High profile and influential though he was during his lifetime – serving as Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, it was the brutal and shocking nature of Thomas Becket’s death that ensured he would be remembered down through the ages.
Already strained, relations between King Henry II and Becket took a further downturn after the Archbishop excommunicated Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the Archbishop of York, Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the Bishop of Salisbury, thanks to their role in crowning Henry, the Young King, in York, without the Archbishop’s permission.
On hearing the news of the excommunication, King Henry II is said to have uttered those immortal words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (although there is considerable dispute over exactly what he said – contemporary biographer (and Canterbury monk) Edward Grim, for example, has the quote as: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”).
Whatever the exact words, the King’s utterance – made while he was at Bur-le-Roi near Bayeaux in modern France – was interpreted as a command by four knights who were present – Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. Leaving the castle, they set out for England to confront the Archbishop.
The knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December, 1170, and informed Becket that he was commanded to go to Winchester to answer for his actions. Becket refused and the knights, retrieving weapons and armour they had stashed outside the cathedral, returned to the cathedral and hunted down Becket (who had apparently ordered the doors to remain open) with swords in their hands.
They found him at a door to the cloister near the stairs leading up to the cathedral quire where monks were chanting vespers. Becket is reported to have said “I am no traitor and I am ready to die” before one of the knights tried to pull him inside. Grabbing a pillar, he refused to go. The knights then struck him with a series of blows on the head which proved fatal.
A modern memorial to Becket which features a statue depicting him lying back with his hand raised as though to ward off blows as he is attacked, is located in St Paul’s Churchyard. The statue, which is made from resin coloured to appear as bronze, is the work of Bainbridge Copnall and was created in 1970 as part of commemorations marking 800 years since his death. It was acquired by the City of London Corporation in 1973.
It was damaged by a falling cherry tree in 1987 but was restored by a student of Copnall.