New College of the Humanities

Saint Thomas Becket, 1170-1970

J.J.N. McGurk reflects on the eighth centenary of Becket's martyrdom.

Eight centuries ago at Christmas, Thomas Becket was slain in his own cathedral of Canterbury. Certainly it is among the more remarkable events in English history. Intimately connected as it is with the stateliest of English cathedrals and with the first great poetry of the English language, the murder in the cathedral is very much part of the fabric of English history.

The man, and the cause for which he died have ever since exercised the minds of historians, hagiographers, poets, and in our day, plays and films on Becket have recaptured the modern imagination as fully as the actual event called forth the adoration and devotion of the English people in the middle ages. In Thomas’s case the martyrdom is the message; a new and permanent dimension to his cause was added by his heroic death.

It could be claimed that he served the Church better dead than alive: dead - miracles were worked at his tomb, he was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1172; Henry, the King, did genuine penance for his part in the murder and reached an agreement with the Papacy, in which the King conceded the point that clerks should not be punished in the secular courts except for forest offences: alive, Becket had been arrogant; to some obstinate and, in general, something of an embarrassment to his colleagues.

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