Why Did the King of England Kill Thomas Becket?

King Henry II and his archbishop Thomas Becket had conflicting ideas about how to run the church and state of England. So how did things escalate to Becket being killed?

Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 23, 2023
Why Did the King of England Kill Thomas Becket?

King Henry II and his archbishop Thomas Becket had conflicting ideas about how to run the church and state of England as a joint venture.

The difference of opinion between the leaders of the royal and spiritual world led to a tragic incident: Thomas Becket was killed by royal knights in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket died for his beliefs, which conflicted with his once-close friend’s beliefs.

Where Did Thomas Becket Come From?

Thomas had been raised in a good family of merchant-class parents with Norman roots. As a young person, he was educated in London and Paris.

Catholic Online notes that he was remembered as “a strongly built, spirited youth, a lover of field sports, who seems to have spent his leisure time in hawking and hunting.”

Thomas Becket became a church administrator at twenty-four under a mentor, Archbishop Theobold of Canterbury. Becket’s father introduced Thomas to Theobold, and Becket became a member of the archbishop’s household after Becket’s parents died. Theobold groomed Becket for high church office and supported his further education at the University of Bologna in Italy, followed by studies at St. Etienne’s Cathedral in Auxerre, France.

At age 37, Theobold ordained Becket, and the young man became an archdeacon. Three months later, Becket became Chancellor of Canterbury.

What Did Thomas Becket Do as Chancellor of Canterbury?

Becket performed his duties well and was in good graces with King Henry II, his personal friend. Becket’s earthy upbringing changed drastically when he assumed a lavish lifestyle as archdeacon and chancellor of England. His friend and clerk William Fitstephen described Becket’s life as filled with “splendid clothing and furnishings,” an entourage of followers, and trips abroad with the king.

Becket served as chancellor for seven years, keeping records of the diocese and serving as his bishop’s chief representative and secretary in administering church business. The position is still part of the royal hierarchy of England. The Lord Chancellor is the highest-ranking minister in the United Kingdom, appointed by the king or queen of England under the prime minister’s advisement.

As a twelfth-century chancellor, Becket heard applications for church positions and granted dispensations. He also preserved and arranged church documents.

Becket is described as a talented chancellor. Robert of Cricklade recalls, “Blithe of countenance was he, winning and lovable in conversation, frank of speech in his discourses but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.”

Michael David Knowles, author of the 1977 Becket biography, explains the young Becket’s personality:

“His memory was extraordinarily tenacious and, though neither a scholar nor a stylist, he excelled in argument and repartee. He made himself agreeable to all around him, and his biographers attest that he led a chaste life—in this respect uninfluenced by the king.”

However, Thomas Becket’s clerical life was not all reflection and administration. As chancellor, Thomas razed castles, repaired the Tower of London, conducted embassies, and led troops in war. As a talented and trusted agent for King Henry II, biographers have compared Thomas Becket to Joseph in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s court.

Becket was a gifted aid to Henry, who imagined Becket would support his policies that increased the monarchy’s power while suppressing the Roman Catholic Church’s influence.

After serving seven years as chancellor, Becket reluctantly accepted a promotion to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1611, appointed by Henry. Becket was 52, and King Henry was about 37. The position had been vacant in the year since Theobold’s death. Becket returned from his adventures with Henry in Normandy, France, and was pressed into service as an archbishop. He was immensely popular with the citizens of the Canterbury diocese. However, he and Henry soon “frenemies.”

Why Did Thomas Becket Clash with Henry II?

Since Becket had been close friends with Henry, Many predicted he would be the king’s ideal ally—a “yes man” who could make exceptions or change policies to give Henry more power.

Instead of becoming more worldly once he attained a more powerful position, Becket became deeply concerned about honoring God as archbishop. Knowles notes, “Once consecrated, Thomas changed both his outlook and his way of life. He became devout and austere and embraced the integral program of the papacy and its canon law.”

Embracing Roman Catholic canon law did not sit well with King Henry II. He had used his power to regain property and change the legal system to the administrative system his grandfather had used—leaving less property and legal protections to the church. He had hoped to enforce his new policies with Becekt’s blessings. Instead, the two men fought repeatedly over the separation of church and state.

Becket was most disturbed by how King Henry handled clergy who had committed crimes. Before Henry’s reign, clergy who committed crimes received a hearing in the Catholic church without a civil trial. Becket wanted to retain the traditional system of keeping clergy’s crimes within the papacy’s jurisdiction.

The conflict climaxed when Henry published his Constitutions of Clarendon. The new law enforced clerical servants’ punishment in a civil court and forbade clerical criminals from appealing to the Roman Catholic Church. It also forbade the church from excommunicating royal officials. The Constitution also gave the king particular benefits—revenue connected to vacant sees (church positions that had to be filled) and a voice in electing bishops. Thomas claimed these provisions went against church law. The final straw came when Henry II appointed his son king; appointing the next king was an honor previously bestowed on the church.

Becket refused to sign the Constitution of Clarendon and tried to resign from his office and revert to his archdeacon position. These actions escalated his conflict with his king. Becket was summoned to be tried by Henry’s court. To escape punishment, Thomas Becket fled in disguise to France and remained in exile there for six years, from November 1164 until December 1170.

Was Thomas Becket’s Death an Accident?

Becket’s death in 1170 was a surprising one. Shortly after returning to England in 1170, Becket excommunicated several bishops. When Henry heard the news, he complained that none of his servants were doing anything about Becket.

A famous story claims that Henry said, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Sources from the period show he actually said, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric!”

Several knights heard his complaint and decided they would do something about the problem. They arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on December 29. Becket refused to change his choice to excommunicate the bishops or to resist his attackers. They slew Becket in front of the church altar.

Before he died, Becket cried out, “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.”

Within three years of his death, Thomas Becket was canonized as a martyr. Four years after Becket’s death, King Henry did penance at Canterbury and was absolved of crimes he committed that affected Becket’s death.

Thomas Becket’s shrine became one of the most visited places in Europe over the following centuries. He was also frequently represented in paintings, sculptures, and other art, particularly in churches dedicated to him. He is also commemorated in literature: The fictional memoirs in The Canterbury Tales describe a spiritual yet bawdy pilgrimage to Canterbury to Thomas Becket’s shrine.

Also known as St. Thomas, he is venerated as a saint and martyr in the Roman Catholic Church. He is a patron saint of secular clergy (priests and deacons who serve as parish pastors).

What Can We Learn from Thomas Becket?

Becket’s life has several lessons and cautions we can learn from today. Perhaps the key one is regardless of whether he took some idealist positions that were perhaps unnecessary, he did understand that following God meant giving up the world.

G. Connor Salter writes about how these tensions in Becket’s life appear in the 1964 movie Becket:

“[The movie] Becket makes an interesting movie about martyrdom because it depicts a Christian who doesn’t feel good enough to serve God, much less die for him. He struggles to understand God. In early scenes, he seems either amoral or expert at being all things to all people. His spiritual trials increase when he becomes a religious authority. When he stands for God, he has to fight not against faceless authorities, but against a friend.”

Becket ultimately made the supreme sacrifice.

As Jesus preached in His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Thomas Becket found his spiritual roots in later life. He embraced what his faith in God and his church compelled him to do. Thomas Becket lived his last years by the words of Matthew 5:10.

FAQ: Thomas Becket in Five Minutes

For a condensed version of Thomas Becket’s life to share with students or in small groups, here’s Dan Graves’ profile of the famous man:

“Canterbury had been over a year without an archbishop when Henry II of England nominated his chancellor, Thomas for the post. Thomas protested to Henry. ‘I am certain that if ... it were to so happen the love and favor you now bear towards me would speedily turn into bitterest hatred.’

Henry did not think so. Thomas had been the bold and vigorous agent of his policy so long that the king expected he would bring the church to heel. Becket resisted accepting the promotion although Theobald, the last archbishop, had hoped and prayed for him as his successor. Through the urging of a cardinal, Thomas was finally swayed to accept the post. On June 2 he was ordained priest and on this day, June 3, 1162, the Bishop of Winchester consecrated him.

As chancellor, Becket had lived a life of great wealth. He had fought brilliantly beside the king and been a vigorous champion of his monarch’s interests. Nonetheless he had remained personally devout. Whatever his faults, his noble character could not betray any trust which he undertook. Holding the former archbishop St. Anselm before him as his model, he became a devout, austere, studious, pure and energetic archbishop. The willful king and strong archbishop were sure to clash.

Of the issues at stake, none rankled the king more than clerical privileges. Monks, priests, crusaders, students, and the servants of churchmen were immune to civil trial, being tried instead under canon law. Consequently many escaped serious punishment despite serious crimes.

In 1164 Henry issued the Constitutions of Clarendon. These quite properly brought most trials under the purview of the king. Any cleric convicted of a crime in ecclesiastical court had to be handed over to the secular authority for punishment. The power of excommunication was somewhat abated. Clerics were bound to the customs of the land, the common law. No longer might they appeal to the pope for redress from the king’s legal decisions.

Tricked (he claimed) into accepting these (he was told the pope had agreed to them) Becket soon recanted his acceptance and refused to sign. At stake were traditional prerogatives of the church. Forced to flee into exile, he tried to resign his see. The pope refused to accept the resignation. The king levied huge fines on Becket and forced his relatives into exile. Efforts at reconciliation failed and Becket’s stubbornness was partly to blame. Not until 1170 did Becket return to England, his principles intact. In frustration Henry wished aloud to be rid of the independent archbishop.

Four knights took him at his word and chopped Becket down in front of Canterbury’s altar. Becket, who could have escaped, refused to do so. He died bravely. ‘I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’

Because of Becket, Canterbury became the most visited shrine in England.”

Dan Graves’ Bibliography:

“Becket, Thomas.” Anecdotes from History.

“Becket, Thomas, St.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.

Carey, John, editor. Eyewitness to History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Dowley, Tim, editor. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977.

Hook, Walter Farquhar, 1798-1875. Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London, R. Bentley, 1865 - 1884.

Jameson, Mrs. (Anna). Legends of the Monastic Orders as Represented in the Fine Arts. London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1872. Source of the portrait.

McKilliam, Annie E. A Chronicle of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London: J. Clarke, 1913.

“Thomas known as Thomas A Becket.” Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.

Time-Life. The Age of Faith.

Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated April, 2007.

(“Henry’s Love for Becket Became Hatred,” by Dan Graves, MSL, published on Christianity.com on May 3, 2010).

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Photos.com

Betty DunnBetty Dunn hopes her writing leads you to holding hands with God. A former high school English teacher, editor, and nonprofit agency writer, she now works on writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets and family. Check out her blog at Betty by Elizabeth Dunning and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com.

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