ but, of course, since it was moved in Victorian times, it now stands on its ‘new’ site in Lambeth.

You may well know the Thomas a Becket pub in the Old Kent Road. That has been the site of a hostelry giving pilgrims refreshment from very early times. It is even mentioned in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ under its original name of ‘Thomas a-watering’.

Due to the religious turmoil that occurred in the 16th century, the edifice over Becket’s grave in Canterbury Cathedral was destroyed and the internal decorations in the cathedral were removed. In recent times a new piece of artwork has been placed in the cathedral — at the place where Thomas a Becket was slain. The location is known as ‘The Martyrdom’ and it is visited daily by the many tourists who come to see the cathedral and remember Thomas a Becket over 800 years after his death.


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