Was Thomas Becket a Saint or an Arrogant Troublemaker?

We ask four historians to consider the reputation of Henry II’s Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered 850 years ago this month.

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket (detail), Psalter c.1220, f.32 (BL Harley MS 5102). British Library.

‘Medieval sanctity was usually not equivalent to a life of cherubic sweetness’

Rachel Koopmans, Associate Professor of History, York University, Toronto

A saint? Yes. Citizens of Canterbury began mopping up Thomas Becket’s blood as martyr’s relics almost before his body was cold. Within five years of his death, Becket was considered to be a saint by virtually everyone. Even his arch-enemies came around. Henry II believed that Becket miraculously fought on his side and saved his kingdom from rebellion in 1174. Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, hated Becket, in part because he thought he should have been archbishop, but he too later believed that Becket had performed a miracle for him. Becket was not just a saint: he was one of the great medieval saints, drawing in pilgrims from across Latin Christendom. Lollard heretics, who rejected sanctity wholesale, were some of the very few who dissented, speaking of Becket as ‘Thomas of Cankerbury’.

An arrogant troublemaker? Also yes. Becket got into trouble time and again by stating that he accepted the terms of an agreement ‘saving the privileges of my order’, or ‘saving the honour of God’. This was equivalent to saying ‘sure, I’ll do it, unless I think God would want me to do otherwise’ and wrecked peace deal after peace deal. One of Becket’s own household mocked him with this phrase, loudly telling his stumbling horse that it needed to keep going, ‘saving the honour of God’. Becket reproved the man, but there’s no question that even Becket’s friends and supporters sighed over his pig-headedness.

Medieval sanctity was usually not equivalent to a life of cherubic sweetness. If Becket had not been an arrogant troublemaker, he wouldn’t have found himself in such a difficult position with the king. If he hadn’t insulted and fought with the knights on the day of his death, he probably would not have died. In the eyes of his contemporaries, what made him a saint was his willingness to die in defence of the church’s privileges, his death in the cathedral (which many compared to the passion of Christ) and then, to them the irrefutable proof, news of his miracles. Attested to even by his enemies, the miracles sealed the case for Becket’s sanctity. 

 

‘No one imagined he would have become a saint if he hadn’t been brutally murdered’

John Guy, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and author of Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim (Allen Lane, 2012)

Thomas Becket was no saint, and he knew it. When, in 1162, Henry II bluntly ordered him to combine the roles of chancellor and archbishop, Becket answered incredulously: ‘How religious, how saintly is the man you would appoint to that holy see?’ He guessed the plan could tax his loyalty, but the king remained insistent.      

Becket never lacked for critics. His resignation of the chancellorship without consulting Henry smacked of arrogance. In 1164, at Clarendon, he promised to adhere to what the king called the ‘ancestral customs’, only to renege when Henry produced a written text. Becket had been naive: it didn’t occur to him to demand that the ‘customs’ be declared in full before he promised to observe them. He was tricked into believing that verbal assent would suffice. His jealous rival for the archbishopric, Gilbert Foliot, said of him: ‘He always was a fool and always will be.’ In 1166, Foliot sent him a broadside, calling him rash, brash and supercilious, a troublemaker who allowed his obsessions to run riot.

Becket could act impulsively in his attempts to force matters to a head. He had two opportunities to settle the quarrel in 1169 when, instead of ratifying the terms he had previously agreed, an ascetic, rebel’s instinct kicked in at the last moment. No one imagined he would have become a saint if he hadn’t been brutally murdered. In his defence, the pope had ordered him: ‘Humble yourself before the king as far as it can be done, but do not agree to anything which leads to the diminution of your office and the Church’s liberty.’

John of Salisbury, the friend who knew Becket best, gives us as true a verdict as we are ever likely to have. Becket was a divided consciousness, keenly aware that one day he could no longer go on vacillating between self-assertion and dishonest compliance.

Opinion tends to be shaped by circumstances. In 1520, Henry VIII regarded Becket as a revered saint and took Emperor Charles V with him to kneel at his shrine. Some years later, he denounced Becket as a traitor to his king. What had changed? Henry had broken with Rome.

 

‘The canonisation and subsequent cult were defined by the manner of his death’

Anne J. Duggan, Author of Thomas Becket (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), Emeritus Professor of Medieval History and fellow of King’s College, London

It all depends on the perspective. Although Becket’s biographers emphasised signs of sanctity in his earlier life, the canonisation and subsequent cult were defined by the manner of his death in defence of ecclesiastical rights, which became encapsulated in the slogan ‘freedom of the Church’ (libertas ecclesie). Without the violent and bloody murder in the cathedral on 29 December 1170, it is unlikely that Becket would have been canonised. Without the relevance of his struggle to contemporary church-state relations across Europe, his cult would not have enjoyed the extraordinary success that saw him recognised before 1200 as a clerical icon across the whole of Latin Christendom, from Trondheim (Norway) to Monreale (Sicily) and from Tomar (Portugal) to Sulejów (Poland). Becket’s heroic resistance to Henry II’s attempt to curtail freedom of election, ecclesiastical jurisdiction over clerics in criminal and some civil actions and the right of appeal from English episcopal courts to the papal court, gave encouragement to other prelates confronted by similar challenges. Read from the perspective of 21st-century realities, however, where, generally speaking, the nation state enjoys legal sovereignty, Becket’s resistance to such policies looks like arrogant obstruction of the legitimate rights of the crown to govern the realm of England; but such a conclusion is defensible only by reading history backwards.

Henry II was no constitutional monarch. He ruled as much by force and fear as by lawful process and his imposition of his chancellor as Archbishop of Canterbury was part of a plan to add control of the English Church to his political armoury. Becket’s resignation of the chancery and refusal to play the king’s game led directly to the mockery of a ‘trial’ at Northampton in 1164, his denunciation as traitor and, ultimately, to his murder. The four barons who attacked him claimed they were acting on a royal mandate that sanctioned his arrest and transfer to Normandy, but their armed pursuit of the archbishop into the sacred precincts of the cathedral, followed by the brutal murder of the English primate, had no justification. No law sanctioned such outrageous sacrilege.

 

‘Henry II had a genius for alienating those closest to him’

Hugh M. Thomas, Professor of History at the University of Miami

Thomas Becket became a canonised saint because he was a troublemaker: little else qualified him for that role. The medieval church took many uncompromising stances, at least in theory, and it is hard to know how an ecclesiastical authority could have satisfied all the theoretical demands of office without being a troublemaker. Take a key issue in Becket’s clash with Henry II: the proper punishment of clerics who committed crimes, especially violent ones that traditionally warranted harsh physical punishments, including execution. The clergy strongly supported such punishments for laypeople and acknowledged that priests and other clerics sometimes committed heinous crimes, but insisted that preserving the untouched sacral status of the clerical body was so important that clerics should be exempt from physical penalties. Since views about the sacred character of the clerical body also served as the foundation for demanding celibacy, this was not simply a self-serving stance, but it met with little sympathy from the laity. Henry offered a compromise whereby defrocking preceded physical punishment, which many found reasonable, but for purists like Becket this was an unacceptable legal dodge.

So Becket was a troublemaker. But was he an arrogant one? In practice, ecclesiastical authorities constantly compromised on various issues to function in the world. For Henry and his supporters, including some bishops, Becket’s unwillingness to do so made him arrogant, especially given his status as an ‘upstart’ son of a merchant who owed his rise to the king.

Was Becket’s unwillingness to compromise the sole cause of the disastrous outcome of the feud? Maybe not. Henry II had a genius for alienating those closest to him: one of his brothers, his wife and three of his sons led revolts against him. Henry was not the sole source of family strife, but the pattern is suggestive of an unusually difficult personality. Henry used confrontations, proxy violence and threats, all admittedly standard tactics in the period for powerful people, to bully Becket into submission and, though this worked initially, it ultimately failed spectacularly. For many contemporaries, most importantly the pope, Becket’s troublemaking and subsequent embrace of martyrdom marked him as a saint.