Main Picture: Wall Painting of Thomas Becket restored in 1984 at St Thomas a Becket Church, South Cadbury, Somerset.
The year 2020 was the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s death and the 800th anniversary of the translation of his body to a new shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. I wanted to think about the links to the South West of England. Whilst Becket was not connected with the South West, the cult that rose up after his murder would have had an impact. There are churches with a dedication to St Thomas of Canterbury. Three of his murderers had strong links to the South West. But most of all I was struck by the impact that the cult of Becket had on both Henry II and Henry VIII.
THE CULT OF BECKET & THE FEAR OF HENRY VIII
The break that occurred with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequent Reformation of the English church was much more complicated than Henry VIII just wanting to marry Anne Boleyn. It wasn’t just Catherine of Aragon Henry VIII wanted out of the way. He also wanted the cult of St Thomas Becket gone. Since the 1170s Becket had been promoted by the Church as an intercessor of healing miracles, and his shrine was at the heart of English pilgrimage. The humanist philosopher and devout Catholic, Erasmus (d. 1536), provided further influence with his writings questioning the cult of saints.[i]
Becket had been a former lord chancellor that threatened the authority of a king. This was too close to Henry’s personal experience. Cardinal Wolsey had styled himself an overmighty subject and effectively ‘pope in the north’. Then his next chancellor Thomas More refused to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy over ecclesiastical affairs. More was executed on the 6th of July 1535. The date of the 6th of July was auspicious as it was the eve of the Feast of the Translation of the body of Thomas Becket – on the 7th of July 1220 Becket’s body was moved from the crypt to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral.
There were many factors that led to the Reformation. This blog looks at the cult of Becket and notes some of the links to the South West of England.
THE RIFT BETWEEN THOMAS BECKET & HENRY II
When Henry II promoted his friend and lord chancellor of England, Thomas Becket, to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he must have thought he had made a clever political move. He would have control over both State and Church. However, upon receiving the pallium from the pope, Becket went through a transformation that put the Church before the Crown. He resigned his offices at court and turned his attention to the Church.[ii]
The rift between the two grew even further with a conflict over the jurisdiction of the secular courts over the clergy. Offending clergy had immunity from secular courts. In Europe there had been a resurgence of the study of law. A work by a monk and legal scholar written in around 1140 was a key work. This was Decretumor ‘Gratian’s Decretals’. It was a compilation of much older Church laws. Becket had studied law at Bologna and was well acquainted with the work. Through the reading of Decretum and taking advice he formed the view that the State did not have jurisdiction over the secular prosecution of clergy that had committed serious crimes. This was a fiercely contested issue – who administered justice? – the Church or the State? Justice was one of the 4 cardinal virtues, along with Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude. Did a secular ruler have more authority over such matters than the Church? Becket believed the latter in terms of the clergy, who could be tried in ecclesiastical courts. The problem for Henry II was that the ecclesiastical courts were more lenient than the secular. The Church held that the physical bodies of clerics were deemed sacrosanct, and violence against them was taken very seriously.[iii] If a cleric committed a violent crime such as murder or rape, then the leniency of their punishment was opposed to secular law.
On 30 January 1164 Henry II held an assembly of the higher echelons of the English clergy at Clarendon Palace near Salisbury. This was where he sought to strengthen his position over the Church by diminishing its independence. Becket refused to sign the documents and further tensions grew throughout 1164, leading to Becket to flee across the Channel to Europe. King Louis VII of France provided protection for him. The intervention of Pope Alexander III eventually meant Becket could return to England in 1170.
However, further tensions increased Henry’s frustration with Becket. In June 1170 Becket excommunicated the Bishop of London, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of Salisbury. The 3 had crowned the heir apparent, Henry the Young King at York, thereby breaching Canterbury’s privilege of coronation.
Murder in the Cathedral
Christmas 1170 saw Henry II in Normandy at Bur-le-Roi, a hunting lodge near Falaise. The 3 bishops that Beckett had excommunicated – Roger de Pont L’Eveque (Archbishop of York), Gilbert Foliot (Bishop of London), and Jocelin de Bohun (Bishop of Salisbury) – made their way to Henry in Normandy. Henry had heard of the excommunication and was already furious before they arrived. With him in his retinue were 4 knights – Reginal FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito, and William de Tracy. Henry felt aggrieved that he had raised Becket up who had then opposed him. Henry bemoaned the fact that no one had stood up to Becket on his behalf. Edward Grim, a Canterbury monk, recorded that Henry spoke of being surrounded by men that would not support him against the contempt of a ‘low born clerk’. Grim wrote that after being told of the bishops’ excommunication, Henry said:[iv]
What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household who would let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk.
Note that the phrase ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ comes about later, possibly in the 18th century.
The knights decided to avenge their king and set out to arrest Becket. They crossed the Channel on the 28th of December and arrived at Canterbury on the 29th of December 1170, in the late afternoon. They confronted Becket after his supper and a heated argument ensued. The knights retreated and retrieved their weapons which they had left outside the cathedral. Becket went into the cathedral via the cloister to the north west transept and left the door unbarred. The monks were singing vespers in the choir. The knights entered and tried to arrest Becket. Becket was kneeling and one of them dealt the blow with his sword which cut into Becket’s head. Edward Grim rushed to his help and received a sword blow to his arm. The final blow cut the top off Becket’s head. Grim, although had only recently met Becket, later wrote a Vita S. Thomas.
THE CULT OF BECKET
The cult of St Thomas Becket rose quickly after his death. He died in 1170 and was canonised very quickly in 1173 by Pope Alexander III. Pope Alexander had met Becket and speedily progressed the canonisation. Edward the Confessor was canonised in 1161, some 95 years after his death.
The murder of the archbishop had sent shockwaves around Europe. Henry II had to do reparation, although he was not directly involved in the murder. The cult of Becket started immediately after his death and pilgrims made their way to Canterbury. Henry left the punishment of the 4 knights up to the pope, who excommunicated them and exiled them to the Holy Land. As for Henry he went to Canterbury in 1174, stopping at the city walls, dismounting, and walking barefoot to the cathedral. There is some stained glass at Canterbury showing the monks scourging him with reeds. He made a very public penance.
Becket appeared to people in dreams and healed them. They then made pilgrimages to Canterbury to give gifts and thanks at his shrine. Benedict of Peterborough recorded the miracles of Becket, and many can be seen in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. Pilgrims acquired badges of their pilgrimage and lead bottles containing ‘St Thomas’s Water’. When Becket was murdered the monks gathered up the blood and it probably dried out in some sort of container. They then could take a tiny piece and mix it with gallons of water. Cloth pieces of Becket’s blood-soaked garments were also used as relics.
Becket had spent his exile in France. His story and image appear in stained glass in Chartres and Sens Cathedrals.
Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughters
In 1173-40 just a few years after the murder of Becket, Henry II faced another betrayal. His son, Henry the Young King, launched a revolt against his father with which Henry II’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, colluded in. Eleanor was captured and became a prisoner of her husband. In July 1174 they sailed for England from Normandy and Eleanor was taken to be under house arrest at either Winchester Castle or Sarum Castle. She remained imprisoned for the next 16 years, at various locations. However, Eleanor was a supporter of the cult of Becket. Through 3 of her daughters the cult was helped to spread across Europe.
- Matilda married Henry the Lion, the duke of both Saxony & Bavaria in 1168. They were both active patrons of Brunswick Cathedral and the couple commissioned a special gospel for the cathedral that features Becket.
- Eleanor was married to Alfonso VIII of Castile in 1170, just before Becket’s death. In Catalonia there are the earliest depictions in Europe of the martyrdom of Becket.
- Joan marked William II of Sicily in 1177 & later Raymond VI of Toulouse in c. 1196/7. Becket can be found in mosaic in Monreale Cathedral in pride of place. William’s mother, Queen Margaret had struck up a friendship with Becket and they wrote to one another. Margaret received a gold pendant reliquary with a cloth relic (soaked in his blood) after Becket’s death.
Becket’s martyrdom sent shockwaves across Europe and the cult of Becket can be found in many different places, including stave churches in Scandinavia. In France, Louis VII promoted the cult after Becket appeared to him in a dream.
HENRY VIII’S DESTRUCTION OF BECKET
By the end of 1538 Henry VIII declared Becket was not a saint, but just a man who had dared to challenge the authority of a king. He had Becket publicly declared as an enemy of the Crown. Henry had visited Canterbury in September 1538, possibly overseeing the destruction and obliteration of Becket’s shrine. Across the country images of Becket were destroyed, wall paintings whitewashed and even his name scratched out from manuscripts.[v] In the Luttrell Psalter the martyrdom was scored through. Sometimes text was removed but the image remained. Some hid their Becket images with the hope that one day they would be reallowed.
SOUTH WEST CONNECTIONS
Parish Churches with a dedication to St Thomas Becket
I have made a list of 28 churches with a direct dedication to St Thomas Becket. There are possibly more, but this gives an idea of the spread over the counties.
There are other churches with the dedication of St Thomas, but this probably refers to St Thomas the Apostle. The churches in the South West are:
Salisbury & Clarendon Palace
John of Salisbury produced one of the earliest descriptions of the murder of Becket. He wrote a letter to his friend, the Bishop of Poitiers, describing the event in detail, as well as the miracles that followed. Copies of the letter circulated widely. John later expanded it into a biography. This work was part of the petition to the pope to canonise Becket.
Constitutions of Clarendon – The remains of Clarendon Palace can be found in the Clarendon Forest, just outside of the city of Salisbury.
The Knights that murdered Becket
Of the 4 knights, 3 of them held estates in the South West:
- Reginald FitzUrse (d. 1173) – held the estate of Williton, Somerset
- William de Tracy (d. c. 1189) – held the barony of Bradninch, near Exeter, and the manors of Moretonhampstead, Devon, & Toddington in Gloucestershire. At Bovey Tracey, William is thought to have rebuilt the church in penance for his part in the murder.
- Richard de Brito (d. sometime after 1170) – ancestral links to the church of Long Sutton (Domesday Book), Somerset. His father held the manor of Sampford Brett in Somerset. Neighbour of FitzUrses at Williton.
There is myth that the bodies of the knights were returned from the Holy Land and buried on Brean Down, near Weston-Super-Mare.
West Coker and T.S. Elliot
T. S. Elliot wrote the play Murder in the Cathedral in 1935. His source for this play was based on the work of Edward Grim. When he died, his ashes were taken to St Michael and All Angels’ Church, East Coker, near Yeovil in Somerset. His ancestors came from this village before emigrating to America.
The name ‘Thomas A Becket’ came about much later after his death – sometime after the Reformation. He would have been known as Thomas Becket.
[i] Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint (London: The British Museum Press, 2021), p. 214.
[ii] de Beer, p. 42.
[iii] de Beer, pp. 46-7.
[iv] de Beer, p. 61.
[v] de Beer, p. 211.
de Beer, Lloyd and Naomi Speakman, Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint (London: The British Museum Press, 2021)