Becket and London
SAINT AND TRAITOR
The relationship between St Thomas Becket and London goes back 900 years to when Becket was born, in around 1120, on Cheapside in the heart of the City of London.
The son of Matilda and Gilbert Becket, a London merchant and Sheriff, he started his career as a humble accounts clerk, before rising to become Lord Chancellor of England, and ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas grew up around the streets of the City and attended a City grammar school before spending time in Paris at one of the great ecclesiastical universities of Europe.
His first job was as a clerk to a City banker named Huitdeniers (literally, 'eight pence') from whom he learned accounting. He was subsequently recruited by Theobald of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, becoming his right-hand man and rising to the position of Archdeacon.
Becket spent nine years working for Theobald, during which time he is thought to have played a diplomatic role with Rome to secure the succession of Henry Plantagenet to the English throne. Naturally, he caught the eye of the new King, who quickly promoted him to the rank of Lord Chancellor.
Very much Henry's man, and his personal friend, he aided the King in the prosecution of his grievances against the Church and acted as his ambassador abroad. He also helped to restore law and order to England after years of anarchy and frequently fought in battle.
A key priority as Chancellor was to rebuild London after the damage caused it by the wars of succession. He restored the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London, which came under his personal jurisdiction.
When the See of Canterbury became vacant in 1161, Becket was the King's natural choice as Archbishop, but a highly controversial one, particularly as he was not even ordained. To everyone’s astonishment, Becket made a complete personal transformation from his former lifestyle as an extravagant high-living courtier, to a passionate religious ascetic who insisted on performing his duties as an independent agent, answering not to the King, but to God and the Pope.
Henry and Becket quickly fell out over matters of legal jurisdiction and Becket was exiled to France where he stirred up trouble amongst Henry’s enemies for several years. Finally, with Henry’s agreement, he returned to England to defend his prerogative to preside over the coronation of Henry’s son who had been crowned titular King of England in his absence. The returning Archbishop’s first act was to excommunicate a number of Henry’s ecclesiastical allies, causing him to react with the angry words, 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?' A group of knights, loyal to the King, did just that. On 29 December 1170 they entered Canterbury cathedral during evening prayers and murdered Becket with great violence - an act which sent shock waves all over Europe.
Becket soon became celebrated as a martyr by the people of England, and a huge number of miracles sprang up around his name. In 1173, just three years after his death, Pope Alexander III canonised him. The former Thomas of Cheapside became Saint Thomas Becket (later à Becket).
A cult of veneration quickly developed. People from all over Europe would go on pilgrimage to Canterbury, to make offerings at his shine and pray for his intercession and protection. The people of London were not slow to honour their turbulent son and Becket was made the Patron Saint of London, alongside St Paul.
C12th City seal of St Thomas Becket enthroned over London and its citizens. It reads, 'Do not cease, St Thomas, to protect me who brought you forth.'
Hospitals and churches were dedicated to his honour, including St Thomas' Hospital in Southwark (subsequently re-built in Lambeth). Money donated by the citizens of London for a large new chapel dedicated to St Thomas helped to pay for the construction of the new stone London Bridge, whose centre it dominated.
The bridge and chapel were completed in 1210. A large statue of Becket marked the boundary of London, and was believed to give the city protection. This became the official starting point of the 60 mile trek to Canterbury immortalised though Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury’s Tales.
Popular love for Becket continued well after his death. In the mid 13th century, King Edward I rebuilt much of the Tower of London. He constructed an oratory in the Royal Quarters to Becket, which later became known as Thomas' Tower.
Regular Ceremonials and processions were carried out by the Lord Mayor of London and City authorities to honour him up to the 16th century. In 1519, on the four hundredth anniversary of his birth, the citizens of London led by Lord Mayor Mirfyn staged a magnificent pageant through the streets of the City to honour their Turbulent son turned Patron Saint.
Within less than 20 years, however, all trace of Thomas would be virtually eradicated from the City, as a new King Henry sought to take control of the Church through the Protestant Reformation.
In 1536, the celebration of Becket's feast day was banned. In 1538, his golden shrine at Canterbury was destroyed, his bones scattered, and the gold and enormous jewels that decorated it were absorbed by the exchequer. St Thomas' hospital was renamed for St Thomas the Apostle. Thomas' Tower was renamed Traitor's Gate, signifying Becket's change of status in the Tudor era from martyr to traitor.
For more information on Becket, and his life and influence, please follow the link below.
Inaugural Becket 2020 lecture, for Gresham College, by Prof. Caroline Barron, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History, Royal Holloway, London. Delivered February 2020 at Mercers’ Hall.
Becket's lost psalter?
A psalter believed to have belonged to Thomas Becket, and gifted to him when he was Archibishop of Canterbury, has been found in the Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge archives. A fascinating example of how the Becket story continues to be told in our own time.
For a page-by-page full digital rendering of the psalter, please click here.