Thomas à Becket (21 December 1119 or 1120 – 29 December 1170)

Image: view across Cheapside towards King Street on left of image and Ironmonger Lane on right (with Atlas House between).


Thomas Becket was born on December 21 in around 1120, in a large house on Cheapside next to the small church of St Mary Colechurch where he was probably baptised. His parents, Gilbert Becket and Matilda, were moderately wealthy Norman merchants and property owners, and much of Gilbert’s property was in and around Cheapside. The family’s fortunes suffered a major setback when a fire devastated the east of the City including St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge in the 1130s.

Becket lived there for much of his youth (see Becket and London in his lifetime). Following Becket’s murder the citizens of London sought to buy the house from his relatives so they could establish a church there.

“Richard Burton, as Becket, delivers a performance that is subtle and restrained to the point of lulling the viewer into a gentle snooze. By contrast, Peter O’Toole as Henry II seems to have escaped from a pantomime, and leaps around the screen throwing tantrums and howling. “I am the law!” he bellows, like a camp, medieval Judge Dredd. He is ridiculous, and brilliant. Moreover, the act is no less bizarre than historical descriptions of Henry, a colossal, passionate monster who would reportedly get so angry that he would froth at the mouth, drop to the ground and start chomping furiously at bits of straw. In the middle of all this, John Gielgud wafts in as Louis VII of France, is arch, and wafts out again.” (Alex von Tunzelmann)

In the 1220s the bishops of London and Winchester, the chief citizens of London, and Thomas Becket’s nephew founded a Hospital on the site under the care of the religious order of St Thomas of Acre (see crusade). As with the other hospitalfounded for Thomas Becket at a similar time in Southwark, the Hospital of St Thomas of Acre was to care for the poor and sick, but because of its importance in the life of Thomas Becket it also became an important site of city devotionsand ceremonies. Before the Black Death it was the only large hospital within London’s city walls. The Hospital owned large parts of the East End of London, lands in Wapping, Stepney, Putney, and properties as far away as Doncaster, Ireland, and Cyprus!

Many wealthy Londoners paid large sums to be buried in the church and graveyard, and in 1466 a Bohemian visitor to the church thought he had seen the tombs of Becket’s mother and sister. Despite this, the costs of providing for hospitality and staffing, as well as periods of poor management, meant that the Hospital fell badly into debt in the early 1500s, and the administration was taken over by the Mercers Company. Following the Reformation, the site was transformed into Mercers’ Hall. (Ironmonger Ln, London EC2V 8HE).

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