Alabaster panel depicting Thomas Becket’s Murder, England, 1450-1500
Next meeting: 1st February 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm
The murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own cathedral and, supposedly, on the orders of Henry II, was major crisis point in the conflict between secular and ecclesiastical power in the twelfth-century and sent shockwaves through Western Europe. One of the ways in which this shock manifested itself was in an outpouring of literary production. Ten Lives of Becket were produced within just seven years of his murder, and there are records of many more – including one by a woman – which have not come down to us. Often written by men personally acquainted with Becket, these hagiographies were predominantly written with the purpose of promoting his canonisation (achieved in 1173) or to bolster the ‘Cult of Becket’ that, in the years following his murder, had spread across Western Europe.
However, this event is also widely recorded in the contemporary historiography of the period. As the Becket Affair involved three key figures of institutional power – Henry II, the King of England, Thomas Becket, the head of the Church in England, and Pope Alexander, the leader of Christendom – it posed a particular representational challenge to contemporary historiographers. Many negotiated this by drawing substantially on the Lives and utilising their discourse – which, by the 1180s and 90s had become institutional in its own right – to safely represent this event. Others, however, including William of Newburgh, remained troubled by Becket’s involvement in secular affairs, unable to reconcile the worldly Chancellor with martyred saint, and this scepticism manifests itself in their histories
Overview of Thomas Becket’s Life
Thomas Becket was born on 21 December c. 1119 in Cheapside, London. In c. 1143 he acquired a position in Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury’s household, and was made Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In January 1155, he was made Chancellor by Henry II and, as a result of his success in that post, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury on 3 June 1162.
Becket’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was an unpopular one. Tradition dictated that the monks of Canterbury elected their own Archbishop – usually a Benedictine of their own house. Not only was Becket a figure of secular power, but he was only ordained as a priest the day before he assumed the archbishopric. By overriding this established ecclesiastical custom in order to put his friend and loyal follower in power, Henry II hoped to be the de facto ruler of both secular and ecclesiastical affairs through Becket.
However, on 10 August 1162 Becket resigned the Chancellorship to focus exclusively on his new ecclesiastical role. This early indication of trouble was confirmed when Becket refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in January 1164, which decreed that any ecclesiastic found to have committed a crime should be tried in secular, as well as ecclesiastical, courts. Becket’s refusal to grant the increase of secular control over ecclesiastical affairs infuriated Henry II, and, on 2 November 1164, Becket fled to France, where he remained for six years, under the protection of Pope Alexander and the King of France.
The coronation of Henry, the Young King on 14 June 1170 by Roger, Archbishop of York, was seen – and, probably intended – as a direct insult to Thomas Becket. However, by 22 July 1170, a tentative peace had been reached and, on 2 December 1170, Becket returned to Canterbury. Despite the supposed peace, at the end of his sermon on Christmas Day, Becket formally excommunicated de Broc, and a number of churchmen who had sided with Henry II in the dispute. Four days later, on 29 December 1170, Becket was brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four men who had come directly from Henry II’s court.
Overview of the Texts
William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum
William of Newburgh (c. 1135 – 1198) was an Augustinian Canon, cloistered at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. His Historia (1196-98) was written at the request of Ernald, abbot of the nearby Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, and covers the years 1066 to 1198. For much of his earlier material, William draws most prominently on Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, and John Gillingham has recently proven that William of Newburgh used Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica as an ‘essential skeleton of information’ for the years from 1148.
The Chronicle of Battle Abbey
The Chronicle of Battle Abbey, written sometime after 1155, tells the history of the abbey from its foundation in the late eleventh century until the 1180s. As well as being a history of the affairs of Battle Abbey, the Battle Abbey chronicler intended his work to provide a legal guide for the next generation of monks. He was probably the Abbey’s representative at legal disputes and had a high regard for Henry II’s legal administration.
Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica
Roger of Hoveden (Howden) (c. 1201) became parson of Hoveden, Yorkshire, following his father’s death in c. 1174. He was also a royal clerk at the court of Henry II from around this time and continued in this office until just after the King’s death in 1189. The extract we are reading is from his Chronica. Antonia Gransden has argued that, whilst Roger relied on letters for his account of the ‘Becket affair’, the narrative seems to be his own.
Edward Grim’s Vita
Edward Grim was a clerk from Cambridge who was in Canterbury visiting the Archbishop at the time of his murder. He was an eyewitness to the murder and was wounded trying to protect Becket from his attackers. His subsequent hagiography was one of the earliest Vita (c. 1174) and had a substantial influence on subsequent hagiographical and historiographical engagements with the event.
Gervase of Canterbury’s History of the Archbishops of Canterbury
Gervase of Canterbury (c. 1145 – c. 1120) was a Benedictine monk of Christ Church, Canterbury and was ordained by Thomas Becket in 1163. The extract we are reading is from his Actus Pontificum Cantuariensis Ecclesia, a history of the archbishops of Canterbury.
Topics for discussion
- How is martyrdom constructed and represented in these texts?
- How does the institutional alignment/positioning of the historians inform and influence their depictions of the ‘Becket affair’? Is the enormity of the crisis enough to overcome these ties?
- David Knowles has observed that ‘all but eight years of Thomas’ adult life were notoriously deserving of criticism rather than admiration.’ How do these historians reconcile the problematic nature of Becket’s life with his martyrdom?
- How do these texts depict a) Henry II, b) Thomas Becket, and c) Pope Alexander, d) the knights, and their roles in the conflict? How and where is blame ascribed?
- How do these texts make use of rhetoric/rhetorical devices?
- How does the type of history (i.e. institutional, national) that is being written affect the way that historians engage with this event?
- William of Newburgh was writing with a copy of Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica before him. How does William of Newburgh adapt his source text and, more generally, how do the historians respond to hagiographical materials (i.e. Grim’s Vita) that were in wide circulation at the time? What are the significances of their changes in emphases, additions, elisions?
 R. W. Southern, The Monks of Canterbury and the Murder of Thomas Becket (Canterbury: Friends of Canterbury Cathedral and the William Urry Memorial Trust, 1985).
 John Gillingham, ‘Two Yorkshire Historians Compared: Roger of Howden and William of Newburgh’, Haskins Society Journal, 12 (2003), 15-37 (p. 24).
 Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England c. 550 to c. 1307 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1974), p. 226.