Archbishop Thomas Becket, who for four centuries after his gruesome murder in Canterbury Cathedral would be nicknamed “lux Londoniarum” (the light of the Londoners), was the only surviving son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket, born very probably when the wreck of the White Ship was still the hottest news in town. The time was the afternoon of St. Thomas the Apostle’s Day (December 21); the place a large house in Cheapside standing on the fief of the Marmion family, to whom a substantial annual quitrent was due.
Lying on the north side of Cheapside between Ironmonger Lane and Old Jewry, the Beckets’ house was within earshot of the busiest street market in London. Most likely it was built of wood and limestone with narrow, unglazed windows. Its main living areas were the open hall, or main reception area, warmed by a central stone hearth, with a private chamber to the side where the family lived, slept, and entertained their closest friends and relatives. The open hall was lit by wax tapers, was furnished with trestle tables and stools, and had washing bowls and basins suitably positioned by the door or in an alcove. Servants, who waited on the family and prepared their meals, slept in the hall. Beneath the house was an undercroft, or cellar, perhaps serving as a warehouse to store goods. Possibly the kitchen was at one end of the hall behind a wooden screen, maybe outside in an annex to minimize the risk of fire. Water for cooking and washing was drawn from a private well or purchased from one of the city’s many water carriers, who scooped river water from the Thames into leather pouches, selling them door-to-door. Soap was generally made from ashes, and the Beckets cleaned their teeth using green hazel shoots before polishing them with woolen cloths.
While Gilbert and Matilda’s open hall was apparently larger than average, their living chamber may have been fairly cramped. Working back from documents compiled in 1227–28, it can be estimated that the property had a street frontage of 40 feet, a rear width of 110 feet, and a depth of 165 feet, but the greater portion of this area was taken up by a garden. The same documents show that the adjacent houses were approached via gatehouses and provided with outdoor latrines flowing into cesspits, so perhaps the Beckets’ house had such amenities too.
Baptized in the nearby parish church of St. Mary Colechurch, Thomas was named after the apostle whose festival it was. His godparents promised to protect him from “fire and water and other perils” until he was seven and teach him the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), and the Apostles’ Creed. Following time-hallowed rituals, the priest dipped Thomas in the font, then placed his thumb in holy oil, making the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, shoulders, and chest, before wrapping him in a “chrism cloth,” a white linen christening robe, as a symbol of purity and to keep him warm.
Whereas baptism usually took place when a newborn child was a few days old, Thomas was brought to the church by a midwife or nurse within hours of his birth, suggesting he may have appeared weak or sickly, or perhaps his parents had lost an earlier child and were determined to make sure their son was christened at once. His father was present at the church but not his mother, since canon (or church) law forbade a newly delivered woman to enter a consecrated space until she had been ritually purified in a special ceremony some forty days after her lying-in.
Around the year 1110, Gilbert and Matilda Becket had joined settlers from Rouen, the chief city of the Norman dukes, who had flocked to London, enticed by the city’s expanding trade. Most likely Gilbert was a draper’s merchant, since Cheapside and its environs were inhabited mainly by goldsmiths and those dealing wholesale in textiles, and Gilbert is known not to have been a goldsmith. Although they came from Rouen, their exact birthplaces are disputed. William fitz Stephen (no relation to the skipper of the White Ship), also born to Norman parents in London and one of Thomas Becket’s early biographers, says that Gilbert came from a fairly humble family living close to Thierville in the valley of the Risle, not far from Bec Abbey, some twenty-five miles from Rouen. An anonymous Canterbury monk says that Gilbert’s family was from Rouen itself and that Matilda (who is sometimes called Rose) was most likely born and raised in Caen. Married at around the age of twenty, the couple immigrated to England soon after their wedding.
The surname Becket usually means “little beak” or “beak-face,” and young Thomas is known to have had an aquiline nose, probably inherited from his father. But it is far more likely that Becket derives from Bec, as in Bec Abbey. Surnames were optional in medieval society, and few people regularly used them. Gilbert and Matilda’s eldest daughter, Agnes, was among them, calling herself Becket even after her marriage, but her brother never used the name, and when he is so addressed by others, it is usually derogatory. Before entering royal service, he preferred to call himself “Thomas of London” and afterward “Thomas the chancellor” or “Thomas the archbishop.” Just one chronicler, Roger of Howden, refers to him in the modern way, as Thomas Becket, and then only once.
One of the most enduring and tantalizingly romantic myths about Thomas is that his mother was a Saracen princess. Still often repeated as true, the story first became part of the Becket legend as the result of an interpolation in a corrupt medieval manuscript first printed at Paris in 1495. The same story appears in a chronicle attributed to John of Brompton, abbot of Jervaulx. Gilbert, it is said, had traveled on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a young man, attended only by a servant. While praying one day in a church, he was surprised by a party of Saracens, who abducted him and led him into slavery. Held for a year and a half, he suffered great hardships but slowly ingratiated himself with his captors, who allowed him to come to their table, where he explained to them the customs and manners of the Europeans. The Saracen lord’s daughter took a fancy to him and secretly visited him in prison, offering to become a Christian if he would make her his bride. When a few months later he broke free from his chains and managed to escape in the company of some merchants, she followed him. Arriving in London alone and knowing no words in French or English besides “London” and “Becket,” she walked the streets desperately, mocked by bemused children, until by pure chance she was recognized by Gilbert’s servant. Reluctant at first to marry her, but eager to see her baptized, Gilbert sought advice from the bishop of London, who, “perceiving the hand of God visibly concerned in the affair,” decided to baptize her the next day. After the ceremony at St. Paul’s--conducted by six bishops--she and Gilbert were married, and Thomas was conceived overnight.
Edward Grim, once the rector of the parish of Saltwood in Kent, who went on to write one of Becket’s early biographies, claims that Matilda Becket experienced a series of mystical visions around the time her son was born. Since he did not even know the family then, he was almost certainly using a hagiographer’s trick to signal his subject’s future greatness. In her first vision, Matilda is said to have felt the whole of the river Thames flowing within her. Seeking an explanation from soothsayers, she learned that “the one who is born to you will rule over many people.” Next she dreamed of going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, but when she attempted to enter the cathedral, her womb swelled so large that she could not pass through the door. Her final vision concerned a blanket that magically and continually expanded. Seeing her baby lying uncovered in his cot, mother and nurse attempted to unravel the blanket, “but they found the chamber too cramped for this purpose and the larger hall too, and even the street.” Finally a voice from heaven thundered, “All your efforts are useless. The whole of England is smaller than this purple cloth and cannot contain it.”
When he was forty-six, Thomas would describe his parents as “citizens of London, not by any means the lowest, living without dispute in the midst of their fellow citizens.” Slights against his ancestry--of which he would receive many over the course of his eventful life--always stung him. “I prefer,” he would say, “to be a man in whom nobility of mind creates nobility, rather than one in whom nobility of birth degenerates. Perhaps I was born in a humble cottage, but through the aid of divine mercy . . . I lived very well indeed in my poverty.” And he would fearlessly defend his family’s honor when he felt it unfairly impugned. “What do family trees produce?” he would ask. “Which is more praiseworthy, to be born of middle-class or even more lowly stock, or to be born from the great and honored of the world, when St. Paul would say, ‘Those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor’?”
The description “middle-class” fits his parents perfectly. A prosperous London citizen, Gilbert was at best the son of a lesser knight or of a free agricultural tenant, but was at least a freeman’s son at a time when the overwhelming majority of the Norman and English populations were tied laborers or peasants. Around thirty years old when Thomas was born, Gilbert would afterward rise to become one of the four sheriffs, or chief officers, of London. (The post of mayor did not yet exist.) The relationship between the Crown and city was close, and the sheriffs were its linchpins. William the Conqueror had relied on them to collect the city’s annual “farm,” or tax, and to keep order. His son William Rufus had expected them to pay for knights, for repairs to London Bridge after it had been severely damaged by a flood, and for the costs of building his magnificent “new hall” at Westminster beside the abbey. Half a century would elapse before the Normans would feel wholly secure within the city, but King Henry I would regularly stay there. Most likely Gilbert ranked among the fifty or so leaders of London’s civic elite.
Thomas Becket, who spent most of the first twenty-five years of his life in or around the city, was in many of his habits and values a Londoner even after he had left to make a career elsewhere. Proud of their adopted home, the Norman immigrant families of his parents’ generation had swiftly assimilated into civic society. With their underlying values of meritocracy and a self-governing community, Londoners believed passionately that they should be governed by themselves, remaining free to arrange things in their own interests and not in those of the lord who happened to own the land on which their houses were built. A rudimentary civic government and a representative assembly had existed since before the Conquest, when the citizens had gathered three times a year in the “folkmoot” to regulate their own affairs. So Londoners had a long-established tradition of self-government.
Early in his reign, William the Conqueror had confirmed these freedoms, which included the right to punish offenses committed on market days and to enforce the bargains made. The citizens then purchased a much amplified charter from Henry I, allowing them to elect their own sheriffs and hear lawsuits in their own civic courts. To improve their trade, they secured exemption from the tolls and customs duties imposed on them by other English cities or seaports. And to encourage their cooperation with the Crown, the king agreed to reduce their annual tax, while the royal family showed its generosity in other ways. Shortly before Thomas was born, Henry’s first wife, Queen Matilda, had founded a new public bathhouse and latrine complex in the city, together with a leper hospital outside the walls.
Thriving chiefly on its commerce, London was a trading city and a major seaport. Ships could navigate the Thames as far as London Bridge, where cargoes traveling farther upstream had to be unloaded and transferred to smaller vessels on the other side of the bridge. Wharves and landings (or stairs) were scattered along the banks of the river, since each “lord” and district had their own. Wherries and ferryboats shuttled people, horses, fish, grain, and every type of merchandise from one bank to the other. Regulating trade themselves, the citizens had made sure, since 984–85 in the reign of King Æthelred, that ships landing fish at London Bridge would be expected to pay a toll. Within a century, merchants from Normandy and France, Flanders, Italy and Germany, Gascony, and the Mediterranean would be flocking to London, where they were required to display their wares to the customs officials on arrival and pay tolls on the wharf or on board their ships.
Increasingly the hub of a national network supplying food and commodities, London took advantage of a transport system based on ancient river routes and the old Roman roads. These roads, though full of potholes and poorly maintained, were adequate for sledges, carts, or wagons drawn by oxen or packhorses. Heavier loads were more suited to the river routes, which chiefly ran north along the Lea deep into leafy Hertfordshire; upstream along the Thames into Berkshire and Oxfordshire; or downstream along the coasts of Essex and Kent, and then onward by sea to the ports of East Anglia and Lincolnshire, and north toward Newcastle and Scotland.
Occupying an area slightly more than three hundred acres, the city looked very much like an irregular half ellipse nestled on the Thames, enclosed on the northern, or land, side by the old Roman walls but occasionally spilling outside, mainly to the south and west, into Middlesex and Surrey to create the suburbs of Southwark and Westminster. Although the old Roman walls had become dilapidated, with many gaps and holes, the core remained largely intact except along the riverbank, where everything had collapsed into the mud. Accordingly, access by road was through one of seven gateways, which were surmounted by lofty towers, or keeps, regularly used as prisons. Locked and barred at night to keep out thieves, four of the gates had a central opening for carts, with a passage for those on foot on either side, leaving three for pedestrians only.
The original Roman bridge had crossed the Thames near Fish Street Hill, the lowest point at which such a wide and fast-flowing tidal stream could be spanned. Its pre-Conquest replacement, built of timber and broad enough for two wagons to pass each other, was still standing in Thomas Becket’s lifetime, though in constant need of repairs. Always the key point of entry to the city from Southwark and the south bank, this bridge played a crucial role in London’s economy and defenses, for it would take another fifty years to get a project for a new stone bridge off the ground.
Excerpted from Thomas Becket by John Guy. Copyright © 2012 by John Guy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.