Why was Thomas Becket killed?

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THE assassination of Thomas Becket is known as one of the famous, shocking, and violent murders in history.

But just what happened between Becket and King Henry II to lead to the then Archbishop of Canterbury’s demise?

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Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered in the Kent cathedral[/caption]

Who was Thomas Becket?

Thomas Becket, later known as Thomas a Becket, was born in 1120.

His father was a well-connected London merchant and Thomas was well educated.

Becket was noticed by King Henry II whilst working as a clerk for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald.

He was a fun-loving courtier and Henry made him Lord Chancellor.

The pair got on famously well and became very close.

Becket and King Henry brought law and order to England, and Henry hoped to extend this to the Church.

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Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral[/caption]

But Becket restyled himself as a serious cleric when Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury after Theobald died in 1161.

Just three years later, the former friends had a massive argument because Becket wanted to keep the Church legally separate – and this led to the Archbishop going into hiding.

He returned in 1170, and four of Henry’s knights killed him in Canterbury Cathedral, on December 29.

Becket was made a Saint after his murder, and pilgrims flocked to his shrine, even after it was destroyed by Henry VIII centuries later, in 1540.

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Effigy of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral[/caption]

Why did Henry II and Thomas Becket fall out?

Henry II and Becket were at first firm friends – they played chess together, and hunted, and it has been said they were of one heart and mind.

As King and Chancellor, they worked hard together to bring in laws and establish order in Henry’s kingdom.

We owe the existence of common law and trial by jury today to their team work and persistence.

But the Church still often escaped justice, swearing allegiance to the Pope rather than the King.

Henry wanted to reform law to include the Church, whose clergy could literally get away with murder, and rape.

Priests who broke the common law could be tried in the Churches own court, getting just a penance, defrocking at worst, as punishment.

King Henry thought that Archbishop and Chancellor Thomas Becket would help him extend the laws they had created over the Church.

But Becket refused, and resigned as Chancellor.

Many historians say Thomas Becket’s transformation from fun-loving to serious and devout was pretty extreme, and came as a shock to Henry.

Becket replaced his lavish lifestyle with sparse eating, wearing sack-cloth, and drinking only water.

The situation came to an ugly head in October 1164, when Henry summoned Becket, and the King’s supporters accused him of treason and asked him to hand over all his property.

Becket refused and apparently there was a heated argument with much swearing and shouting, then Becket fled to France.

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A 13th century stained glass panel in Canterbury Cathedral depicts Thomas Becket, who was made a saint in 1173[/caption]

Why was Thomas Becket killed?

Even with Becket in France, the two men still managed to argue.

Henry had the Archbishop of York crown his son, and Becket complained to the Pope.

The pair later patched it up, Becket agreed to come back, and the King promised him safety.

But Becket excommunicated a number of bishops, and damned them in his sermon on Christmas Day, after his return to England in 1170.

When Henry heard about this he was furious, and apparently said: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

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Canterbury Cathedral has become a place of pilgrimage for many Christians[/caption]

Other sources claim he said: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their Lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-bornclerk?”

Four of his knights, looking to please the king, then set off for Canterbury to do the deed.

The attack on Thomas, said to be unintentional, at the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral, was so vicious that accounts say they butchered him, cracking open his skull and spilling his brains on the floor.


King Henry starved himself for three days, wearing sack-cloth, because he felt so guilty about his words.

Martered, Thomas Becket was made a Saint very speedily, in 1173, and believers visited his shrines seeking healing miracles.

Canterbury Cathedral has still an important centre of pilgrimage in England.

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