InQuire’s History of Canterbury Episode III: Murder in the Cathedral

Evening, 29 December 1170. Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is about to conduct prayers in the cathedral. Meanwhile, four knights are racing to Canterbury. What’s about to happen is the most important event in Canterbury’s history…

Thomas Becket wasn’t your usual Medieval politician. He wasn’t born into the ruling elite like Boris Johnson but raised in destitute Cheapside. Brilliant intellect and efficiency took him to the pinnacle of twelfth-century politics, barely in his twenties (when most of us today are still living with our parents and working at Asda) when he entered the service of King Henry II.

The Malcolm Tucker of twelfth-century England, Becket had a great knack of getting stuff done; most importantly for cash-strapped Henry, collecting lots of money. This financial efficiency led Henry to name his new close friend Chancellor, a real-life ‘Hand of the King’. An even greater opportunity came in 1162, when the Archbishop of Canterbury (England’s religious leader don’t forget) died. Henry, like all Medieval monarchs having a tricky relationship with the church, now saw a great opportunity for his close friend and devout servant to lead the church for him too, especially since Becket was brilliant at getting money from it. The problem was that Becket was not a priest, which is sort of major criteria for becoming an archbishop. So, in a Medieval version of ’60 Minute Makeover’, Becket was consecrated as a priest one morning, a bishop that afternoon and then Archbishop the next day.

The big dilemma was that Henry’s plan failed. Becket, once the biggest leech on the church, sucking all its influence and money, suddenly experienced a miraculous epiphany and became its biggest defender. He immediately resigned as Chancellor and began a tireless moral crusade on behalf of the church against Henry. He refused to allow churches to pay the taxes he himself created, he refused to bend the church to Henry’s will and was generally a right pain in Henry’s arse. For such a political backstabbing, Henry placed Becket on trial at Northampton (one of the few interesting things to happen in my hometown). But Becket instead fled to France.

Only after an eight-year cooling-down period, and some intervention from the Pope, was Henry willing to allow his old friend back. But Becket, a born-again fanatic after two years in a French monastery, made a huge mistake. It’s an ancient tradition that only the Archbishop of Canterbury can crown England’s monarchs; yet, whilst Becket was away, three bishops had crowned Henry’s son, Henry, as co-ruler. Becket decided to Excommunicate the bishops (the worst religious punishment, basically meaning they’d go straight to hell). For Henry, this was the final straw. At Christmas dinner 1170, Henry supposedly said ‘will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?!’ Unfortunately, four knights, eagerly listening and desperate suck-ups, took this literally, and immediately set of to Canterbury to get Becket.

Murder of Thomas Becket. Image: Wiki Commons

So we come to that fateful night. Becket was halfway through prayers when the knights burst into the cathedral, ordering him to come with them. Becket refused, stating ‘I am not afraid of death or the King’. All four knights began butchering him, but he just wouldn’t die; it was only when one knight sliced through Becket’s head so hard that the sword shattered on the stone floor that the turbulent priest finally died, his blood, guts and brains all over the cathedral. You can even see the place where he was murdered today, known as ‘the Martyrdom’.

The Martyrdom, site of Becket’s murder. Image: Canterbury Cathedral

But why was this so important to Canterbury? It was not long after that pilgrims came to Becket’s grave to pray for miracles, and (supposedly) they worked. Becket’s body was reported to have mystical powers, leading to more pilgrims, nearly 100,000 in the year after his death. As such, in 1173, barely two years after his murder, Becket was made a saint by Pope Alexander III; a real kick-in-the-teeth for King Henry, who’d now technically murdered a saint.

Ever wondered why a street in Canterbury is called ‘The King’s Mile’? This was the path Henry took as punishment for murdering a saint in 1174. Like Cersei’s ‘Walk of Atonement’ scene in Game of Thrones, Henry walked shamefully through Canterbury, ridiculed and wearing a sack, to the cathedral and tomb of his murdered friend, where he was whipped by the monks as penance.

But Canterbury had loads of saints (as the last episode showed), why was Becket so special? When the Pope canonised Saint Thomas, me made his tomb a site of Plenary Indulgence. Medieval people often went on pilgrimages to have a certain sin forgiven, like if you slept with your mate’s wife. But, under Plenary Indulgence, if you travelled to Canterbury, all your sins were forgiven. There were only three other ways to do this: risking disease and Moorish assassins by going to St James’s shrine in Northern Spain; crossing the freezing Alps on a pilgrimage to Rome; or by travelling thousands of miles and butchering Muslims on a crusade. So, naturally, Canterbury soon became the prime pilgrimage destination for most of Europe for nearly five centuries. Princes, lords, peasants came in their thousands (maybe even millions) to our city, even the King of France, pleading Saint Thomas to give him a son after six daughters (Medieval feminism at its finest).

Becket’s shrine as it would have been in Medieval times. Image: Canterbury Cathedral

And, importantly for Canterbury, with these pilgrims came money, lots of money. Pilgrims needed accommodation, food, even mementos, not to mention the obligatory donation to the cathedral for visiting the shrine. It was this industry that made Canterbury rich; raking-in the equivalent of £16 million in the first year alone! This money payed for a huge rebuilding of Canterbury, including the city walls we know today and our glorious modern cathedral, since, naturally, the last one burned down soon after Becket’s death (it’s the last time, I promise!)

So, by the Mid-Medieval period, Canterbury was destination-of-choice, the Benidorm of Medieval religious holidaymakers, and one of the most religiously and culturally important places in the Christian world. All because of a guy from London who had his head caved in.