Thomas Becket murdered at Canterbury

Canterbury, 29 December 1170

Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was struck down by swords in the north transept of his own cathedral today as he stood by the altar of the Virgin Mary. His killers were four knights of the royal household, who rode here this afternoon and began a violent argument with the 52-year-old prelate.

The archbishop struggled for several minutes with his assailants while a crowd of his men and townspeople who had come to attend evening song looked on. But when he realised that death was near, he bowed his head and joined his hands in prayer. "I commend myself to God, the Blessed Mary, St Denis and the patron saints of this Church," he said.

The murder comes as the brutal climax to a prolonged quarrel between Thomas and King Henry II. Becket, the London-born son of a Norman merchant, had risen rapidly in the royal service, and when Henry had him installed at Canterbury he believed he was getting a docile cleric. But Becket became a firm upholder of ecclesiastical privileges.

On one occasion Becket, waving his crozier at the king, told him he had no right to judge him. Last June Henry had his son and heir crowned in Westminster abbey by the archbishop of York, assisted by six bishops. Becket denounced the action and excommunicated the bishops.

In his fury the king uttered a fatal cry:
'Who will free me from this turbulent priest?'
The four knights gave him the answer.