Thomas Becket

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Thomas Becket (the form in which he is sometimes given, Thomas à Becket, is a later version, and seems not to have been used in his lifetime), or Thomas of Canterbury, was, from his death in 1170 until the Reformation, the most widely venerated saint in England. He is the most common Saint Thomas mentioned in English before the Reformation. His tomb in Canterbury Cathedral was a site of pilgrimage, and was reputed to be the richest in gold when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. His status is owed to the fact that he was declared a saint within three years of his shocking murder in the Cathedral, Canterbury, in which he served as Archbishop, in 1170. As the Archbishop of Canterbury is ex officio the head of the English church and he was cut down, unarmed, in the holy building, by four assailants while trying to assert the rights of the Pope against the demands of Henry II, he was immediately recognized as a martyr.

The story told about his death is that it followed the rage of Henry II, who cried out in his court in Normandy "Who will rid me of the turbulent priest?". Four of his loyal followers, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito (or le Bret) crossed the Channel, rode to Canterbury and killed Becket. The ODNB prefers the version of Henry's words as "What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!", which is less clearly an incitement to murder. Nevertheless, Henry did penance for the rest of his life.

At least three important literary works have been written about the death of Thomas Becket:

  • Murder in the Cathedral, a play by T.S.Eliot first performed in 1935;
  • Becket, a play written in French by Jean Anouilh published in 1959 (the sub-title is L'Honneur de Dieu, or 'The Honour of God');
  • Becket, a play published by Tennyson in 1884.