Thomas Becket and the Quest for Martyrdom

Thomas Becket and the Quest for Martyrdom

Beaver, Kim

LaGrange College, Citations: A Journal of Undergraduate Research, Vol.7 (2010)


When studying the history of the Church in England, it is impossible to avoid the discussion of the tension between the Church and the crown. The conflict appeared consistently in England throughout the Middle Ages and permanently altered the country’s history. Perhaps the most dramatic turn in the clash in the struggle came just after Christmas in 1170 with the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket. Becket’s murder shocked the kingdom and brought the struggle between Church and State to the forefront. The hagiographers and writers of the time believed that Becket’s murder was the result of “a typical expression of the familiar, extravagant, Angevin passion.” Although they did agree that Henry probably had not meant the fateful sentence that encouraged four knights to attack Becket, it was the general consensus among chroniclers that Thomas Becket was a heroic man who stood up against royal encroachment upon the Church. He was seen as a martyr for the Church’s cause and, in fact, was canonized in 1173, only a few years after his death.

What many of the hagiographers failed to see, however, was that Becket’s defense of the Church was not altogether unselfish. By reading their works closely, it becomes apparent that the archbishop was actually much more self-seeking in his designs. In reality, “few men have struggled harder to win the name of Saint…” than the archbishop Thomas Becket. Whatever he did, he did completely—as much to make a statement about himself as the issue at hand. In his dealings as archbishop, Becket was incredibly arrogant, intentionally antagonized King Henry II, and was thoroughly obstinate; the attitude and actions of Thomas Becket illustrate his quest to gain legendary status, even if necessary, through martyrdom.

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