Arched stained-glass window depicting miracles attributed to Becket.

A timeline of Thomas Becket's life and legacy

Revisit our past exhibition

Explore key moments in the life and legacy of Thomas Becket (1120–1170), one of the most important and influential figures in medieval Europe.

Trace Becket's tumultuous journey from a merchant's son to an archbishop, and from a revered saint in death to a 'traitor' in the eyes of Henry VIII more than 350 years later.

Timeline

1120

Birth

Becket is born in Cheapside, London around 21 December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda, who had moved to England from Normandy. Gilbert is a prosperous merchant and Becket has a comfortable childhood. His experiences growing up in the cosmopolitan city shape the man he becomes.

c. 1145–1154

A powerful patron

Becket is employed as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his ordinary beginnings, Becket rises quickly through the ranks, becoming one of the archbishop's most important advisors. During his time working with Theobald, he visits the Pope on official business and is sent to Bologna in Italy and Auxerre in France to learn law.

1154

Thomas the chancellor

A charter addressed to the citizens of Canterbury. It is authorised with the king’s Great Seal, which shows Henry II enthroned, holding a sword and an orb. The text names Becket as a witness, using his new title: ‘Thomas the chancellor’.
Charter of Henry II to the city of Canterbury. England, 1154–58. © Canterbury City Council.
Theobald recommends Becket as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II. It's the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. Becket and Henry become firm friends. As chancellor, he enjoys the lifestyle of a high-ranking courtier. He is responsible for issuing documents in the king's name, like the pictured charter addressed to the citizens of Canterbury. It's authorised with the king's Great Seal, which shows Henry II enthroned. The text names Becket as a witness, using his new title: 'Thomas the chancellor'.

1162

Thomas the archbishop

Alabaster panel showing Becket at the centre in red robes at his consecration as archbishop.
Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket's consecration as archbishop. England, first half of the 15th century. Private collection © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson. 
In an unexpected move, Henry nominates Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury following Theobald's death. He is consecrated in a grand ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral on 3 June 1162. The pictured panel from an altarpiece shows the event taking place. Becket sits between two bishops who touch his mitre. Above him God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit preside, with two angels swinging censers. Henry hoped that Becket would stay on as chancellor as well as being archbishop. Much to his surprise Becket refuses, rejects the chancellorship and begins to oppose him. Over the next two years their relationship completely disintegrates.

1164–1170

Exile

An illustration of Thomas Becket leaving on a horse, being waved and seen off by figures.
Detail from the Becket Leaves. England, c.1230–40. Private collection. © The Trustees of the Wormsley Fund.
With the situation worsening, Becket is brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, he flees abroad where he spends six years in exile under the protection of Henry's rival, Louis VII of France. Several unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation are made. Eventually a fragile peace between Henry and Becket is agreed in 1170. Becket returns to Canterbury in early December, but within weeks he is dead.

29 December 1170

Murder in the cathedral

An illustrated manuscript showing the murder and martyrdom of Thomas Becket.
Illumination showing Becket’s martyrdom from a manuscript containing Alan of Tewkesbury’s 'Collection of St Thomas Becket’s Letters' and John of Salisbury’s 'Life of St Thomas Becket', Mid-1180s. © British Library Board Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r.
Becket is killed in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights loyal to Henry. Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy had planned to arrest Becket on behalf of the king. On arriving at the archbishop's palace in Canterbury the situation soon spirals out of control. After arguing with Becket, they pursue him into the cathedral and strike him down. It's a shocking event leaving all in attendance reeling.

1173

St Thomas of Canterbury

Blue and gold casket with six figures on one side.
Reliquary casket showing Becket’s murder and his soul ascending to heaven, c. 1210.
Soon after his death, Becket gains a reputation as a great healer and hundreds of miraculous cures are attributed to him. These miracle stories are told to the monks at Canterbury Cathedral by pilgrims visiting to give thanks at the archbishop's tomb in the crypt. On 21 February 1173 Pope Alexander III makes Becket a saint, officially endorsing his growing cult.

Becket's relics, including fragments of his bones and pieces of blood-stained clothing, were distributed across Europe. 

1174

Royal penance

A stain glass window showing figures bowing and praying at a shrine.
Pilgrims at St Thomas’s tomb in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Miracle Window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral.
Initially, Henry appears to show little remorse for Becket's death. However, he cannot ignore the widespread outrage at what had happened. To appease the Pope, he performs two public penances in 1172 in the Norman towns of Avranches and Caen. Finally, in 1174 he visits Canterbury. Barefoot and stripped of his finery, Henry walks through the city to the cathedral, where he kneels before Becket's tomb and acknowledges his involvement in the murder. From then on, Henry is devoted to St Thomas and adopts him as his protector.

1220

Translation

Arched stained-glass window depicting miracles attributed to Becket.
Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral.
Fifty years after his death, Becket's body is moved from his tomb in the crypt into a glittering new shrine in the east end of Canterbury Cathedral. Known as the translation, this ceremony takes place on 7 July 1220. It's a lavish affair attended by the 13-year-old king, Henry III, and important churchmen such as the Papal Legate.

The shrine sits at the centre of a purpose-built and sumptuously decorated chapel. A series of twelve stained glass windows designed for this new chapel, known as the 'Miracle Windows', depicted Becket's life, death and the miracles he performed. Seven of these survive in situ in Canterbury Cathedral and show the many ways St Thomas intervened in the lives of everyday folk.
 
Read more about the translation of Becket’s bones in our blog

Late 1300s

The Canterbury Tales

A female figure riding a horse.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Collected Works, including 'The Canterbury Tales', c. 1400–25. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27, f. 222r.
Chaucer writes 'The Canterbury Tales', a fictional poem about a bawdy group of pilgrims 'from every shires end' who travel from London to St Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury, sharing stories on the way. One of Chaucer's most famous pilgrims is Alison, the Wife of Bath. She is depicted on horseback on the way to Canterbury in the manuscript pictured above, one of the earliest compilations of Chaucer’s works.

1538

Destruction

A large marble fragment of a larger shrine.
Discovered in the River Stour, Canterbury, in 1984, this marble fragment is thought to be one of the few surviving pieces of Becket’s shrine. Fragment of a double capital, c. 1180–1220. © Canterbury Museums and Galleries.
In 1534 King Henry VIII breaks with Rome and parliament appoints him Supreme Head of the Church of England. These events are part of a series of religious reforms known as the English Reformation. As a figurehead for defending the rights of the church against the English crown, St Thomas of Canterbury is singled out for censure. In September 1538 royal agents destroy his shrine at Canterbury. They prise off the gold and smash its marble base. What happens to the saint's bones is a mystery but a rumour soon spreads that they have been burnt on a pyre.

Two months' later, on 16 November 1538, a royal proclamation declares that Becket is no longer a saint and that his name and image should be removed wherever it appears. Amidst a wave of iconoclasm, the outlook for Becket's cult looks bleak. But his cult endures through the devotion of the faithful.