John Gayford explores the popularity of the martyred archbishop


At about 4.30pm on Tuesday 29th December 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered by four knights in his own cathedral at the end of monastic Vespers. Rather confusingly for us, the monks at Canterbury would have called this 1171, as they in common with a number of monasteries started their new year from Christmas Day. In Canterbury Cathedral there were on this day two Vespers, one in choir for the monks followed by the second in the nave for the clerks and people of the city. It would seem there was some disturbance during monastic Vespers and it was clearly in the minds of some of the monks that the Archbishop was in danger. To prevent further problems, it appears they wanted the doors barred, but Thomas prevented them. In the minutes before and after the event, like most tragic violence, there was confusion, numbing of human emotion with shouting, possibly screaming, bravery and cowardice. The many accounts vary of this event that were written in the years following. The cathedral would have been dark and shadowy, lit only by a few candles. The knights like most assassins did not hang around after the event. A crowd of monks and lay people gradually moved forward to look at the body. Simple folk knelt on the floor dipping fingers in the blood and making the sign of the cross; they saw a martyr, a saint and potential miracles.

Up to this point Thomas had not been popular. Before 1162, Thomas was only in minor orders and so had to be ordained priest before he was made a bishop. Although nominated by King Henry II and appointed by Pope Alexander III for political reasons, Thomas later disputed with the king, embarrassing the church and spending most of his episcopate in exile in France. His absence and his assumption of grandeur made him unpopular with the monks. He only returned to England on 1st December 1170 and even on Christmas Day was excommunicating the Archbishop of York and other English bishops. It seemed best to bury him quickly without the ceremonies due to an archbishop. This was reinforced next day by Robert de Broc representing the king and claiming Thomas as a traitor who should be hung from a gibbet and flung on a dung heap. So Thomas was to be buried quickly and quietly in the crypt. In preparing Thomas for burial, the monks were moved to find a hair shirt and monastic habit under his clothes and started to revise their opinions. Moreover there were miracles within hours of the murder of Thomas. Blood of the martyr had been scraped up, diluted with water and bottled to form what was called ‘Thomas Water,’ with which the sick were being miraculously cured. The story of his martyrdom and of the miracles spread, probably with embellishment by each teller. And this even though the cathedral had been closed and the king’s men placed a guard round it with threats of prosecution of those who venerated Thomas. Yet the mystique grew, with some managing to get near to the tomb to develop a shrine. The monks realized they had a valuable commodity and started to record the miracles plus accept gifts in exchange for ampoules of ‘Thomas Water.’ These were called the new doctor (novus medicus). Phials of St Thomas curative water were labelled ‘the best physician.’ 

The cathedral was not opened again until Easter 1171 and not reconsecrated until 21st December of the same year, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle and Thomas Becket’s birthday. A wall was built round the tomb of Thomas with holes in it so the pilgrims could reach in and touch it. Candles were lit and vigils were kept at the shrine in hope of healing. When cured, some were frightened to leave the shrine lest their malady returned and lingered for some days. All the secrecy added to the excitement. The monks were beginning to rejoice in a very good income. 

In the first 15 years after the death of Thomas there were over 700 miracles posthumously attributed to him. The monks realized that the cult of Thomas was now greatly to their advantage and thus they needed to promote it and exploit it. So it was important that records were kept of all the miracles. Brothers Benedict and William were made the first custodians of the shrine. 

When King Henry II heard of the death of Thomas on 1st January 1171 he lamented loudly, wore sackcloth and shut himself away for three days with no food. He wanted to prove that he was innocent of the death. He feared excommunication by Pope Alexander III. By 1173 things were going badly for the king; rebellion was afoot. He was seen as a ‘king of evil repute’ and his empire was crumbling. On 12th July 1174, he went to Canterbury, walking the last mile bare foot. He made his confession to the Bishop of London, declared he was not the cause of the death of Thomas but had said things that were unwise. He received a symbolic whipping from the monks, gave money to the shrine and promised to pay for the building of a monastery in honour of Thomas. This seemed to do the trick; his enemies either submitted or were captured: except for the four knights who disappeared, possibly to the Crusades. The royal visit to the shrine increased its popularity. 

The canonization of Thomas Becket occurred very quickly even by the standards of the times. Martyrdom usually produced fast-track canonization, but martyrdom of an archbishop in his cathedral scandalized Christendom and made for extra speed. Pope Alexander III received petitions from William of Canterbury who sent copies of records of the miracles, and from John of Salisbury and Herbert of Bosham who had been friends of Thomas together with a petition from the King of France. It is to be noted that there was no petition from King Henry II or the English church. Thomas was declared a saint on Ash Wednesday 1173 by Pope Alexander III. It was his martyrdom and the miracles that made him a saint.

Thomas became the most famous thaumaturgic saint (by miracle worked either in his own lifetime or posthumously). Pilgrimage to Canterbury and miracles were inseparable with the shrine becoming the most famous shrine in Europe of its time. Pilgrims were more likely to hear of miracles from the custodians of the shrine than they were to meet the recipients.

England needed a shrine that was well placed on the route from Dover to London. Kings were to visit the shrine; Henry II made a proper pilgrimage in 1175 followed by Louis VII of France who thought his son was dying and so gave the famous jewelled ring, the great Regale of France. Visitors from the continent, including those famous or who became famous, dropped in on their way to London. Pilgrimage became big business and was good for the local economy: as it still is. 

In fact, there was the full range from the pious to those going for a good time. It was the mediaeval holiday; a chance to get away from the routine of life including monastic routine. Some came to give thanks or pray for a miracle, some were sent on penance and even criminals came in chains to be released at the shrine or on return with proof of their pilgrimage. ‘Palmers’ were professionals who went on pilgrimage for others for payment.

Canonization demanded a more elaborate shrine but translation of St Thomas had to be postponed to 7th July 1220. First there had been a major fire in the cathedral, and then problems over early deaths of successors of Thomas. Two years’ notice was served so that it could be the greatest gathering of ecclesiastical and royal dignitaries in English history to that date. This gave St Thomas Becket a summer festival which could go on for two weeks with a fair and carnival. 

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written at the end of the 14th century give us a dramatized glimpse of 30 assorted people meeting at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury. They are living characters not pale pious stereotypes; they have compelling tales to tell, they had varied motives for visiting the shrine at Canterbury. We only see them on their way to Canterbury, as Chaucer never completed the work, with some not telling their story. It would have been fascinating to have seen them on their way back and possibly heard their experiences and of the impression the shrine had on them, their lives and the way they told their story. Nevertheless it shows us people were still making their way to the shrine of St Thomas some 200 years after his death even if their motive was not deeply religious. 

Offerings made at the shrine give some indication of the number of pilgrims. This shows that the 14th century was the great age of pilgrimage to Canterbury, especially in an epidemic of the Black Death. Offerings started to decline at the end of the 15th century. King Henry VIII visited the shrine as a pilgrim in his younger days but in 1538 had the shrine destroyed and confiscated all it treasures.

There is no single reason why the shrine became so popular and stayed as England’s national shrine. The brutal murder of an archbishop in his own cathedral made him a martyr and obliterated his many faults so that the moment his blood was spread on the floor common people saw him as a saint. The miracles sealed the issue and changed the attitudes of the monks and within four months the Pope was seeking evidence for canonization. Royal support from first France then England followed. England needed a national shrine and Canterbury was at the right place on the trade route between the Continent and London. It was a safe place to which women (including nuns) might travel. Pilgrimage could be fun as Chaucer shows. In short, the cult of St Thomas Becket came at the right time and in the right place. By the Reformation, there were eighty churches dedicated to St Thomas Becket in England. 


Fr John Gayford SSC is Honorary Assistant Priest 

of St Mary’s, East Grinstead

Suggested further reading:

  • Barlow, Thomas Becket, Phoenix Press, London. 1986.
  • Butler, The Quest for Becket’s Bones, Yale University Press, London, 1995.
  • Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind, Wildwood House Limited, Aldershot, 1987.
  • Webb, Pilgrimage in Medieval England, Hambledon & London, London, 2000.