Archbishop of Canterbury

In about 575 a monk called Gregory saw some young men in the Rome slave-market. He spoke to them and discovered that these men were from England. After talking to these slaves he was shocked to discover that there were very few Christians living in England. Gregory was determined to change this situation and when he became Pope he sent his friend Augustine and forty monks to England to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.

Augustine arrived in England in 596. He made his way to Canterbury, the home of King Ethelbert. Within a few weeks Augustine had converted Ethelbert and most of his household to Christianity. Pleased by his success, the following year Pope Gregory appointed Augustine as Bishop of Canterbury, and Archbishop of the English people.

William the Conqueror was a devout Christian. After he conquered the country he did what he could to spread the Christian religion in England. William accepted that the Archbishop of Canterbury was the leader of the Christian Church in England, but was determined that this post should come under his control.

In 1070 Lanfranc, a monk from Caen in Normandy, and one of William's friends, replaced Stigand as Archbishop of Canterbury. Over the next few years he rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral on the model of St. Stephen's in Caen.

Lanfranc was unimpressed with the quality of the English clergy and during William's reign supported his policy of promoting foreigners to high office in the Church. Lanfranc also ordered that in future no married man was to be ordained as a priest. However, he allowed existing priests to keep their wives.

When Henry II became king in 1154, he asked Archbishop Theobald for advice on choosing his government ministers. On the suggestion of Theobald, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as his chancellor. Becket's job was an important one as it involved the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. The king and Becket soon became close friends. Becket carried out many tasks for Henry II including leading the English army into battle.

In 1162, Henry II chose Thomas Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, had a reputation as a cruel military commander and was very materialistic (Becket loved expensive food, wine and clothes). They also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church.

After being appointed Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. Every morning thirteen poor people were brought to his home. After washing their feet Becket served them a meal. He also gave each one of them four silver pennies.

Instead of wearing expensive clothes, Becket now wore a simple monastic habit. As a penance (punishment for previous sins) he slept on a cold stone floor, wore a tight-fitting hairshirt that was infested with fleas and was scourged (whipped) daily by his monks.

In 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry II arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts.

Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation. There were several examples of clergy found guilty of murder or robbery who only received "spiritual" punishments, such as suspension from office or banishment from the altar.

The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue but after talking to other church leaders Thomas Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge.

In 1164, the Archbishop of Canterbury was involved in a dispute over land. Henry ordered Becket to appear before his courts. When Becket refused, the king confiscated his property. Henry also claimed that Becket had stolen £300 from government funds when he had been Chancellor. Becket denied the charge but, so that the matter could be settled quickly, he offered to repay the money. Henry refused to accept Becket's offer and insisted that the Archbishop should stand trial. When Henry mentioned other charges, including treason, Becket decided to run away to France.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Bede, A History of the English Church and People (731)

Gregory saw some boys in Rome for sale, with fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair. He enquired from what country they came. "They come from the island of Britain, where all the people have this complexion." He then asked whether the islanders were Christians, or whether they were still ignorant heathens. "They are pagans." "Alas", said Gregory: "how sad that such bright-faced folk are still in the grasp of the author of darkness. What is the name of this race?" "They are called Angles." "That is appropriate," said Gregory, "for they have angelic faces."

(2) William FitzStephen, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190)

Clad in a hair-shirt of the roughest kind which reached to his knees and swarmed with vermin, he punished his flesh with the sparest diet, and his main drink was water... He often exposed his naked back to the lash.

(3) William FitzStephen, The Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190)

One day they (King Henry II and Thomas Becket) were riding together through the streets of London. It was a hard winter and the king noticed an old man coming towards them, poor and clad in a thin and ragged coat. "Do you see that man? ... How poor he is, how frail, and how scantily clad!" said the king. '"Would it not be an act of charity to give him a thick warm cloak." "It would indeed... my king." Meanwhile the poor man drew near; the king stopped, and the chancellor with him. The king greeted him pleasantly and asked him if he would like a good cloak... The king said to the chancellor, "You shall have the credit for this act of charity," and laying hands on the chancellor's hood tried to pull off his cape, a new and very good one of scarlet and grey, which he was unwilling to part with... both of them had their hands fully occupied, and more than once seemed likely to fall off their horses. At last the chancellor reluctantly allowed the king to overcome him. The king then explained what had happened to his attendants. They all laughed loudly.

(4) Thomas Becket in conversation with Herbert of Bosham, quoted in Herbert Bosham's Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1188)

Herbert, I want you to tell me what people are saying about me. And if you see anything in me that you regard as a fault, feel free to tell me in private. For from now on people will talk about me, but not to me. It is dangerous to men in power if no one dares to tell them when they go wrong.

(5) Thomas Becket in a letter to Henry II (1166)

There are two principles by which the world is ruled: the authority of priests and the royal power. The authority of priests is the greater because God will demand an accounting of them even in regard to kings.