The Church, the State, the Murder

Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry II of England were embroiled in a conflict at the end of the twelfth century whose basis is still part of  the modern political and religious debate: the authority of the state versus that of the church. The stage for this particular conflict was set a century earlier with the church reforms of Pope Gregory VII, which were intended to reinforce the authority of the church, mainly at the expense of that of the European monarchies.


An enormous plaque stands behind one altar, listing the names of all of the Archbishops of Canterbury.

One of Gregory’s greatest challenges was in the area of lay investiture. Monarchs of the era claimed the right to make appointments to church offices such as abbacies, bishoprics, and archbishoprics, but the Church also claimed that right. By the end of the first quarter of the twelfth century the controversy had seemingly been resolved through the Concordat of London (1107), followed by the Concordat of Worms (1122). These mandated a compromise wherein the Church had the authority to invest an official, while the official would be required to pay homage to the monarch in order to gain his lands. In addition, the monarch had the power to veto the Church’s appointment. Neither side was satisfied with the compromise. When the Archbishopric of Canterbury was vacant in 1162, Henry approved his own friend and adviser, Lord Chancellor Thomas Becket for the office.

Power in stone.

Dover Castle – power in stone.

Henry II’s reign was characterized by his efforts to extend royal authority over the kingdom, often at the expense of the authority of the church. William the Conqueror began forming a strong centralized government in England, but discord and an eventual civil war weakened these political structures. Henry was compelled to reinforce them. In Dover Castle one sees the physical manifestation of that reinforcement of power. The political manifestation is most apparent in the Constitutions of Clarendon. This legislation, passed by Henry in 1164 included clauses designed to overcome the contentious issue of criminous clerks. A criminous clerk was a member of the clergy who had committed a serious secular crime. Criminous clerks were tried in church courts, which tended to be more lenient in sentencing these crimes than was the secular judicial system. In practice, to be considered a member of the clergy by the church, one was only required to recite a verse from the Bible in Latin. This was nicknamed the “Neck Verse” because if you succeeded it would save your neck!

Becket could not abide the Constitutions of Clarendon. Just after he became Archbishop, he transformed himself into a great defender of the Church. His opposition to the Constitutions became a sore point between the old friends. Henry was successful in inducing all of the high English clergy except Becket to consent. He refused to sign the document.

Henry relentlessly persecuted Becket and ultimately found him in contempt of royal authority. Thomas fled Henry’s court in October of 1164 and went into exile on the continent. Louis VII of France welcomed him, and when Becket paid homage to Pope Alexander III at Sens, he was welcomed despite Alexander’s annoyance with previous English envoys.

Henry now ordered Becket’s property confiscated. He threatened Becket’s family. Finally the Archbishop’s residency at the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny was cut short because of Henry’s threats against the entire Cistercian Order. Becket returned to the pope at Sens. Negotiations for Becket’s return dragged on between the pope, the king, and the archbishop for four years. Finally an agreement was reached in June of 1170 and Becket returned to England in early December.

Earlier that year Henry’s son, Henry the Younger, was crowned heir apparent at York. Upon his return to England, with Henry still in France, Becket excommunicated the three primates who performed the coronation, as this service was the privilege of the See at Canterbury. Henry fulminated at the news. Accounts of his exact words vary, but in the oral tradition Henry says, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The contemporary monk and friend of Becket, Edward Grim recorded Henry as saying, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”

Cloister Door

The door to the cloister, where the four murderous knights came upon Becket.

Regardless of the exact phrasing, the king’s words were interpreted as an entreaty to his knights. Four of them arrived in Canterbury on December 29, 1170. When Becket, on his way to vespers, refused to go to Winchester with them to give an accounting of his actions, the knights retrieved the swords that they so respectfully left outside the cathedral moments before. They returned to find Becket near the door to the cloister. One of the knights shaved off part of Becket’s scalp with a blow from his sword. In the words of Grim, who lost an arm to the first blow while protecting Becket,

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.”(1)


Becket’s name is engraved in the floor of the northwest nave, at the location of his slaying.

Sword Cross

This crucifix is intended to serve as a reminder of the crime committed in the cathedral. It is a representation of the four swords that slew the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Not long after his brutal murder, Thomas Becket’s reputation grew quickly and he was venerated as a martyr throughout Europe. In 1173 Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander III. The town of Canterbury became an ever more flourishing pilgrimage site. Becket’s remains, carefully buried beneath the floor of the crypt in the cathedral, were thought to heal incurable disease. Holes were drilled into the stone above so that pilgrims could touch the tomb. Medieval Christians invented miraculous works that Thomas purportedly performed during his lifetime.

Although most historians agree that Henry II did not order the murder of Thomas, he performed penance at Canterbury in 1174. He walked in sackcloth from St. Dunstan’s Church to the cathedral and was ceremonially flogged. The Church remained independent from the State
until Henry VIII formed the Protestant Church in the sixteenth century.

Thomas Shrine

As a matter of interest, this casket was located in the crypt of the Cathedral in 2007. The sign indicated that it wasn’t to be photographed, but I took this shot anyway (no flash). I’ve never seen it mentioned or depicted anywhere. Does anyone know anything of it?


Halsall, Paul. Dawn Marie Hayes, trans.  “Edward Grim:The Murder of Thomas Becket”, Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University: 1997.

A Jarrold Guide to the Cathedral and City of Canterbury, Norwich, UK: Jarrold Publishing, 2005.

Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral, 2014, .

Thurston, Herbert. “St. Thomas Becket.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 17 Jun. 2014 .


(1) Halsall.

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