Thomas Becket

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Thomas Becket - Window of Canterbury Cathedral
Thomas Becket's coat of arms ( blazon : three red-armed Alpine crows in silver, two to one )

Thomas Becket (born December 21, 1118 in Cheapside , London , † December 29, 1170 in Canterbury ), also known as Thomas of Canterbury , was Lord Chancellor of England, Benedictine oblate and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170 .


An important contemporary source on the life of Becket is the poem La Vie de Saint Thomas Le Martyr by Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, completed in 1174 . Another French biography wrote a monk named Benoît de Saint-Alban between 1183 and 1189. There are also texts by historians who write in Latin.


Thomas Becket was of Norman descent, his father was a merchant in London. There is no scientific evidence for the statement that his mother was a Saraceness , which is occasionally found . Monks taught him to read and write, and he studied in Paris .

After returning from his study tour, he entered the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury in 1141 . This encouraged him to further studies in Auxerre and at the University of Bologna . Thomas Becket studied civil law and canon law there .

Lord Chancellor and Archbishop

In 1154 the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed him archdeacon . A year later, probably on Theobald's recommendation, he became advisor and Lord Chancellor to King Henry II of England . The relationship between the monarch and the lord chancellor was viewed by a great many contemporaries as extraordinary and friendly. Many contemporaries said that both of them shared a heart and mind.

In 1161, the previous Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury died. On June 2, 1162 Thomas Becket was ordained a priest and a day later he was ordained bishop . As the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket was now Primate of England . His friend King Heinrich II thought this development was a tactically good move. But even before that, Thomas and Henry II had different opinions about the church and its rights. Thomas had once openly told the king that if he were Archbishop of Canterbury he would be forced to oppose him.

By the end of 1162 Thomas had gotten rid of all the pomps with which he had surrounded himself as Lord Chancellor. On August 10, 1162 Thomas Becket received from envoy the Pope Alexander III. Pallium awarded in Rome , a badge of office for the Metropolitan of the Church. Thereupon he resigned the office of Lord Chancellor against the will of the king and only cared about his new role as archbishop.

A very great difference of opinion between the king and the archbishop arose over the issue of jurisdiction over criminal clerics . Both the king and the archbishop agreed that crackdowns needed to be tough. But both never agreed which courts would have jurisdiction. For Thomas this dispute was a matter of principle. In his eyes, a cleric could only be held accountable under canon law . The dispute with the king grew more intense. As early as 1163, at the Court Day in Westminster, there were open disputes between him and the king. At first Becket wanted to prevent the signing of the Constitutions of Clarendon and secured the support of the English bishops. When it came to the confrontation with Henry II, however, it was Becket himself who gave in and agreed. Shortly afterwards, Becket withdrew his consent without consulting the other English bishops. Gilbert Foliot , Bishop of London and certainly no friend of Becket, reproached him for this unsteady attitude in a bitter letter.

Becket was condemned as a traitor and perjurer by the royal court. On the night of October 13, 1164, Thomas Becket fled to France , where he was warmly received by King Louis VII . He was in Sens . Thomas submitted to Pope Alexander III. a request to resign from his church offices, but this refused. On the advice of the Pope, he then went to the Cistercian monastery in Pontigny . But since the king threatened him more and more openly and he did not want to endanger the friars, he returned to Sens.

The negotiations between the king on the one hand and the Pope and Archbishop Thomas on the other dragged on for many years without any progress being made in the dispute over jurisdiction over the clergy. In December 1170 Thomas returned to Canterbury, where he was enthusiastically received by the population.

Assassination in Canterbury

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket in a depiction from the 13th century
Martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Braunschweig Cathedral , Secco painting around 1250

But it soon became apparent that he was no longer politically desirable. The heir to the throne and fellow king Heinrich the Younger , his former pupil, refused to meet him and ordered that he was no longer allowed to travel around the country. The fact that Thomas gave him fine horses could not put him in a mild mood. The archbishop had caused a new nuisance before his crossing by excommunicating the bishops involved in the coronation of the heir to the throne . When Heinrich II found out about this, he had a fit of rage. In his excitement, he let himself be carried away to sentences against Becket, which were interpreted as a royal murder order by four of the knights present - Reginald Fitzurse , Hugh de Moreville , William de Tracy and Richard Brito . On December 29, 1170, a Tuesday, they arrived in Canterbury and informed Becket that he should go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, which Becket refused. The king's four servants then entered Canterbury Cathedral and killed Becket at the altar by cutting off the top of his skull.

According to the report of the eyewitness Edward Grim , the knights who entered with drawn swords first tried to bring Becket out of the cathedral, either to murder him directly outside the church or to take him away as a prisoner. However, they became so enraged by Becket's reproachful words that they killed him instantly. Reginald Fitzurse was the first to hit Becket's head with his sword, then William de Tracy and Richard Brito struck with aimed blows. The with holy oil anointed , tonsurierte skull Becket as a cleric auswies and a clearly recognizable sign of his prior affiliation was, was destroyed. The symbolic target of the attack was thus also the privileges such as the legal immunity of the clergy , which had once triggered the long-standing dispute.



Only a few years after his violent death, Thomas Becket was on February 21, 1173 by Alexander III. canonized . This is likely due in particular to the intervention of Duchess Mathilde , wife of Henry the Lion , with Pope Alexander III. be due. Mathilde was a daughter of Henry II and certainly knew Thomas Becket personally. The intervention followed an about-face in the entire Angevin royal family of the Plantagenets in their relationship with Becket. Since Henry II praised Thomas Becket as his personal patron saint on his penance to Canterbury in 1174 , the veneration of the saint has been established everywhere and propagated with pictures. In Rome he was led as the second church patron at the Church of the English College, now only known as San Tommaso di Canterbury , from 1373 at the latest.

Memorial days


Reliquary of the saint, Limoges 1st quarter of the 12th century. Musée national du Moyen Age , Paris

In Braunschweig Cathedral , relics of the martyr in the head of a crux nigra (literally "black cross"), probably the Imervard cross , are documented in an inventory of reliquary treasures from 1312 . When exactly the Becket relics came to Braunschweig is unknown; However, it is assumed that these found their way to the city of Henry the Lion together with older relics, with which they were kept together, soon after the canonization of Becket, at the latest after Henry II's penance in September 1174. On the so-called coronation picture in the Gospel of Henry the Lion , which was probably made around 1188, Thomas Becket can be seen among the saints particularly important to the Brunswick Cathedral and the duke and ducal couple, directly above the father and grandmother of Duchess Mathilde, Heinrich II. And Empress Mathilde . When the Brunswick Cathedral was consecrated on December 29, 1226, the day of remembrance of Thomas Becket, he became the third patron saint of the cathedral. In addition to Saint Blaise and John the Baptist , Becket can also be seen on the pen seal. A sequence of scenes on the south wall was dedicated to his life in the late Romanesque painting in the choir and transept of the cathedral around 1240–1250.

It is certain that on July 7, 1220, when his bones were translated into the shrine of the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral, relics were removed in order to give them to high-ranking personalities. In 1538 King Henry VIII had the precious shrine destroyed. He is also said to have ordered that Becket's body be cremated. In 1888, however, a skeleton was found under the cathedral which is believed to be the remains of Thomas Becket. His grave is still one of the most important and largest pilgrimage sites on the island. However, supposed or real relics of Becket are also kept elsewhere today, for example in a reliquary from the beginning of the 12th century, which is in the Musée national du Moyen Age in Paris.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer portray a late medieval pilgrimage to Becket's grave.

Artistic processing

Artistic processing of Beckets life are:

Honors and patronage

Thomas Becket, the Thomasturm in the Swiss city of Basel , the Sankt Thomas an der Kyll monastery and the municipality of Sankt Thomas (Eifel) are dedicated to German-speaking territory .











  • James C. Robertson: Materials for the History of Thomas Becket , 7 vols., Longman, London 1875-85.
  • Paul G. Schmidt: Thomas von Froidmont: Die Vita des Sankt Thomas Becket / Thomas de Fridigo Monte: Vita et passio Sancti Thomae , Steiner, Stuttgart 1991.
  • Emmanuel Walberg: Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence: La vie de Saint Thomas Becket , Champion, Paris 1971.


  • Pierre Aubé: Thomas Becket , Benziger, Zurich 1990.
  • Thomas Boos: Thomas Becket , in: Peter Manns (Ed.): Reformer der Kirche , Grünewald, Mainz 1970, pp. 615–618.
  • Alfred Duggan: God and my right. The life of Thomas Becket of Canterbury , Rheinische Verlags-Anstalt, Wiesbaden 1956.
  • Morris: The Life of St. Thomas Becket , 2nd edition, London 1885 (English)
  • Jürgen Sarnowsky: Murder in the cathedral. Thomas Becket 1170. In: Demandt, Alexander (Hrsg.): The assassination in history. Cologne et al. 1996, ISBN 3-412-16795-9 , pp. 75-89
  • Hanna Vollrath : Thomas Becket. Courtier and saint. Göttingen / Zurich 2004, ISBN 3-7881-0155-5 .

Historiography and Hagiography

Lexical entries

Web links

Commons : Thomas Becket  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. OBLATES of St. Benedict ( Memento of the original from October 9, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  2. In the vast majority of sources, Becket's ordination to the priesthood is dated June 2, 1162, for example in the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Thomas à Becket and numerous other ecclesiastical sources. Occasionally, however, Becket's ordination to the priesthood is dated as early as 1146, for example in the Ecumenical Lexicon of Saints Thomas Becket . Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  3. ^ Jacques Le Goff (ed.): Fischer World History Volume 11: The High Middle Ages. Frankfurt am Main, 2005, p. 118
  4. a b Amalie Fößel : Thomas Becket. In: Michael Sommer (Hrsg.): Political murders from antiquity to the present. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2005, ISBN 3-534-18518-8 , p. 112
predecessor Office successor
Robert of Ghent Lord Chancellor of England
Geoffrey Ridel
Theobald von Bec Archbishop of Canterbury
Richard of Dover