41 Murder in the Cathedral

After Thomas recanted from his signature of the Constitutions of Clarendon, things got really nasty. Before long, Thomas was in exile, and Henry couldn't care less. But by 1167 the political situation had changed – Henry wanted to crown his son, and the Archbishop of Canterbury wasn't around to do it. 

41 Murder in the Cathedral

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 Thomas escapes

In 1164, Henry decided the gloves were off, and he seriously needed to get rid of his Archbishop. So he called Thomas into court at Northampton, and brought he great council together to hear accusations against him of embezzlement when a Chancellor. Thomas refused to yield. the Bishops panicked and abandoned Thomas. The Barons declared Thomas guilty, but Thomas fled to France


And there Becket stayed for 6 years, supported by King Louis, shielded by the Pope, largely ignored by Henry and even the English Bishops. Until 1167, when diplomatic activity starts again. Henry was under pressure from the vassals f the empire, and he needed to crown his son. And to do that he needed the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Henry and Thomas met 3 times before 1170 – at Montmiral, Monmartre and  at Freteval. Basically Henry got nowhere. By the time of this last meeting, at Freteval, Henry had gone ahead and got the Archbishop of York to crown his son, which made Thomas thoroughly resentful. But Henry wanted the dispute finished. So at Freteval he behaved like an old friend, pardoned Thomas and his household and invited him back over. Significantly, Thomas didn't do the same. 

Anathema and the End

Thomas arrived back to an unfriendly welcome. And one of his first acts was highly inflammatory – despite Henry's hard work to heal the breach, Thomas excommunicated the Archbishop of York. You can see here's how Richard Burton saw this fateful event by going to You tube… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ym6Qgj55e3Y.

This is when Henry, at court in Bayeux, said his famous words: 

‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household who allow their lord to be treated in this shameful contempt by a low born cleric!’ 

4 knights  – Reginald fitzUrse, William de Tracy, Richard le Bret and Hugh de Morville set sail for England. On 29th December, they burst into the Thomas's  palace with their platoon of 12 knights, where the AB was having his supper. They  demanded that Thomas go to Windsor to account for his actions before the young king.

Thomas calmly went into the cathedral. He made no attempt at all to avoid confrontation – he didn’t bolt the door into the church, he made no attempt to negotiate. These minor household knights were nonplussed and confused. In the church, they tried to manhandle him out, but Thomas was strong enough to resist. He yelled insults at the knights – calling them ‘Pimps !’. It was too much for the knights – nothing was going as planned. One of them hacked at Thomas, cutting through the arm of his attendant and into the crown of Becket’s head.

At this point, Thomas is supposed to have resided to the ground saying

For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.

Personally, I doubt it. I think if you’ve had the crown of your head sliced off, you have little time to do anything more than say ‘ouch’ and then crash to the floor, but I could be wrong. The knights kept at it, just to make absolutely sure – one of them hacked the head right off, another smeared the archiepiscopal brains across the Cathedral floor. 


The murder shocked Christendom. And Henry. Thomas was canonised in 1174 and Canterbury became a place of pilgrimmage. Henry was force to lie in front of the altar in a hairshirt being whipped by his Bishops to atone. But in the background, Pope Alexander and Henry quietly agreed 3 changes to the Constitutions of Clarendon, and then that was that. So what had all the fuss been about? 

Thomas achieved very little. Yes the 'benefit of the clergy' survives to the 19th century, but most of the Constitutions are implemented. But most of all Thomas achieved his favourite thing – fame and notoriety. 


4 thoughts on “41 Murder in the Cathedral

  1. HI David,
    I’m only just starting to catch up having found your podcast rather late. I am enjoying it immensely and particularly this episode that I listened to this morning on my way to work. Particularly this: “At this point, Thomas is supposed to have resided to the ground saying
    For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.
    Personally, I doubt it. I think if you

  2. Dear David
    Like Lianne I am also just coming late to this series. I’m on episode 41. I’m a big fan of historical novels. I wanted to ask you about your opinion of the play/movie Beckett. What parts did you like? What did you think was done wrong?
    And then, — this is for everyone out there — are there any good novels about Beckett? I’m imagining something like Hilary Mantel’s approach to the French Revolution in (A place of greater safety) and her later novels.
    Anything you loved? Anything I should stay away from?
    Thank you for the podcast series. In the past month I’ve listened nearly every day —

  3. Hi Sharon
    Um well, the film feels terribly old fashioned, but I think that’s partly a stylistic thing; it’s interesting how the attitude to history has changed. We are much more sceptical now about the traditional/received view of English history. But despite that it was quite fun, and I liked the way they tried to genuinely show how the two were friends in their earlier lives.
    I don’t know of a novel I’m afraid – try out the History of England podcast group on Facebook – someone there might be able to help.

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