Thomas Becket attracted much criticism during his life, in both secular and ecclesiastical circles. Yet, he came to be considered one of the greatest and most popular saints of the twelfth century, canonised for his service to the Church despite the fact that it was from the Church establishment that he received some of his greatest complaints. This sizable discrepancy between how Thomas Becket was treated contemporaneously and how he was remembered is the subject of this essay, which will consider chiefly the ways in which Becket's biographers - William Fitzstephen, William of Canterbury, Edward Grim, Guernes of Pont-St Maxence and Benedict of Peterborough - transformed this controversial figure into a national hero. They achieved this by a reconstructing the life and death of Beckett as a dramatic, martyrological narrative, and emphasising his immense virtue in both civil and spiritual affairs.
To begin with, this essay is going to focus specially on four Thomas Becket's biographers who tell us those last moments of Thomas Becket's lives in London. From these first sources we can see the accounts of several writers in which most of them describe their final moments with Thomas Becket. In order to do this, the essay is divided into three main sections, a brief account of the facts surrounding Thomas Becket's murder. Then it focuses particularly in four different writers, as they have wider information more relevant for this essay and finally the conclusion.
On 29th December 1170, 'Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury was murder in his church by four noble knights from the house hold of his lord and former patron and friend, King Henry II (â€¦) The horror which the killing inspired and the miraculous cures performed at his tomb transfigured the victim into one of the most popular saints in the late-medieval calendar and made Canterbury one of the greatest pilgrim shrines in the West'. (Thomas Becket frank Barlow, page 1)
2 partThese writers were monks or clerks. None of them were biographers or historians and for all of them these accounts were their first publication except John of Salisbury. Nevertheless all of them show an impressive knowledge of the Bible and Christian traditions as they often connect the facts with quotations from it, such a : 'The righteous will be brave as a lion without fear'(proverbs 28:1) or 'For in such a case one ought not flee from the city' (Matthew 10:23) or 'By your words you will be justified'(Matthew 12:37).(estonto)
First of all, William Fitzstephens, one of the writers who knew him best (Thomas Becker Frank Barlow page 3) and who witnessed Thomas Becket's murder, was a clerk who served Thomas as chancellor and later as archbishop. He gave account of Thomas as chancellor and Thomas's trial at Northampton against the king. In the first one he highlights Thomas's 'generosity and evidence of merit, which are ingrained in his heart' as well as Thomas's humility - for instance he declared 'truly I know three poor priest in England, any of whom I would choose for promotion to the archiepiscopate before me'.
Secondly, we have William of Canterbury, a monk ordained deacon by Thomas (Thomas Beckets, F barrow page 4) and present in the Cathedral when Thomas was murdered. William focuses more on the change of heart of Thomas as 'He set out to renew the old man' when he became archbishop in 1162 as `if transformed into another man'
Thirdly, Edward Grim, a clerk and master from Cambridge, who also witnessed Thomas Becket's murder. He attempted to protect Thomas and because of that he got injured in one of his arms. He made his case very clearly that Thomas Becket was a saint with comments like `They came together against the innocent', 'the holy man'.
Finally, Benedict of Peterborough, monk of Canterbury who focused on the aftermath of Thomas Becket's murder. He was the one who said: "The monks looked at each other, and were astonished at this view of hidden religion beyond what could have been believed (that Thomas before his death was wearing a hair shirt), and with their sorrow thus multiply, so were their tears"(estonto page 49). He also told us that Thomas Becket appeared in vision to many people: 'His face nevertheless seemed entirely free from blood, except for a thin line, which descended from the right temple to the left cheek crossing the nose. Indeed with this mark he later appeared in visions to many who knew nothing at about this, who otherwise not mentioning it, described it as if they had seen it with their own eyes' (document from Benedict of Peterborough). Another interesting story is that when Thomas was still laying on the pavement people got as much things as they could such a hair, drops of blood, pieces of vestments, etc. knowing that they were taking the remains of a "precious treasure"(document from Benedict of Peterborough). In addition Benedict was the man in charge of recording the miracles reported by the visitors of the shrine. (Estonto page 49). Subsequently Benedict became first custodian of the shrine.
But, is because they were monks that they wrote such a thing on favour of Thomas Becket, giving a very biased position towards Thomas Becket?
Most of these writers, apart from being clerks or monks very friendly with Thomas, and if they wrote such a thing is because they considered him as a saint and also because it is natural and fair that the writers as of Thomas wrote the accounts with such attachment and appreciation.
It would be good to point out that the fact that these authors were either monks or clerks does not necessarily mean that they were biased in favour of Thomas, because as it was highlighted above, the criticisms against Thomas Becket within the Church. Therefore it would be very simplistic to assume that the authors have been biased.
Apart from that, we have some facts from these first sources that tell us Thomas Becket was a saint - For example, his enemies, in general, accused him for not having obvious signs of piety. However, showing external signs of piety is not a necessarily condition for holiness in the Church. It is good that people saw him praying often but what really matters to be a saint is personal praying. Otherwise it could be fall into a hypocritical attitude.
Gilbert Foliot was one of those within the Church that criticised most in his letter Multiplicen Nobis in which he said that Thomas used his influence in the Royal Court to become archbishop. That could be true, but in that case, it would not make much sense that he was wearing a hair shirt after his murder, as he was founded in the cathedral. In general a religious person who looks for power does not look for mortification but to be wealthy and powerful.
To sum up, these documents have had a big impact throughout history, as it is one of the principal accounts of the event of the murder of Thomas Becket. Moreover, it gives us a taste of the Pope's role throughout history and the imperial power of the Roman Empire in Europe.