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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006, 10:37 GMT
Saint or sinner?
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket: Man of principle or founder of gesture politics?

As if assassination wasn't bad enough, now Thomas Becket has to cope with character assassination.

The murdered medieval archbishop has been voted the second worst Briton in the past thousand years, in a readers' poll carried out by BBC History Magazine.

A spokesman for Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas served as archbishop and was murdered in 1170, said they were "surprised and disappointed" at such an "eccentric" decision.

Although Jack the Ripper was voted as the very worst Briton, (condemned by 24% of the voters) Thomas Becket (also known as Thomas a Becket) has been voted as second worse with 11%, more than the notoriously unpopular King John, with 9%, and than Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, who received only 4%.

Doubting Thomas?

What did he do to deserve such a bad reputation?

His CV isn't that bad. For starters, he was canonised as a saint only three years after his death. And as chancellor, he was seen as an energetic and effective organiser.

Henry II
Henry II visited Becket's tomb in penance for Becket's murder

His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury triggered a protracted disagreement with his erstwhile friend and patron, Henry II - as church and crown wrestled for authority.

This power struggle ended bloodily with Becket's murder. An exasperated Henry II had reputedly uttered the words "Will no one rid me of that turbulent priest?" - and taking the king at his word, four knights had rushed to Canterbury Cathedral and stabbed the archbishop to death.

So how has the victim of a political killing ended up with the bad guys?

After his murder he was seen as one of the really good guys, with his burial place becoming one of Europe's top pilgrimage destinations.

A remorseful Henry II went to Canterbury in a public show of penance. When Chaucer's chatty travellers headed out of London, they were going to pay their respects at Thomas's tomb.

'Gesture politics'

But this failed to impress Professor John Hudson of St Andrews University who attacked the medieval martyr as a "founder of gesture politics" and "master of the soundbite".

Murder in the Cathedral
TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral dramatised the death of Becket

Rather than serving as an inspiring role model, Becket was "greedy" and could be viewed as "hypocritical", says Professor Hudson, who nominated the archbishop as his biggest villain of the 12th century.

"Those who share my prejudice against Becket may consider his assassination ... a fittingly grisly end," he says.

In an era when thumbscrews, racks and burning alive could be passed off as robust law and order - being guilty of "gesture politics" might seem something of a minor charge.


But the voters in the magazine poll shared this dim view of Thomas Becket - a decision that Christopher Robinson, spokesman for Canterbury Cathedral, described as unfair.

Oswald Mosley
Fascist leader Oswald Mosley gained fewer votes for worst Briton than Becket

Rather than a villain, Mr Robinson described Becket as a "man who paid a high price for his principles".

He was "always willing to serve a cause", said Mr Robinson. He had energetically served the royal cause - and when, unwillingly, he became archbishop, he then served the church with equal enthusiasm.

And in terms of history's undesirables, Mr Robinson says there are plenty of worse people. For instance, he points to the failures of King Stephen's reign, the absenteeism of King Richard I and the politically-motivated vandalism of Henry VIII, who ordered the destruction of Becket's tomb.


The decision to put Thomas Becket into the frame for Britain's biggest villain was made by about 5,000 readers, who voted through the magazine's website.

But the editor of BBC History Magazine, Dave Musgrove, said that Becket could have been the victim of his fame as much as his reputation.

Among the other top 10 villains are such lesser-known figures as Hugh Despenser (greedy medieval land-grabber), Eadric Streona (unscrupulous Saxon schemer) and Thomas Arundel (14th century archbishop who persecuted reform-seeking Lollards).

These are not exactly household names, and Mr Musgrove suggests that the best-known names, Jack the Ripper and Thomas Becket, drew the most votes.

TS Eliot, whose Murder in the Cathedral dramatised the death of Thomas Becket, would not have been impressed by such reasons for voting.

"The last temptation is the greatest treason," he wrote, "to do the right thing for the wrong reason."

Does Thomas Becket deserve to be listed in the Worst Britons? Who else might have been included instead? Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

No I don't think he should be on the list of Worst Britons! He stood for what he believed to be right. We need more of his type.
Brian M Keith, Ellesmere England

Post-modern nonsense. He stood valiantly for noble principles; it's a sad indictment on our culture if we condemn what is good and noble, and exult what is evil and wicked.

No, Becket should not have been included. There is nothing in his life that makes him any worse that others in his or any other century, and he was better than most. And King John should not have been there either, his 'crime' was to try and hold together the kingdom his older brother had practically bankrupted. He has had bad press through the Robin Hood stories.

I think the poll just shows the ignorance of the majority of the voters for the history of our country. They mostly just voted for the names they had heard of. And the selection they were offered was pretty odd in the first place.
Harriet Courtney, Worcester

How ridiculous. Thomas Becket was one of the first great men of this country. If anyone was evil it was Henry II
Mike Russan, Crewe

I think the poll is a bit odd. Surely Harold Shipman was as bad as the Ripper in many ways? Would the traitorous utterings of Haw Haw not be as bad as the "master of the soundbite"? Strange...
Poodz, Belfast

How typical of modern society that people can tolerate a Nazi more than a priest ....
Bubble, Croydon

While Becket may not deserve to be in a top 10, he certainly was a nasty character. His refusal to compromise drove Henry II to distraction and did not have the approval of the broader church at the time. Had it not been for Becket's sticky end, it is unlikely that he would have been remembered at all, or, if he was, it would be as the unscrupulous and unreasonable man that he undoubtedly was. Perhaps this will go some way to restoring Henry II's reputation as arguably one of the greatest kings's our country has ever known.
Anon, St. Albans

Henry VIII 'murdered' two of his wives for goodness sakes! Not exactly something that shows him in a good light!
Marvin Cottam, Lincoln

We can't be sure that Jack the Ripper was even British.
Paolo, St Albans

To a casual outsider, the BBC's piece 'Saint Or Sinner' appears to convey the impression that the readers of the History Magazine who voted in the poll got it wrong. How strange, that the BBC should hold an opinion poll, apparently in true democratic fashion, and then criticise the people for coming to a decision which differs from its own. Says more about the BBC than about the people.
Simon Daniels, Southampton

I am astounded by the result. While some vaild criticisms can be made concerning Becket, he does not deserve the infamy of being voted the second worst person in British history, just after Jack the Ripper. Smell the coffee, folks. Thomas Becket cannot be deemed worse than individuals such as Hugh Despenser, Henry VIII or Oswald Mosley (people who, unlike Becket, didn't devote themselves to a higher good but were instead self-centred, callous and cruel).
Robert Moore, Bristol

I am amazed that Edward I, who was responsible for some of the worst ethnic cleansing and brutality was not on the list.
Jason Thomas Williams, London

What about "Butcher" Haig, or Bloody Mary? They did a lot more harm to their own people than most of the personalities on the list. It looks like most people voted for the only names they could recognise. Who on earth has ever heard of Aedric Stroeona?
Neville Collins, France

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