10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 8. St Thomas Becket memorial…

PICTURE: Morgaine (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 7. Southwark…

Thomas Becket spent eight years in role of Archbishop of Canterbury, including almost two based at a Cistercian abbey in Pontigny, France, while in exile following his dispute with King Henry II over the Constitutions of Clarendon.

Thomas returned to England in 1170 but his relationship with King Henry remained acrimonious, particularly 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, who had crowned King Henry’s heir, Henry, the Young King, at York in June of that year without his approval.

Ruins of Winchester Palace in Southwark. PICTURE: Aaron Bradley (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s that event that led to Becket’s infamous death at the hands of four knights in late December (more about that next week). But a few weeks before that Becket was in Southwark and there he met representatives of the Priory of St Mary Overie (of which what is now Southwark Cathedral was part) and visited Winchester Palace, London residence of the Bishop of Winchester (which now stands in ruins – see picture).

In what was to be Becket’s last visit to London before his death, he paused overnight at at the palace as he travelled to seek an audience with Henry, the Young King, in Winchester, in a bid to reconcile with the 15-year-old.

It was apparently quite an occasion – crowds estimated by one probable eyewitness to number some 3,000 came out to meet him as did a procession of singing monks from St Mary’s. Becket is said to have distributed alms to the poor and it’s said that a woman named Matilda, who apparently was known for making a spectacle of herself at public occasions, kept telling the Archbishop to “Beware of the knife” (which appears a little too conveniently prescient perhaps to ring true).

While at the palace, messengers arrived to inform Becket that the Young King did not wish to see him and instead ordered him back to Canterbury. Becket didn’t immediately obey – first headed further wet to Croydon and his manor at Harrow before eventually arriving back in Canterbury on about 18th December.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 6. Westminster Abbey…

Theobold of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in whose household Becket had previously served before becoming Lord Chancellor, died on 18th April, 1161. King Henry II, apparently hoping to install a friendly face in the post, ensured Becket was nominated to replace him several months later.

In keeping with tradition, the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, apparently somewhat reluctantly, were persuaded to elect Becket, who was merely an archdeacon, to the post.

And it was at Westminster Abbey, on 23rd May, 1162, that a council of clergy and noblemen was convened to ratify the decision.

Sitting under the chairmanship of Bishop Henry of Winchester, who had only recently returned from exile, the council was told by the Prior of Christ Church that Thomas had been “unanimously and canonically” elected as Archbishop. The council, despite a lonely objection from Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of Hereford, had then confirmed the decision and Bishop Henry read out the formal election result in the refectory or monk’s dining hall.

Becket, who was present, was then presented to the seven-year-old Prince Henry (later known as Henry, the Young King), the ill-fated eldest son of King Henry II who had been empowered by his father to give royal consent to the decision.

Becket headed for Canterbury soon after and there was ordained a priest on 2nd June and consecrated as Archbishop the following day. The stage was set for one of English history’s most infamous clashes of church and state.

Westminster Abbey, meanwhile, was also to play a key role in the antipathy that developed between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas over the coming years. It was here that King Henry II had his aforementioned son Henry crowned as King of England in 1170 – against the wishes of Archbishop Thomas. It was that coronation which brought the simmering tension which had grown between them to a head.

And, in an footnote, in May, 2016, a relic of St Thomas, said to be a bone fragment from his elbow, stayed overnight in the Abbey’s Shrine of St Edward the Confessor. Usually kept at the Basilica of Esztergom in Hungary, the relic’s visit was part of a week-long tour of locations in London and Canterbury – the first time it had visited the UK in more than 800 years.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 5. The Tower of London…

Thomas left the employ of Theobold, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1154 when he took up the role of Chancellor for the newly crowned King Henry II (on Theobold’s recommendation).

The new role meant he wasn’t much in London over the next eight years – King Henry II spent less than two-and-a-half years in England during that period and Becket’s new role meant he was expected to be with the King.

The Tower of London (the expansive St Thomas’s Tower is on the front left). PICTURE: flicksmores (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One London connection during this period came about, however, when King Henry II awarded him the custody of the Tower of London (the role which is now known as Constable of the Tower and was apparently then referred to as Keeper of the Tower).

Interestingly, Becket is just one of four Archbishops of Canterbury who held the post (although he was Archbishop later) but is the only saint to have done so.

During his time as Constable of the Tower, Becket did carry our substantial repairs on the complex (while Chancellor he also oversaw repairs to other buildings including the Palace of Westminster).

There is a further connection between Becket and the Tower – King Edward I, during his rather dramatic renovations and expansion of the fortress, included a chapel dedicated to the martyred St Thomas in the royal quarters. To this day, the tower which fronts the Thames is known as St Thomas’s Tower (the naming of Traitor’s Gate, formerly known as Water Gate, under it occurred much later and had nothing to do with him).

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 4. London churches…

Around 1145, Thomas Becket left the household of the financier Osbert Huitdeniers and entered the household of Theobold, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It’s unclear how he made the transition, although it has been speculated it was possibly through family connections, but by the following year, he was well-ensconced as a clerk in the archbishop’s household.

Like many great households, the Archbishop’s moved between various residences including his palace beside Canterbury Cathedral, various manors and the royal court (Lambeth Palace, the current home of the Archbishop of Canterbury in London was constructed after Becket’s death).

St Mary le Strand as it is today. PICTURE: James Stringer (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Becket rose in the Archbishop’s favour and while serving in his household was given the living of churches including St Mary le Strand in London and Otford in Kent as well as being made a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral (he wasn’t expected to attend the churches to receive the incomes).

The current St Mary le Strand dates from the early 18th century; the church from which Thomas drew an income was an earlier versions and stood a little to the south of the current building.

St Paul’s, meanwhile, was an early version of the pre-Great Fire of London version of the building. During Becket’s time, the grand structure was still under construction (building had been disrupted by a fire in 1135 and the cathedral wasn’t consecrated until 1240, well after Becket’s death).

The present cathedral has a rather spectacular statue of Becket in the churchyard (but we’ll deal with that separately in a later post in this series).

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 3. Guildhall…

The Guildhall was an important building in Thomas Becket’s London but the earliest parts of the current building date from the early 15th century. PICTURE: stephenarcher (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This week we look at a location representative of Becket’s brief time working for a former City of London Sheriff and banker, Osbert Huitdeniers (“Eightpence”).

About a year after his return from Paris (possibly around his 22nd birthday in late 1142), Becket – driven apparently by a downturn in the family fortunes – started work as a clerk in the household of Huitdeniers.

A relative of the Becket family, Osbert was a man of some significance – apparently holding a knight’s fee in Kent – and was known at the royal court. He had held the post of sheriff of London from 1139 to 1141 (and may have also been a justiciar at different times).

We’ve been unable to determine where Huitdeniers’ home or business was located, hence why we’ve included Guildhall which certainly would have been known to him as sheriff – and indeed to Becket who grew up nearby, though not in its current form.

Becket’s job would have involved keeping Huitdeniers accounts and during the few years he served the banker, it’s believed he gained some invaluable skills that would prove helpful later in life.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 2. Merton Priory…

There’s little known about Becket’s education but it’s believed that he attended a school in London as a young boy before, at the age of 10, he was sent to Merton Priory in Surrey (now part of Greater London) as a boarder.

The Augustinian priory had been founded in 1114 by Gilbert, the sheriff of Surrey, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and moved to a new site beside the River Wandle in 1117.

The remains of the Merton Priory chapter house as seen in 2017. PICTURE: Peter Trimming (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hence, it was still rather new when he arrived in 1130 and facilities probably rather primitive but there was already a tradition of schooling established there under the first schoolmaster, an Italian named Guy who had apparently died in about 1120.

At some point in his teenage years, Becket was moved to one of the London grammar schools – perhaps one located at St Paul’s Cathedral – to continue his education and then later to Paris where he spent a year before it’s believed he returned home by the age of 21.

Despite his years at various schools, Becket apparently wasn’t much of a scholar, preferring more outdoor pursuits. But his studies, nonetheless, must have covered the trivium, which included Latin grammar, rhetoric and logic, and even some of the more advanced quadrivium, which included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

Becket’s connections with Merton were to remain strong later in life and included taking one of its canons, Robert, as his chaplain and confessor.

Little of the priory, which was dissolved during the Dissolution, now remains but the ruins of the chapter house can be visited (post-lockdown). Other famous students at the priory included Walter de Merton, the founder of Merton College Oxford.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 1. Cheapside…

Looking east down Cheapside from the corner of Ironmonger’s Line (with the bust of St Thomas Becket visible in the left). PICTURE: Google Maps.

The 29th December, 2020, marked 850 years since the dramatic murder of then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral.

Metallic bust of St Thomas Becket on the wall at 90 Cheapside. PICTURE: Caroline (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While many of the commemorations have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve decided to push ahead with our series in commemoration of the martyred saint’s connections with London.

First up, it’s the famous City of London street of Cheapside – one of the main commercial streets in the medieval city – which was where, on 21st December, in what is generally believed to be the year 1120, he was born.

Becket was the son of Norman parents – his father, Gilbert, was a mercer (and served as a City sheriff) and his mother was named Matilda. He is believed to have had at least three sisters.

The location of what was a large residence – and the fact the family owned other property in the area – indicated they were relatively prosperous.

The property was next door to the church of St Mary Colechurch – lost in the Great Fire of London and not rebuilt – which was where St Thomas was baptised, apparently on the evening of his birth suggesting he may have initially been sickly. He was named after the Biblical St Thomas.

The site – which was later occupied by a hospital run by the Order of St Thomas of Acre – is marked with a small metallic bust of St Thomas attached to a wall on 90 Cheapside (on the corner with Ironmongers Lane) as well as a City of London blue plaque.

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 2 and 1…

And so we’ve made it – the end of our year-long countdown of Exploring London’s most popular posts in honour of our 10th anniversary. And so, without any further ado, here’s the final two (and surprisingly, they both relate to the same fictional character)…

2. 10 iconic London film locations…1. Mary Poppins and feeding the birds at St Paul’s Cathedral

1. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 5. 17 Cherry Tree Lane…

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at where we’ve been and look forward to bringing you some exciting new stories as we continue to explore London’s history and culture in 2021!

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 6, 5, 4 and 3…

The next four in our countdown as we head to the final couple of entries…

6. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 4. 186 Fleet Street…

5. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 2. ‘Whitehaven Mansions’…

4. A look back at 10 fictional character addresses in London…

3. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 8. The Darling’s House…

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 10, 9, 8 and 7…

We’re into the top 10! Here’s the next four in our countdown…

10. 10 London sites associated with Sir Winston Churchill – 5. London residences…

9. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 3. 32 Windsor Gardens…

8. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 9. 7 Savile Row, Burlington Gardens…

7. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 7. Saffron Hill…

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 14, 13, 12 and 11…

And, just before we get to the top 10, here’s the next four in our countdown…

14. Treasures of London – The Cheapside Hoard

13. Lost London – The Devil Tavern…

12. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 1. 221b Baker Street…

11. London Pub Signs – The Hung, Drawn and Quartered…

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 18, 17, 16 and 15…

The next four in our countdown…

18. LondonLife – New Underground line named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II…

17. Treasures of London – The Pearl Sword…

16. 10 (more) fictional character addresses in London – 8. A square in Soho?…

15. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 10. 165 Eaton Place

Merry Christmas (and the next four in our countdown!)…

Christmas tree outside St Paul’s Cathedral. PICTURE: Alex Liivet
(licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In what has been, and continues to be, such a hard year for so many, we at Exploring London hope you’re still able to celebrate Christmas in some form this year…

Meantime, here’s the next four in our countdown of the 100 most popular posts of all time…

22. Lost London – The Savoy Palace…

21. What’s in a name?…St Mary Overie…

20. Treasures of London – The Whispering Gallery, St Paul’s Cathedral

19. Treasures of London – Admiral Lord Nelson’s coat

Four unusual London Christmas traditions…3. The Peter Pan Cup…

Postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic this year, the Peter Pan Cup is a swimming event that usually takes place on Christmas Day in Hyde Park’s Serpentine.

The bracing 9am event, which is only open to members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, is a handicapped race across a 100 yard course.

While the tradition of a Christmas Day swimming event goes back to 1864, it became the ‘Peter Pan Cup’ in 1904 when JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan and a member of the club, presented the first cup to the winner. It was the same year Peter Pan debuted on the London stage (and Barrie would continue to present the cup to the winner until 1932).

Club members have to complete a certain number of winter races to be eligible to swim on Christmas Day. These days the race, which usually starts and ends on the southern bank of the Serpentine, is usually quite a spectacle with hundreds turning out to cheer the swimmers on.

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 26, 25, 24 and 23…

The next four in our countdown…

26. 10 iconic London film locations…5. Belle at Kenwood House (but not as you know it)…

25. 10 fictional character addresses in London – 6. Wimbledon Common…

24. Where’s London’s oldest…department store?

23. LondonLife – A rare glimpse inside King Henry V’s chantry chapel…

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 28 and 27…

The next two in our countdown…

28. 10 (more) fictional character addresses in London – 4. 138 Piccadilly…

27. Lost London – The ‘Tyburn Tree’

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 30 and 29…

London’s back under restrictions meaning doors to many of the city’s institutions are once again closed. So, for the moment, here’s the next two in our countdown…

30. 10 small, ‘secret’ and historic gardens in central London…5. Seething Lane Garden…

29. Lost London – Jacob’s Island…

Four unusual London Christmas traditions…2. The Smithfield Meat Auction…

Reportedly cancelled for this year, the boisterous Christmas Eve meat auction at Smithfield usually draws a considerable crowd eager to snag a bargain.

The origins of the tradition, which apparently started at least 30 years ago, stems from the fact that most of the market butchers take at least a week off over Christmas, generally not returning to their stalls until the new year.

As a result, they would auction off their remaining stock on Christmas Eve to those keen enough to brave the cold and come out.

There has been a market at Smithfield since the 12th century – the premises was rebuilt in the mid-19th century after being formally established by the 1860 Metropolitan Meat and Poultry Market Act.

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 32 and 31…

The next two in our countdown…

32. 10 London sites to celebrate Charles Dickens – 5. Seven pubs associated with Dickens (including one he never visited)…

31. The Royal Wedding – Eight curious facts about Royal Weddings past and present…