On Friday July 12th 1174, King Henry II came to Canterbury to do penance to the bishops and monks of the cathedral at the tomb of Thomas Becket, for the murder of the Archbishop.

After praying at the Leper Hospital in Harbledown, the king walked to St. Dunstan’s Church, where he stripped down to his shirt before walking barefoot through the city. On arrival at the cathedral, he kissed the flagstones in the martyrdom transept where Thomas Becket’s body had lain, before the king proceeded to the Archbishop’s temporary tomb in the crypt, where he was whipped.

But what had caused the king to have so disastrously fallen out with his old friend, which subsequently lead to the murder of the Archbishop in the cathedral on December 29th 1170​?

Catholic clerics had a long standing right of appeal to the pope, who took precedence over the sovereign head of state in their allegiance.

In 1161, Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec died. King Henry II then had an idea for how he could obtain future supremacy over the defiant church bishops: he would exercise his royal prerogative to appoint his friend Lord Chancellor Thomas Becket to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Thomas Becket took his new role very seriously and that would increasingly bring him in to conflict with the king.

On January 30th 1164, just over nine years after King Henry II succeeded to the throne of England, the king enacted what would become known as the Constitutions of Clarendon, named after Clarendon Palace where the discussions were held between the archbishop and the king.

The Constitutions of Clarendon were a set of legislative procedure articles intended to curtail eclessiastical privileges of cannon law in the catholic church historically enjoyed by the clergy, including: personal inviolability against malicious injury; special courts for civil and criminal cases heard by an ecclesiastical judge; exemption from taxation and other liabilities; and the right to proper sustenance.

Archbishop Thomas Becket was asked to sign the Constitution’s articles to establish the king’s rights; the alternative would be to face political repercussions if he did not sign.

What occurred after the ultimatum was made to the archbishop and of his refusal to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, were the events which would lead to Archbishop Thomas Becket being murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th 1170 and of the subsequent penance by the king three and a half years later. The penance made to the bishops and monks of Canterbury included the king being whipped by them. A lesser known part of the penance done was to institute the payment in perpetuity of twenty marks annually to the Leper Hospital at Harbledown.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London, probably in the year 1120, on December 21st, the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle. Thomas was the son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket. He had three sisters: Agnes, Roheise, and Mary.

Gilbert Becket was a wealthy Norman from Thierville, near Rouen, born around 1090, who became a prosperous London merchant and property owner. He married Matilda, who may have been born in Caen.

When he was ten years of age, Thomas Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and later attended a grammar school in London. Sometime after he began his schooling, his father suffered financially, through it seems the great fire of 1133 starting in his house and burning down so much of the city that his properties were seriously deminished, reducing him to comparative poverty.

About the year 1140, Gilbert Becket first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative, Osbert Huitdeniers (whose surname in English is Eightpence) as sheriff’s clerk, giving him his first taste of royal administration. Later, Thomas Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, who by then had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Archbishop Theobald entrusted Thomas Becket with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154, Archbishop Theobald named Thomas Becket as Archdeacon of Canterbury. Other ecclesiastical offices held by Thomas Becket included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Archbishop Theobald recommending Thomas Becket to the king for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which he was appointed in January 1155.

Thomas Becket’s election to the post of archbishop was confirmed on May 23rd 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen. The king might have hoped that Thomas Becket would continue to put the royal government first, rather than that of the church, but instead, Archbishop Becket began leading a life of abstinence and dedication to his role of leading the church.

Thomas Becket was ordained a priest on June 2nd 1162 in Canterbury. On the following day, he was consecrated archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and the other suffragan bishops of Canterbury.

A rift grew between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, as the archbishop resigned his chancellorship soon after taking up his new office. This led to a series of conflicts with the king, including about the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen, which accelerated hostility between the archbishop and the king. Attempts by the king to influence the other bishops against Thomas Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, when the king sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government with regard to the church. In due course, this led to the Constitutions of Clarendon, the set of legislative procedures, enacted by King Henry II at Clarendon Palace, which Archbishop Thomas Becket refused to sign.

As Lord Chancellor, Thomas Becket enforced the king’s traditional sources of revenue extracted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. The king even sent his son Henry to live in Thomas’s household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Thomas Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life.

An emotional attachment to Thomas Becket as a foster father might have been one of the reasons the younger Henry subsequently turned against his father King Henry II.

Both Agnes and Roheise Becket subsequently married and had children. Mary became abbess of Barking in 1173, having been appointed by charter granted by King Henry II as restitution for Thomas Becket’s murder.

Matilda Becket died in 1141. When Gilbert Becket died a few years later, his daughter Agnes inherited his property. Both Gilbert and Matilda Becket are buried in the cemetery of the old St. Paul’s cathedral in London.

How King Henry III came to grant privileges to Canterbury City Council in return for city rate payers taking over responsibiity for paying the king’s Leper Hospital annual penance payment is another story for a later time!

Read more local history articles on the chaucer.university website.