HST2041: Murder in the cathedral: the Becket Affair

20 credits (semester 1)

Module Leader: Dr Danica Summerlin



Pass in at least two of the Level One modules History Units HST112-121.


Module Summary

On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was brutally murdered in his cathedral by four knights of his King and one-time friend, Henry II. Born into a tradesman’s family in London, Becket ended his life as theoretically the most powerful cleric in England, and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Clever and ambitious, he was one of Henry II’s chief advisors, appointed in 1162 to the critical link between the King and the Church as a sign of royal favour. At a time when religious and political elites overlapped, Becket’s role was to support Henry’s policies and act as a bridge between the ruler and the sometimes recalcitrant bishops who acted as spiritual guides for the population. Instead, he underwent a Pauline conversion, becoming the Church’s ardent defender and a consistent and vocal critique of Henry’s politics and policies. In the space of ten years, a close friendship had been ruined, and Thomas’ stubbornness, flight to France, and untimely death created additional tensions for the English king.

This document option investigates events surrounding Thomas’ death and the emergence of his cult. It asks how a minor squabble became a continent-wide cause célèbre, forcing Henry into an act of ritual humiliation to clear his name while ensuring that Thomas’ memory lived on. Using sources written and produced by contemporaries, we will consider the politics and religious history of England in the mid-twelfth century, asking how the needs of kingdom and religion intertwined and why the dispute escalated, before investigating how and why Henry felt so compelled to clear his name when accused of complicity in Becket’s violent and sacrilegious death. Finally, we will use a range of sources, from letters and written narratives to images of precious objects, to trace Becket’s legacy and its development from a fast-emerging religious cult to a modern mythology that has inspired the poet TS Eliot and the actor Richard Burton amongst others.



  • This course uses the rich source material concerning the life, death, and cult of St Thomas Becket to analyse the political, social and religious environment in England in the third quarter of the twelfth century.
  • Becket’s murder in 1170 provides a single moment around which the course pivots, but students will be encouraged to ask broader questions about the relationship of church and state, the ideas underlying medieval religion and politics, and to investigate contemporary religious belief through critical engagement with a variety of sources, from hagiographical accounts of Becket’s life written shortly after his death to delicately enamelled reliquaries, and from copies of letters and laws associated with the dispute to the architectural traces of Becket’s cult in churches across Europe.
  • The module will provide students with the opportunity to develop their confidence in analysis, group work, and in expressing their ideas.
  • Becket was a divisive figure whose cult expanded exponentially, bearing little relationship to his import in the perception of his principle adversaries, and whose memory lives on into the present as a mythologised figure. This document option will therefore use the copious contemporary sources to develop students’ capacity to critically interrogate original source material.


Teaching and Assessment

Weekly lecture-workshops provide students with an outline of events, and a place where they can start to understand the problems of some of the Becket sources and the broad historiographical tradition in which the Becket conflict exists. Students will be helped in this by The Lives of Thomas Becket, a selection of sources translated and annotated for Manchester University Press by Michael Staunton, which is available as an e-book. Weekly seminars will then explore these sources in more detail, especially those which relate most closely to Becket’s life and contemporaries’ perceptions of the man himself, using Staunton and others’ analyses of the sources too. The seminars will permit student-led discussion, and class participation together with group presentations will allow students to develop their skills in debating ideas.

Students are assessed through three five-hundred-word source responses on which they will receive written feedback (33%). Group presentations and class participation contribute toward an overall oral mark worth 17%. An unseen examination testing awareness and command of the source material and wider scholarly literature provides the summative assessment (50%).

Further guidance is provided in the module course booklet, available through MOLE.

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level2


Suggested Reading

  • Michael Clanchy, England and its rulers, 1066-1272
  • Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings (Oxford, 2000)
  • David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain, 1066-1284 (London, 2003)
  • Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket (London, 2004)
  • Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (London, 1986)

Becket’ – 1964 film, Dir. Peter Glenville. [available on the library resource ‘Box of Broadcasts’]


Intended Learning Outcomes
Plus Icon