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HistoryCitizenshipRE - A precarious living

Archbishops of Canterbury have a history of untimely deaths

Archbishops of Canterbury have a history of untimely deaths

The fate of Thomas Becket is well known, but five Archbishops of Canterbury have been killed while juggling the demands of the job. Investigating the reasons behind their grim deaths could broaden pupils' concept of unrolling history and help them to explore interesting historical threads. It may also prompt thoughtful discussion of the dilemmas and difficulties that the new archbishop, Justin Welby, will face in modern times.

St Alphege

Archbishop from 1006 to 1012

In 1011 the Danes laid siege to Canterbury, sacking the city, plundering and burning the cathedral and breaking their promise not to raid again. Alphege was held prisoner for seven months, and refused to allow his people to pay the #163;3,000 ransom demanded by the Danes. One night the Danes, who were camping at Greenwich, became drunk and pelted Alphege with bones, stones and the heads of cattle. The death blow came from the butt of an axe. Canonised by Pope Gregory VII in 1078, St Alphege is still remembered on his feast day: 19 April.

Discussion: invasion and the spread of Christianity.

St Thomas Becket


Becket began his career as agent to the previous archbishop. Henry II noted his talents, made him chancellor and they became great friends. But when Henry promoted him to archbishop, Becket became a serious cleric and things began to sour. One disagreement concerned the Church escaping the jurisdiction of secular courts, which some felt led to injustice. Becket was cut down with swords by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. He was made a saint and his shrine became a great inspiration for pilgrims travelling to Canterbury.

Discussion: the roles and power of church and royalty, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, pilgrimage and justice.

Simon Sudbury


Simon Sudbury was killed in the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, dragged to Tower Hill and beheaded by a furious mob who saw him as the head of a corrupt Church and were bent on achieving better treatment and rights. His partly mummified head is preserved in his home town of Sudbury, clearly showing the axe mark, although his body is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

Discussion: serfdom, social upheaval, taxation and suspicion of the Church.

Thomas Cranmer


Cranmer joined the Church when it was common for younger sons without inheritance to do so. Along with Thomas Cromwell, he supported the principle of Royal Supremacy that enabled Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon. He declared the marriage void and made further doctrinal changes, also putting together the first Book of Common Prayer.

On the death of Edward VI, Henry VIII's only son, Cranmer supported the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey over Catholic Mary. On becoming queen, Mary had him tried for treason. He was forced to publicly proclaim his errors, but he was still burned, with Mary insisting that there be "no mercy".

On the day of his death he refuted the Pope, making him a martyr for Protestants. It is said that he stuck his right hand into the flames, calling it "unworthy" for signing his previous recantations.

Discussion: Reformation and its continued effects, religious intolerance and punishment, and the succession of royalty.

William Laud


William Laud became archbishop during the reign of Charles I, a turbulent time for religion in England. Some favoured a return to Catholicism, while others wanted a more Puritan approach. Laud made enemies by severely punishing radical Puritans who spoke against the Church. He also refused to stop practices such as the wearing of the surplice, which people feared signalled a return to Catholicism.

In 1640 he was accused of treason by the Long Parliament, and held in the Tower of London for the early stages of the Civil War. Despite a royal pardon, and with no real evidence, he was beheaded in 1645 on Tower Hill.

Discussion: reasons for the Civil War, divine right of kings, differences between styles of worship and justice.

Karen Russell has taught primary pupils, tutored privately and been involved in global education and governorship

For more information, go to (the official website of the present archbishop), (the website of Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop) or

What else?

Try TES adviser Daniel Hartley's Thomas Becket-inspired murder mystery activity. Split the class into pairs or groups of three, introduce the mystery and get them to investigate. bit.lyBeckettMurderMystery

Give pupils an overview of the events leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection using moira16's PowerPoint.


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