At primary school, I learned that 4 knights murdered Archbishop Thomas á Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Famously, the murderers had supposedly heard English king Henry II saying ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest’. It wasn’t clear whether Henry was asking the knights to kill Thomas, or whether he was just venting his rage. All English schoolchildren used to learn this story, though it may be less widely known today.
I always thought this famous man’s name was what people called him at the time, but it turns out I was wrong. A recent paper explains that the name ‘a Becket’ was not used in Thomas’s lifetime. Hereditary surnames were just starting to come into use. He was known just as Thomas of London or occasionally as Thomas Becket (then spelled ‘Beket’).
Thomas’s father was Gilbert Beket. This wealthy Norman served as sheriff of London and owned a lot of property around Cheapside. His byname Beket might refer to:
- a ‘bequet’ (a brook or stream);
- a place name (in the Bec region of Normandy, where Gilbert probably came from); or
- Gilbert’s ‘beque’ (beaky nose).
The form ‘a Becket’ did not come into existence for another 400 years, when the satirist Thomas Nashe invented it in the 1590s as a way of mocking Becket. Both forms (‘Becket and á Becket) were then common until the mid-18th century, when the form ‘a Becket’ began to predominate.
Who Put the ‘a’ in ‘Thomas a Becket’? The History of a Name from the Angevins to the 18th Century, by John Jenkins (2023) is available at Jenkins | Who Put the ‘a’ in ‘Thomas a Becket’? The History of a Name from the Angevins to the Victorians | Open Library of Humanities (openlibhums.org)