It is one of the most famous names in British history, a name associated with a gruesome murder which shocked the Middle Ages and changed the course of history.
Thomas Becket’s murder at the hands of Henry II’s knights in 1170 is familiar to schoolchildren up and down the country, but the name has also sparked debate over the years over what he should be called – is it Thomas Becket or Thomas a Becket?
Now an academic from the University of York has scoured the literature and traced the history of the name, from Becket’s birth to the end of the 18th Century.
The study, published in the journal Open Library of Humanities, pinpoints the change to Thomas a Becket to 1596 and a man called Thomas Nashe, satirist, wit, poet, and Shakespeare collaborator.
According to the study, the addition of the ‘a’ to Becket’s name is based upon Robin Hood characters such as George a Green and Alan a Dale, which were popular in the 1590s, with the name designed to make Becket into a sort of rustic figure of fun by Protestants.
Study author, Dr John Jenkins, from the University of York’s Department of History, said Nashe seemed to deploy the rustic ‘a’ to turn Becket into a folkloric figure, hinting at a brawling comedic character as a form of irony, in response to Becket’s saintly legacy. It also pointed to Becket’s supposedly lowly birth.
Becket (or more accurately Beket) was the family name, derived from his father Gilbert Beket and is probably a pun on his ‘beaky’ nose, as well as him being from the Bec region of France.
During his lifetime, Thomas was known by many names, one of which was Beket. This usage was continued in some chronicles to emphasise the different life stages of the saint, prior to his installation as archdeacon and, later, Archbishop of Canterbury.
It is only in the mid-1530s that Protestants came to use ‘Beket’ as an occasional derision of his sainthood, a practice which was turbocharged by Thomas Cromwell’s 1538 decree that the former St Thomas of Canterbury was to be known henceforth as ‘Bishop Becket’.
The final stage of development began in the 1590s with Nashe’s coining of ‘Thomas a Becket’ in his satirical prose.
By the 18th century ‘Thomas a Becket’ had become the most popular form, probably because it’s more ‘musical’ and simply more pleasing to say, and was used, for example, by Samuel Johnson in his first English Dictionary.
In more recent times, Thomas a Becket fits better with iambic pentameter and natural speech rhythms which might explain its greater popularity, even if academics since the 17th century have complained that it’s wrong.
Dr Jenkins said “It became abundantly clear during the recent 850th anniversary commemorations of Thomas’ death that, in popular usage at least, there is no agreement on whether the form ‘Thomas Becket’ or ‘Thomas a Becket’ is the correct one, while another line of argument is that ‘Becket’ was an insult and the correct form is ‘Thomas of Canterbury.’
“What is certain is that, while the historical Thomas may have railed against, or simply not recognised, the names by which we now best know him, they are testament to his complex and controversial legacy and his consistent place within the public eye.”
Dr Jenkins added: “While his name, and his memory, underwent the most dramatic changes in the religious strife of the Reformation period, the evolving popular image of this Angevin archbishop led to his rustic reinvention as ‘Thomas a Becket’, a figure more of popular legend than historical fact.
“Rather than trying to identify Thomas’s ‘correct’ name and cast aside the ‘wrong’ ones, I examined the evolution of his names over time and show how the names applied to Thomas reflect writers’ particular contexts and their relationship to him.”