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What if Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury hadn't been murdered?


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According to the University of Kent's Dr Emily Guerry, the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket remains the most important event to occur in Kentish history.

Here she looks at the crime and predicts what could have happened if he'd lived.

Thomas Becket memorialised in a stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral
Thomas Becket memorialised in a stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral

In the early evening of December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury was brutally murdered inside the Cathedral.

Four royal knights, believing they were acting under the orders of King Henry II, had attacked the holy man in the north transept soon after evensong, in the presence of the choir of monks and local townspeople.

A number of eyewitnesses reported his blood and brains were spread across the pavement.

This was one of the most talked-about crime scenes of the Middle Ages; it was also the beginning of one of the most popular religious cults in European history.

The shocking news circulated quickly across Christendom.

The tomb stone for Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral
The tomb stone for Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

Becket's friends and allies wrote passionate accounts of his life (and death) and, by 1173, the low-born clerk from Cheapside was made a saint by the Pope.

In the next decade alone, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Canterbury Cathedral to marvel at the site of his martyrdom, quickly making it a pilgrimage destination from across Europe.

People worshipped at the location of his holy relics and collected sacred souvenirs; pilgrims' badges testifying to their visit, as well as 'ampullae' containing a miracle-working mixture of his blood.

Some 700 more miracles would be recorded in the next decade alone.

But what if Becket wasn't murdered?

The murder took place in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170
The murder took place in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170

The history of Canterbury and, due to the city’s influence, all of Kent would look radically different without the following centuries of Becket's charismatic cult.

The hundreds of medieval pilgrims hospices dotted around the region, benefitting from the tourism of religious devotion inspired by Becket’s legacy and ready to welcome those visitors from across the world who journeyed to worship him, would not be as they are, and might possibly not exist at all.

Archaeologists have discovered pilgrims' badges collected from Canterbury across Christendom, stretching from Trondheim (Norway) to Monreale (Sicily) and reaching from Reykjavik (Iceland) to Tarsus (Turkey).

Without Becket's martyrdom, we can assume the magnetic ‘tourism’ of medieval devotion in Canterbury would have been directed elsewhere.

The revenue and cultural impact would have been just as vital to the region as it is for Kent’s economy in 2021.

An illustration depicting the assassination of Thomas Becket
An illustration depicting the assassination of Thomas Becket

These pilgrims were not just international but also from across the British Isles.

Pilgrimage from the north and west of England, Wales and Scotland, would have contributed significantly to the high regard that would come to be held for the South East.

This would have been diminished without the flow of Canterbury pilgrims across the Isles, through London and along Kent’s famed Pilgrim’s Way (also known as Watling Street) to Canterbury.

The rise of Kentish villages and hamlets along the Pilgrim’s Way would also not have occurred, at least not as quickly as they came to, in response to the flow of people to and from Canterbury.

What of the impact of Becket’s legacy on our culture?

The Geoffrey Chaucer statue in Canterbury
The Geoffrey Chaucer statue in Canterbury

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, telling of pilgrims sharing stories along the way from Southwark to Becket's shrine, is regarded as one of the most important literary works in history and is studied worldwide by students.

As The Canterbury Tales is known also for its humour, perhaps 'British humour' may not have evolved as it came to.

But without his murder, he would not have been a martyr, and from the point of view of a medievalist such as I am, it is bewildering to picture our local history, and the wider history of the Church, without the central presence of this charismatic saint.

The murder of Thomas Becket nearly one millennia ago remains the most important event to occur in Kentish history.

The influence of his murder forever changed the worlds of politics, religion, literature and even humour, not just within Kent but across the United Kingdom.

Next Monday, we ask: What if the RAF had lost the 1940 Battle of Britain?

Dr Emily Guerry is senior lecturer in Medieval European History in the University of Kent’s School of History
Dr Emily Guerry is senior lecturer in Medieval European History in the University of Kent’s School of History

Dr Emily Guerry is senior lecturer in Medieval European History in the University of Kent’s School of History. From this Wednesday to Friday, she is leading a virtual conference exploring the life and times of the former archbishop. The conference is open to all for registration and for details, click here.

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