Four knights murder Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral with swords. Becket is on his knees.

Thomas Becket and Magna Carta

By Nicholas Vincent FBA, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia

Publication date: 21 May 2021

Nicholas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, reveals a surprising link between Thomas Becket and the 1225 reissue of Magna Carta. 

Thomas Becket and Magna Carta

Thomas Becket and his murder are widely known. So too is Magna Carta. But why in an exhibition devoted to Becket is the British Museum displaying the 1225 Magna Carta, surely part of an entirely different story? The answer here is supplied by Becket's posthumous fame, and in particular by the idea that he had died in defence of the liberties of the Church, now to be protected against any intrusion by secular authorities, up to and including the king.

Inspired by Becket

This view of Becket as defender of the Church took particularly strong root in the schools (later to become the 'University') of Paris, the capital city of the kings of France, themselves keen to encourage whatever might most discomfort their English rivals: Henry II, and his sons, kings Richard 'the Lionheart' and John. Attending these schools in the 1160s and 70s, were many of the brightest and best English students, among them a young man from Lincolnshire, himself later a teacher in Paris. His name was Stephen Langton. Langton's principal interests lay in theology and in explaining both the literal and allegorical meanings of the Bible as God's blueprint for how Christians might obtain redemption. In this process, Langton was obliged to deal with kings, first and foremost with the good and bad kings of Judea as described in the Bible (Saul, David, and Herod for example), but also with their modern representatives: powerful and worldly rulers who could on the one hand assist, or on the other thwart, the efforts of sinners to find salvation.

Langton versus King John

In 1207, with Becket's church at Canterbury once again without an archbishop and after many weeks of wrangling at the papal court, the Pope, Innocent III, nominated Langton to fill the vacancy. Himself a Paris graduate, in all probability a former student of Langton, and at one time during his Paris years a pilgrim to Becket's shrine at Canterbury, Innocent hoped to resolve disputes in which the English King John had declared his refusal to allow any monk to become archbishop. Langton was not a monk. He was an Englishman at a time when tensions between France and England were especially intense. He was also one of Christendom's most famous teachers. None of this persuaded King John to accept him. With his years of residence in Paris, Langton was suspected of favouring the French over the Plantagenet kings. With his exalted ideas of ecclesiastical liberty, he championed an image of Becket that King John considered abhorrent.

All of this set the stage for several years of deadlock in which England was placed under papal excommunication and 'Interdict', in theory, a sentence halting the administration of the sacraments of the Church, and Langton was obliged to live in exile from Canterbury. Deliberately imitating Becket before him, he sought refuge at the monastery of Pontigny in Burgundy. In 1213, he was at last permitted entry to England, choosing to cross the Channel to Dover on 9 July 1213, a Tuesday, the day of the week that Becket himself had considered particularly 'lucky'. In June 1215, it was Langton who acted as one of the principal peacemakers between King John and his rebel barons, obtaining the issue of the peace treaty that was to be known subsequently as 'the great charter'.

This Magna Carta of 1215 failed to bring peace. Instead, Langton was once again hounded into exile. For a while, for his refusal whole-heartedly to support King John, he was suspended from office even by the Pope. But the charter of 1215 survived, albeit now in a revised and to some extent diluted version. It was this document that, following the death of King John in the autumn of 1216, the counsellors around the king's son and successor, the nine year-old King Henry III, insisted be reissued, not as a negotiated settlement but as a manifesto of how the new king would rule in peace and harmony if only the rebel barons would put away their swords.

From peace treaty to law

And it is here that we at last discover why the subsequent reissue of Magna Carta in 1225, in its final and definitive form, marks such an important moment in Thomas Becket's posthumous career as saint. Almost certainly under Langton's influence the opening clause of Magna Carta 1215 had already obliged the king to promise God that 'the English Church is to be free in perpetuity and to have its rights in full and all its liberties intact': a distillation, again almost certainly drafted by Langton, of the entire programme of reform and resistance first championed by Thomas Becket.

On his return to England after the civil war of 1215–17, it was Langton who presided over the translation (movement) of Becket's relics at Canterbury on 7 July 1220 (yet another 'lucky' Tuesday), precisely calculated by Langton as the day of Becket's 'jubilee' as defined in the Old Testament book of Leviticus (25:8-9): not, as is widely assumed, a crude 50th anniversary, but the 10th day (according to Langton's calculations, 10 days after Becket's martyrdom on 29 December 1170) of the seventh month after seven times seven years from the event, and coincidentally both a Tuesday, propitious to Becket, and the anniversary of the burial of King Henry II, falling in a leap year which itself was interpreted as a sign of particular good fortune.

Illuminated manuscript which includes an depicition of Archbishop Stephen Langton blessing the body of St Thomas
Archbishop Stephen Langton blessing the body of St Thomas. The Stowe Breviary, c.1322-55. © British Library Board, Stowe MS 12, f. 270r.

Five years later, having in effect stepped in as Henry III's chief spiritual counsellor, and with his fellow English bishops now prominent in the running of Henry's government, it was Langton who secured a grant of taxation from the English barons in return for the king's promise to reissue and uphold the terms of Magna Carta, definitively transformed from peace-treaty into law. The date of this reissue was itself carefully orchestrated by Langton. 11 February 1225, the date of the charter's issue, was not only a Tuesday but an especially significant Christian feast, still commemorated in England as 'pancake day': Shrove Tuesday, the last day for worldly luxuries before the penitential season of Lent. In the very first clause of the 1225 Magna Carta, as in the original charter of 1215, the king was made to guarantee the liberties and rights of the English Church. Even eight centuries later, and thanks to its definitive reissue in 1225, this remains one of only three clauses of Magna Carta that are still valid as statutes in English law.

An enduring connection

It is therefore entirely appropriate that the 1225 Magna Carta now finds a place among the exhibits displaying Becket's continued influence, many centuries after death.

Handwritten document with a large yellow wax seal
1225 reissue of Magna Carta. © Duchy copyright material in The National Archives is the property of the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty in Right of Her Duchy of Lancaster and is reproduced by permission of the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster.

As for Langton, his devotion to Becket went beyond mere commemoration. As a contemporary poet wrote addressing Langton: 'Not an atom divides you from Thomas' (a pun here in Latin, 'te non a Thoma separet ulla atomos'). Even on the seal he employed as archbishop, Langton had Becket constantly before his eyes, with an image that shows St Thomas gruesomely (albeit un-historically) butchered in the very act of consecrating the wine of the Mass, struck down in his Cathedral by his four knightly assailants.

Yellow wax seal showing a depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket by four knights
Counterseal of Archbishop Stephen Langton showing Becket’s martyrdom, c.1213-15. © The National Archives.

Around this image is engraved a metrical inscription: 'Mors expressa foris tibi vita sit intus amoris' ('May death to your body be your spirit's life of love', or if we wish to preserve the rhyme, 'May your body's death be your soul's love's breath'). Here too Langton deliberately references the sacrament of penance, the means by which the Christian soul might be redeemed from bodily sin, with contemporary theological debate distinguishing the internal 'forum' of conscience and contrition from the external appearances of judgement or public reconciliation. For Langton, as for St Thomas before him, the redemption of souls was the overriding concern trumping all others. If redemption could be secured from spiritual counsel, all well and good. If it also required involvement in politics, and as through Magna Carta the issuing of laws that guaranteed the proper ordering of Christian society, then archbishops and bishops remained under an obligation to serve in the government both of Church and of King.

At his death on 9 July 1228, only two days after celebrating the feast of Becket's translation that he had instituted and for which he had also written the prayers and litany, Langton was buried in Canterbury Cathedral within sight of the martyr's new shrine – one of the very first of Becket's admirers to seek this special honour. Had Becket not lived, Langton might himself have found sainthood. On occasion he had skirted perilously close to provoking violent reprisals from King John. That after 1170, kings strove harder to keep their tempers and above all, to avoid involvement in the murder of even the most troublesome of priests, is itself testimony to Becket's now international fame. So too is the enduring success of Magna Carta – the law that Becket himself did not write, but that his posthumous reputation helped secure.

Watch Professor Nicholas Vincent is in conversation with Reverend and Historian of Christianity, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch (University of Oxford) in our online event The construction and destruction of a saint: Thomas Becket.

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint ran from 20 May - 22 August 2021.

Supported by:

The Hintze Family Charitable Foundation

The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts

Jack Ryan and Zemen Paulos

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