The Murder of Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered on December
29, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Although the great struggles
of Church and State in the middle ages were played out between
the pope and German emperors, or the popes and French kings, the
conflict between Henry II and Becket is a witness of the widespread
and localized impact of the conflict.
The murder of Becket has been the subject of much discussion.
W.L. Warren in Henry II (Berkeley: 1973) held that Becket
welcomed martyrdom, and could have escaped if he had wanted. Once
dead, Becket was hailed as a saint, and his shrine became one
of the most celebrated pilgrimage sites of western Europe, and
the destination of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims in the Canterbury
One of the best accounts of Becket's murder is by his biographer
Edward Grim in Vita S. Thomae, Cantuariensis Archepiscopi
et Martyris, ed. in James Robertson, Materials for the
Life of Thomas Becket, (London: Rolls Series, 1875-1885) (7
vols.) Vol. II.
(80) After the monks took [Thomas] through the doors of the church,
the four aforementioned knights followed behind with a rapid pace.
A certain subdeacon, Hugh the Evil-clerk, named for his wicked
offense and armed with their malice, went with them - showing
no reverence for either God or the saints because by following
them he condoned their deed. When the holy archbishop entered
the cathedral the monks who were glorifying God abandoned vespers
- which they had begun to celebrate for God - and ran to their
father whom they had heard was dead but they saw alive and unharmed.
They hastened to close the doors of the church in order to bar
the enemies from slaughtering the bishop, but the wondrous athlete
turned toward them and ordered that the doors be opened. "It
is not proper," he said, "that a house of prayer, a
church of Christ, be made a fortress since although it is not
shut up, it serves as a fortification for his people; we will
triumph over the enemy through suffering rather than by fighting
- and we come to suffer, not to resist." Without delay the
sacrilegious men entered the house of peace and reconciliation
with swords drawn; indeed the sight alone as well as the rattle
of arms inflicted not a small amount of horror on those who watched.
And those knights who approached the confused and disordered people
who had been observing vespers but, by now, had run toward the
lethal spectacle exclaimed in a rage: "Where is Thomas Becket,
traitor of the king and kingdom?" No one responded and instantly
they cried out more loudly, "Where is the archbishop?"
Unshaken he replied to this voice as it is written, "The
righteous will be like a bold lion and free from fear," he
descended from the steps to which he had been taken by the monks
who were fearful of the knights and said in an adequately audible
voice, "Here I am, not a traitor of the king but a priest;
why do you seek me?" And [Thomas], who had previously told
them that he had no fear of them added, "Here I am ready
to suffer in the name of He who redeemed me with His blood; God
forbid that I should flee on account of your swords or that I
should depart from righteousness." With these words - at
the foot of a pillar - he turned to the right. On one side was
the altar of the blessed mother of God, on the other the altar
of the holy confessor Benedict - through whose example and prayers
he had been crucified to the world and his lusts; he endured whatever
the murderers did to him with such constancy of the soul that
he seemed as if he were not of flesh. The murderers pursued him
and asked, "Absolve and restore to communion those you have
excommunicated and return to office those who have been suspended."
To these words [Thomas] replied, "No penance has been made,
so I will not absolve them." "Then you," they said,
"will now die and will suffer what you have earned."
"And I," he said, "am prepared to die for my Lord,
so that in my blood the church will attain liberty and peace;
but in the name of Almighty God I forbid that you hurt my men,
either cleric or layman, in any way." The glorious martyr
acted conscientiously with foresight for his men and prudently
on his own behalf, so that no one near him would be hurt as he
hastened toward Christ. It was fitting that the soldier of the
Lord and the martyr of the Savior adhered to His words when he
was sought by the impious, "If it is me you seek, let them
(81) With rapid motion they laid sacrilegious hands on him, handling
and dragging him roughly outside of the walls of the church so
that there they would slay him or carry him from there as a prisoner,
as they later confessed. But when it was not possible to easily
move him from the column, he bravely pushed one [of the knights]
who was pursuing and drawing near to him; he called him a panderer
saying, "Don't touch me, Rainaldus, you who owes me faith
and obedience, you who foolishly follow your accomplices."
On account of the rebuff the knight was suddenly set on fire with
a terrible rage and, wielding a sword against the sacred crown
said, "I don't owe faith or obedience to you that is in opposition
to the fealty I owe my lord king." The invincible martyr
- seeing that the hour which would bring the end to his miserable
mortal life was at hand and already promised by God to be the
next to receive the crown of immortality - with his neck bent
as if he were in prayer and with his joined hands elevated above
- commended himself and the cause of the Church to God, St. Mary,
and the blessed martyr St. Denis.
(82) He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight,
fearing that [Thomas] would be saved by the people and escape
alive, suddenly set upon him and, shaving off the summit of his
crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God, he wounded the
sacrificial lamb of God in the head; the lower arm of the writer
was cut by the same blow. Indeed [the writer] stood firmly with
the holy archbishop, holding him in his arms - while all the clerics
and monks fled - until the one he had raised in opposition to
the blow was severed. Behold the simplicity of the dove, behold
the wisdom of the serpent in this martyr who
presented his body to the killers so that he might keep his head,
in other words his soul and the church, safe; nor would he devise
a trick or a snare against the slayers of the flesh so that he
might preserve himself because it was better that he be free from
this nature! O worthy shepherd who so boldly set himself against
the attacks of wolves so that the sheep might not be torn to pieces!
and because he abandoned the world, the world - wanting to overpower
him - unknowingly elevated him. Then, with another blow received
on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken
martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living
sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus
and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death."
But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one;
with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown,
which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned
white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the
blood; it purpled the appearance of the church with the colors
of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother
and the life and death of the confessor and martyr. The fourth
knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others
could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not
a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a
fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in
other things, placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and
precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains
with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, "We
can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again."
But during all these incredible things the martyr displayed the
virtue of perseverance. Neither his hand nor clothes indicated
that he had opposed a murderer - as is often the case in human
weakness; nor when stricken did he utter a word, nor did he let
out a cry or a sigh, or a sign signaling any kind of pain; instead
he held still the head that he had bent toward the unsheathed
swords. As his body - which had been mingled with blood and brain
- laid on the ground as if in prayer, he placed his soul in Abraham's
bosom. Having risen above himself, without doubt, out of love
for the Creator and wholly striving for celestial sweetness, he
easily received whatever pain, whatever malice, the bloody murderer
was able to inflict. And how intrepidly - how devotedly and courageously
- he offered himself for the murder when it was made clear that
for his salvation and faith this martyr should fight for the protection
of others so that the affairs of the church might be managed according
to its paternal traditions and decrees.
Dawn Marie Hayes [firstname.lastname@example.org]
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book.
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Paul Halsall May 1997