Adam of Charing, Becket’s steward of his Charing Palace lands at that time played a part in Becket’s flight – but not a helpful one, as he caused Becket’s first attempt to fail by persuading the sailors handling Becket’s escape ship to turn back to shore. Becket’s second attempt, minus Adam, succeeded.
Becket spent six years in exile in France, until when in 1170 Pope Alexander III intervened, took Becket’s side, and threatened Henry with excommunication. Henry reluctantly backed down. Becket won and on 1st December 1170 returned to England.
Becket, however, was not gracious in his victory, nor forgiving in his nature, and on his return excommunicated three of his most prominent clerical ‘enemies’ who he believed had supported Henry during his exile and with them Adam of Charing.
Learning of this while still in France, the king vented his frustration at Becket’s behaviour and questioned how he would be rid of this ‘troublesome priest’. Four of his knights took it into their hands to resolve matters.
Just four weeks after his return, Becket was dead, murdered at prayer in Canterbury Cathedral by the four knights who had sought to do what they thought was their king’s will.
Shock at the nature of Becket’s death was immense. His body was moved to a simple shrine in the Cathedral crypt and soon stories emerged of miracles that had taken place in the vicinity of his tomb. Becket became seen as a martyr.
Within three years of his murder, Becket was proclaimed a Saint and in 1174 King Henry came to give penance at Becket’s tomb.
Pilgrimage to Canterbury became an industry. First the poor and then the rich, pilgrims in their thousands came to Canterbury to visit the shrine. Some estimates put the number in the year after his death alone at an extraordinary 100,000 and value their donations at £30,000 – the equivalent of some £16 million today. Immediately, it became big business.
Two monks, Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury, documented some 700 miracles attributed to St. Thomas. And still they came, each pilgrim collecting some token of their visit – a badge or small vial of the martyr’s blood, diligently collected by the monks after Becket’s death – in return for a donation.