Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Why was Thomas Becket Murdered?

Q1: Read the introduction and study sources 2, 3, 4 and 5. Why was Henry II angry with Thomas Becket?

A1: Henry II had become angry with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1164, because of a dispute over land. Henry also claimed that Becket had stolen £300 from government funds when he had been Chancellor. Becket decided to run away to France.

Eventually, after long negotiations, Becket agreed to return to England. However, soon after his arrival he excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church), the Archbishop of York, and other leading churchmen who had supported the king while he was away (source 2). Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news (source 3). According to Gervase of Canterbury (source 4) Henry II said: "How many cowardly, useless drones have I nourished that not even a single one is willing to avenge me of the wrongs I have suffered." John of Salisbury (source 5) claimed that the king commented that " they were all traitors who did not... rid him of the harassment of this man".

Q2: Describe how people in source 10 behaved when they heard about the death of Thomas Becket. Try to explain the reasons why these people acted in this way.

A2: Some people from Canterbury "cut off shreds of (Becket's) clothing and dipped them in the blood". This cloth would later have been sold. In the Middle Ages people believed that things like this brought them luck. The monks from Canterbury also collected Becket's blood and later it was put into small glass containers and sold to pilgrims.

Q3: Compare the versions of Thomas Becket's death in 1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. How do these sources differ? Which of these sources do you think is the most reliable?

A3: Edward Grim (source 7) describes Thomas Becket being killed while he was holding onto one of the pillars in Canterbury Cathedral. However, sources 1, 6, 8 and 10 suggest that the blows were struck while Thomas Becket was praying at the altar. Frank Barlow (source 9) points out that Edward Grim was actually an eye-witness to the murder, whereas the illustrations were produced many years after the event. Benedict of Peterborough (source 10) also witnessed the murder and is considered a reliable source.

Q4: Did Henry II want Thomas Becket to be murdered? Select sources from this unit that helps you to answer this question.

A4: John of Salisbury (source 5) describes how Henry remarked that his knights were traitors if they "could not summon up the energy and loyalty to rid him of the harassment of this man." This statement has been used to argue that Henry was ordering his men to kill Thomas Becket. However, as you can see, Henry did not use the word "kill"

Bishop Arnulf (source 12) claims that Henry II was very upset when he heard that Thomas Becket was murdered. However, it is difficult to know whether Henry was only pretending to be upset. Later, Henry swore on the Bible that he did not order the death of Thomas Becket. He did admit that his comments were probably responsible for his knights killing Becket.

Q5: Use the information in source 15 to explain source 14.

A5: Henry admitted that he was responsible for Becket's death and agreed to: (i) to serve in the Holy Land for three years; (ii) pay for two hundred knights to serve in the Holy Land for a year; (iii) give back all the property he had taken from Canterbury Cathedral; (iv) allow the church courts to deal with clerics who had committed crimes. Henry also agreed to be punished by the Church and as Gervase of Canterbury (source 15) points out: "He walked barefoot and clad in a woollen smock all the way to the martyr's tomb. There he lay and of his free will was whipped by all the bishops and abbots there present and each individual monk of the church of Canterbury."