Becket – Murder, Miracles and Pilgrimage

Thomas Becket was a trusted friend and advisor to Henry II, who had appointed Becket his Chancellor in 1155.

Born in London, the son of a Norman merchant, Becket’s rise through the social classes to become the king’s key advisor and tutor-mentor to his eldest son and heir was stellar.

On the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, Henry saw an opportunity to consolidate his power over the Church by appointing his closest friend, Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, Henry underestimated Becket’s piety. Becket had been an Archdeacon at Canterbury prior to entering the king’s service and took on his new role in all seriousness.

So, when in 1164 Henry sought through the Constitution of Clarendon to exert control over the Church by bringing clerics under the control of the civil courts, Becket refused. Incensed, Henry had Becket tried and found guilty of treason at the Council of Northampton and Becket fled to France.

Charing Palace Trust - British Library

Image: Henry Arguing With Becket – British Library Royal MS 20 A II F007V, detail/© British Library Board 2017

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.

C14 pilgrim badge and an ampulla dated to 1170-1200

Images: 12th C Thomas à Becket Ampulla and 14th C Pilgrim Badge – © Trustees of the British Museum

The cult of Becket became a craze, drawing pilgrims from across Europe. On the 7th July 1220 Becket’s remains were ‘translated’ to a new and gloriously elaborate gold-covered shrine in a newly constructed Trinity Chapel behind the high alter at the east end of the cathedral, making it easier for ever larger volumes of pilgrims to visit the shrine – processed in every sense.

Faith brought them at first; then it was fashion. A pilgrimage to Canterbury became a ‘must do’ event for anyone who thought themselves anyone – something much parodied in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Many, like Chaucer’s party travelled to Canterbury via the old Roman road of Watling Street. But there was no single Pilgrim’s Way. Some are likely to have taken the ancient track way following the ridge of the chalk downs that became incorporated into the Via Francigena linking Winchester with Canterbury, Lyons and Rome.

This had been a pilgrimage route from as early as the 7th century, taken by those paying reverence to the remains of St Augustine and St Anselm but the cult of Becket would have ensured that the Via Francigena remained a popular thoroughfare, passing within a quarter of a mile of the northern boundary of Charing Palace’s precinct.

More would have come through Charing on the main road or Shire Way via Maidstone and Lenham, following the route that passed through the villages. This road passed through the heart of Charing immediately to the south of the Palace.

In 1298 Archbishop Winchelea successfully applied to Edward I to expand the Palace complex by moving the road some yards further south to enlarge the courtyard and enable the building of the southern lodging range and gatehouse we see today.

In the 350 years between Becket’s martyrdom and the destruction of the shrine at the hands of Henry VIII in 1538 many thousands of pilgrims would have passed by Charing on these routes and wondered what lay beyond the Palace’s flint and ragstone walls.

What became of the two huge chests of gold and jewels and 26 carts of treasure said to have been taken from Becket’s tomb on its destruction remains a mystery.

Main image: British Library A80132-87, detail/© British Library Board 2017