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 – 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).