Becket (1964)


King Henry II of England comes to terms with his affection for his close friend and confidant Thomas Becket, who finds his true honor by observing God’s divine will rather than the king’s.

Directed by

Peter Glenville

Release date

  • 11 March 1964 (US)
  • 27 March 1964 (UK)

Costume Designer

Margaret Furse


  • Wallis-Hazen
  • Paramount Film Service (as A Paramount Film Service & Keep Films Co-Production)
  • Keep Films (as A Paramount Film Service & Keep Films Co-Production)

Film trailer


The 1964 film Becket, directed by Peter Glenville and staring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II, is an adaptation of the hugely successful 1959 play by Jean Anouilh entitled Becket or Honour of God. Filmed in Technicolor and widescreen Panavision both on location where the historical events depicted in the film actually took place and against a monumental film set built as a replica of Canterbury Cathedral on the then-largest sound stage in Europe, Hal B. Wallis’ production of Becket is considered to be one of the most expansive and ambitious of its day. The twelve Academy Awards for which Becket was nominated in 1965 included Best Picture, Best Director,  Best Actor (both Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design for Margaret Furse. My Fair Lady, however,  won Oscars in all of these categories, and Becket won only one Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Edward Anhalt) (IMDB). Although criticized somewhat both for its melodramatic interpretation of the relationship between Henry II and Thomas Becket which deviated from that depicted in the play, and for continuing Anouilh’s misrepresentation of Becket as a Saxon rather than a Norman for dramatic effect, the film was released to critical acclaim in 1964 (New York Times March 12, 1964).

Based on historical events and set in England during the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189), Becket tells the story of the passionate friendship of King Henry II and his fellow carouser, Thomas Becket, a commoner whom Henry elevated to be first Chancellor of England in 1155 and then Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. In the film, after Becket’s consecration as Archbishop and years of tension and turmoil in their relationship during which Henry railed against Becket’s perceived betrayals, Henry had Becket murdered in 1170 when, as Archbishop, Becket refused to subordinate the power of the Church to that of the crown. In general, primary sources from the Middle Ages (500 – 1400) are not as plentiful as for later periods. Surviving illustrated manuscripts and sculpture and the other extant evidence of ecclesiastical costumes such as detailed inventories, however, provide enough information to critique costumes for films which are set in this period. Analysis of these sources suggests that Margaret Furse, known for her work in large budget period productions (Henry V, 1946, with her husband Roger Furse; Great Expectations, 1946, with Sophie Harris of Motley; Oliver Twist, 1948; and Richard III, 1955, uncredited), researched her subject carefully and designed costumes that, for the most part, successfully support the factually accurate settings in which they are placed.

Column-statues on the portal of Chartres Cathedral

Fig. 1 - Artist unknown. Column-statues on the portal of Chartres Cathedral, second half of twelfth century. Source: Author

About the Period Setting

Period Garments: Nobility and Commoners

Medieval costume, based on the common foundation of late Roman dress, was very similar throughout western Europe. Since the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066, the ruling upper classes of England who were descended from the Normans maintained close political and cultural ties to France. Henry II’s Plantagenet dynasty, with origins in Anjou (which today is part of France), closely followed French fashions and customs. After circa 1140, when longer garments became the general mode in the upper classes, costume for men and women consisted of two main garments, a linen under-tunic with long, tight sleeves, and the bliaud, a wide sleeved outer tunic decorated with embroidery and braid and sometimes even with insets of fabric in different colors (Boucher 171). Rectangular mantles and circular cloaks also continued to be worn. The straight version of mantle from previous periods remained primarily for ceremonial functions during the reign of Henry II. For ordinary wear and traveling, however, the old circular cloak, now with a hood attached at the back of the neck opening, was worn (Fernald and Shenton 29-30).

The main garments worn by both the man and woman in fig. 1 are essentially the same, although the woman wears an additional outer garment and the man’s sleeves are not as wide as the woman’s. By the end of the twelfth century, the sleeves of women’s bliauds were becoming so flared that their ends had sometimes to be knotted to avoid dragging on the ground (Boucher 171). The finely creased linen under-tunic of both figures shows at their necklines, with voluminous gathers in the case of the female, and at their bliaud sleeve openings. The pleated, goffered bliauds worn by both figures suggest the new luxury of this period’s silk materials and are decorated with embroidery around the sleeve openings and at the woman’s V shaped neckline and along the garment edging of the male figure clearly seen on his upper torso. Initially the bliaud was somewhat loose-fitting and would have hung over a belt at the waist. By the end of the twelfth century, however, both men and women were wearing it so tightly-fitted that it outlined the torso (Boucher 171, 176). In particular, the woman’s bliaud in fig. 1 shows this tight fit which is held in place by a double belt around the waist and hips. The bliaud of Saint George in fig. 2 is another good example of the tight-fitting, long bliaud of the period. Note, however, that the tunic worn by the smaller figure beneath Saint George is knee-length. This difference in length, longer for the wealthy and shorter for workmen and soldiers, was typical of the period (Boucher 164). As is often the case with transitioning styles of dress, the shorter tunic worn by commoners was a holdover from pervious periods and was worn by nobles and royalty for everyday dress as well. Fig. 3 depicts both the bliaud and the rectangular, ceremonial mantle, shown here in what appears to be fine patterned silk, but which was also often trimmed or lined with some kind of fur.

The under-tunic, bliaud and mantle or cloak are the garments normally depicted in manuscripts and sculpture from this period (Figs. 4 and 5). Additional undergarments for men would have included linen drawers called braies and hose, which reached the thigh and were tied to the waistline drawstring of the braies (Willett and Cunnington 23-31). Women’s undergarments in the Middle Ages would merely have included hose that covered the knees and were held in place by garters (Willet and Cunnington 31-2; Hartley 350). Men wore boots that reached the ankle or mid-calf during this period. These were sometimes patterned in the case of of more important people, which can be clearly seen on the royal figure in fig. 3. These boots would have been made of a soft leather. As the twelfth century progressed, the toes lengthened to a point. Due to the length of their bliauds, foot gear for women is very difficult to discern (Fernald and Shenton 23-9).

Saint George Battles the Dragon

Fig. 2 - Artist unknown. Saint George Battles the Dragon, ca. 1111. Moralia in Job, Cistercian manuscript, Dijon, Library. ms 168, f, 4v.. Source: Author

Regal costume

Fig. 3 - Anonymous.. Regal costume, twelfth century. London: British Museum, Roy. ms 2 A, xxii. Source: Author

Herod and Salome

Fig. 4 - Artist unknown. Herod and Salome, capital from the basilica of Saint Etienne, second half of twelfth century. Toulouse: Musée des Augustins. Source: Author

Cartulary of Mont Saint-Michel: Duke Richard II of Normandy making a gift of lands and privileges to the monastery of Mont St. Michel

Fig. 5 - Artist unknown. Cartulary of Mont Saint-Michel: Duke Richard II of Normandy making a gift of lands and privileges to the monastery of Mont St. Michel, Mid twelfth century. Paris. Bib. Nat., ms 210, f. 19v. Source: Author

Coronation of Roger II

Fig. 6 - Artist unknown. Coronation of Roger II, mid twelfth century. Mosaic. Palermo: La Martorana. Source: Author

The influence of the Crusades, which took place between 1095 and 1270, can be  seen in the textiles of this period rather than in the shapes of garments (Boucher 173-4). Fur from ermine, sable, Northern squirrels and red and white foxes from the Caspian were discovered during the Crusades and made their way into the linings and trimmings of the finest garments of medieval England. Furthermore, rich, patterned silks, as shown in figs. 3 and 6, captured as booty or received as gifts by the new masters of the Holy Land were transported back to England and influenced royal styles of dress as well (Boucher 173-4).

In the early twelfth century a continuation of the plain veil was commonly worn by Saxon women both indoors and out. Sometimes the veil was held in place by a circlet (Fernald and Shenton 25). As the circlet became more common, as in the time of Henry II, the veil was shortened so that it only hung down in straight folds on either side of the face, the ends just reaching the shoulders. The strict prohibition against women showing their hair did not persist from Saxon into Norman times, and during the reign of Henry II it would have been acceptable to see women with their hair neatly braided and sometimes tied with ribbons.  Generally speaking, men during this time period would have been bare-headed (Fernald and Shenton 24-31). The twelfth century sculpture in fig. 7 shows a Crusader supported by his wife who is wearing the lengthy, draped veil of earlier Saxon times. Fig. 8 shows the funeral effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II,  and depicts the proper Saxon veil of the twelfth and thirteenth century as well as a draped bliaud, cinched at the waist, worn with a voluminous, draped mantle, both of which appear to be of silk.   

Period Armor

Only very scant documentary and archaeological evidence is available with respect to armor from Henry II’s reign. At the height of the Middle Ages, Saint Anselm (ca. 1033-1109) listed the equipment of a knight as including: his war horse, bridle, saddle, spurs, hauberk (a tunic of chain mail, sometimes with a chain mail hood), helmet (which at this time would have had a nose-guard and been conical in shape), shield, lance and sword. Other items that might have been worn include gauntlets and chain mail leggings. Over these, a long flowing sleeveless tunic, or surcote, could be worn, which would have been girded at the waist with a belt, from which a scabbard and sword would have hung (Norris and Breiding).

Ferri de Vaudémont returning from the Crusades

Fig. 7 - Artist unknown. Ferri de Vaudémont returning from the Crusades, Twelfth century. Nancy: Chapelle des Cordeliers. Source: Author

Funeral effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey

Fig. 8 - Artist unknown. Funeral effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey, thirteenth century. Source: Paradoxplace

Period Garments: Ecclesiastical

Fig. 9 shows a detailed rendering of the chasuble, mitre and stole of Thomas Becket, preserved in St. Stephen’s Cathedral of Sens, in France. Fig. 10 is a color photograph of the same chasuble, on view at Sens Cathedral in 2012.

The fifteenth century Netherlandish painting, Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine, in fig. 11 provides a wealth of information concerning ecclesiastical vestments from the Middle Ages. The overlaid diagram points to the most distinctive and visible of these vestments. Which vestments were worn, and how they were arranged tell us quite a bit about the position of the wearer within the Church hierarchy.

The dalmatic is a shin-length tunic. It is the principal vestment worn by deacons, but is also worn underneath the chasuble by priests, bishops and archbishops. The stole is a very long, narrow strip of cloth, often elaborately embroidered. A deacon would hang the stole from his left shoulder; both a bishop and priest would drape it across the back of his neck with it falling in front from both shoulders; a priest would cross the stole at his breast and it would be held in place with a girdle; both a bishop and archbishop would wear it uncrossed. In all cases it would be worn under the dalmatic or chasuble and would extend to just above the ankle. The chasuble is a poncho-like over-garment and is the principal vestment worn by a priest, bishop or archbishop in celebration of the Mass. The cope is a semi-circular cloak worn over the shoulders and fastened across the chest by a strip of material. Strictly speaking it is a processional vestment and not worn in celebration of the Mass. An orphrey is a decorative band, often embroidered, applied to dalmatics, chasubles and copes. Orphreys were applied in a variety of patterns, including Y shapes, straight pillars, and cross forms. The mitre is a cap with two points, often elaborately decorated and worn by bishops, archbishops, and some abbots. From the back hang two narrow strips of material called lappets, which usually end in a fringe (Met Bulletin 316). There are three grades of mitre, designated according to the richness of the decorations: the mitre pretiosa, which is richly decorated and jeweled for use on great occasions; the mitre aurifrigiata, which was ornamented with gold orphreys; and the mitre simplex, which was of plain white linen (Houston 35). The staff is another distinctive element used in ecclesiastical settings. The cross-staff is carried by an archbishop and the crook is carried by a bishop (Houston 20).

Rendering of Chasuble, Mitre and Stole of St. Thomas à Becket

Fig. 9 - Artist unknown. Rendering of Chasuble, Mitre and Stole of St. Thomas à Becket, 19th C. Source: Author

Chasuble of St. Thomas à Becket

Fig. 10 - Artist unknown. Chasuble of St. Thomas à Becket, twelfth century. Sens, Treasury, C.107-111. Cathedral of Sens. Source: Dr. Genevra Kornbluth

Scenes from the Life of St. Augustine

Fig. 11 - The Master of St. Augustine (Flemish). Scenes from the Life of St. Augustine, late fifteenth century. Source: Author

About the Costume Design

The Men

Male characters dominate the storyline in Becket, with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton getting the most screen time by an extremely large margin. The opening scene is a flash forward to when Henry visits the tomb of his friend Thomas Becket and has himself flogged in penance for his role in Becket’s murder. Fig. 12 shows Henry approaching Canterbury Cathedral in his crown and a fine cloak made up in England’s red and gold heraldic colors. Here the cloak is of voluminously draped silk, trimmed with gold embroidery and clasped in front by some type of ornamental closure. Underneath the cloak Henry wears a plain shirt, presumably for ease of removal for flogging, and what can only be called pants. The crown and cloak combination appears in other scenes such as when Henry receives the official surrender of the lands he has reclaimed in France (Fig. 13),  and when Henry and Becket meet on the shore of England to discuss whether Becket can return from exile, (Fig. 14). In fig. 13 Henry wears a bliaud of silk and in fig. 14 his bliaud is heavy velvet, presumably for added warmth. Both are belted and embellished at the neck opening with embroidery. Henry also routinely wears gauntlets in outdoor scenes such as these.


Fig. 12 - Henry II visiting the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 13 - Henry II and Thomas Becket receive surrender of French lands. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 14 - Henry II rides to meet meet Thomas Becket. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 15 - Henry and Becket escape on horseback. Becket, 1964. Source: Author

Early in the film there are many scenes of Henry and Becket carousing and conferring as they meet one challenge to Henry’s rule after another (Figs. 15 through 19). In these scenes Henry and Becket wear belted, thigh-length tunics which are decorated at necklines cut to reveal the under-tunics, and traditional hose-like leg coverings. Unless they are performing the duties of their respective offices, Henry and Becket are always shown bare-headed.


Fig. 16 - Becket and Henry confer. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 17 - Thomas Becket. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 18 - Henry and Becket in the throne room. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 19 - Henry and Becket in the throne room. Becket, 1964. Source:

The Women

There are few scenes involving women in this film. They include scenes of  “wenching” as shown in figs. 20 and 21, and scenes that introduce us to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Henry’s mother Empress Matilda, as shown in figs. 22 through 24. The “wenches” are shown with tousled hair and are clothed in a simple cotton under-tunic (Fig. 20) and a coarse, frayed robe of what appears to be homespun (Fig. 21). Henry’s wife and mother are costumed in fine silks and velvets embellished with metallic gold thread embroidery and jewels, as would be appropriate for their royal stations.  Displaying prominent signifiers of the Middle Ages,  the bodice of Eleanor’s pale green silk ensemble in fig. 22 is laced up the front and the wide sleeves are trimmed in fur. Both the velvet band at the neckline of Eleanor’s bliaud and the veiled head gear she wears, which seems to be a cross between a horned head-dress and a crown, are encrusted with jewels. In fig. 23 Eleanor wears similar head gear, but in addition to her main garment made of  pink silk and burgundy velvet, she wears a burgundy velvet cape trimmed in metallic gold thread embroidery. In this same scene (Figs. 23 and 24) Empress Matilda wears a purple silk bliaud over a black silk under-tunic patterned with gold embellishments that match the edging at the neckline of her bliaud. She also wears a veiled head-dress, but hers is based on the late medieval padded roll.


Fig. 20 - Henry and Becket escape on horseback. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 21 - A young "wench". Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 22 - Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 23 - Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, left, Empress Matilda, right. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 24 - Empress Matilda. Becket, 1964. Source: Author

The Church

As implied by the title of Anouilh’s play on which this film is based, Becket or Honour of God, the Church figures prominently. Elaborate scenes in cathedrals from England to France to Italy dominate the film and all orders of the Catholic Church are presented. We first see the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Becket will later replace, during an audience with Henry, and with prelates, priests, and monks in attendance (Figs. 25 and 26). The pinnacle of Church pageantry is on display in the later scene in which Becket is consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury (Figs. 27 through 29). In these two scenes the full range of ecclesiastical processional and ceremonial garments are shown starting with the jeweled and embroidered mitre, the velvet cope embellished with gold orphreys heavily ornamented with metallic gold thread embroidery (known as opus anglicanum), and the velvet stole embroidered again with metallic gold thread and fringed at its ends, worn by the first Archbishop of Canterbury in figs. 25 and 26. In the consecration scene in figs. 27 through 29 we see additional ornamented mitres, copes and stoles worn by bishops seated next to the Bishop of London (administering the consecration rites) on the altar and in the front row at the lower right of fig. 27.  Also in this scene we see the Bishop of London wearing an embroidered and jeweled mitre and a red velvet chasuble trimmed with metallic gold embroidery and decorated with white orphreys heavily embellished with gold thread embroidery. The gold and white patterned silk Archbishop’s chasuble designed by Margaret Furse for Becket is shown in detail in fig. 30. It is decorated with metallic gold thread and jeweled orphreys and worn over a cream silk dalmatic embellished with metallic gold thread embroidered crosses arranged in a diamond pattern and trimmed with gold braid and tassels. Fig. 31 shows Richard Burton, accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor on set, wearing this chasuble. The jewels and precious, decorated ritual items of the Church are also on display in both of these scenes as well. In fig. 26 we see the Archbishop’s ring, which will later be presented to Becket  on a silk pillow in the consecration scene, on the silk-gloved hand of the current Archbishop of Canterbury. We also see jeweled crosses around the necks of the bishops in attendance and on the staff belonging to the Archbishop.  In addition, in figs. 28 and 29 we see a vessel decorated with gold paint presented on a gold plate, a silk and jewel-covered holy book placed on Becket’s back, and a manuscript illuminated with gold ink from which the Bishop of London reads, all used to great effect in establishing the wealth and power of the Church.


Fig. 25 - The Archbishop of Canterbury (center). Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 26 - The Archbishop of Canterbury (right), and the Bishop of London (left, in purple). Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 27 - The consecration of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 28 - The consecration of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 29 - The consecration of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 30 - Chasuble and dalmatic designed by Margaret Furse. Becket, 1964. Source: The Saint Bede Studio Blog


Fig. 31 - Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on set. Becket, 1964. Source: The Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivia Blog

Behind the Scenes

Margaret Furse designed costumes for thirty-two feature films, ranging in date from 1948 to 1975 (IMDB). Born in 1911, Furse studied at the Central School of Art under Jeanetta Cochrane and later joined the staff of Gaumont-British Studios, where Alfred Hitchcock also worked, as an assistant designer. Her parents were Punch magazine illustrator Arthur G. Watts, and Phyllis Gordon Watts. Margaret married Roger Furse, who worked primarily as an art director, in 1936 and worked as his assistant designer on the costumes for Henry V (1944). Although Furse kept her last name professionally, she and Roger divorced and Margaret later married editor and critic Stephen Watts (no relation to Margaret’s family of origin), with whom she remained until her death from breast cancer in 1974 (Leese 45). Furse worked with John Bryan, the art director for Becket, on other films such as Great Expectations (1946), for which Bryan won an Oscar for Best Art Direction; Oliver Twist, (1948); and Madeleine, (1949), for which Bryan acted as set designer (IMDB). In particular, Great Expectations is acclaimed for its masterly evocation of a time and place and has since come to be viewed as the standard against which British historical melodramas are measured (McFarlane). Furse’s and Bryan’s talents in creating a sense of time and place through costume and overall production design were put to good use in Becket by director Peter Glenville. Glenville’s long and storied career included stage direction of actors such as Alec Guinness, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda as well as large budget films such as Me and the Colonel (1958), and Term of Trial (1962), (Independent June 10, 1996). Glenville’s stagings were considered to be supremely professional and actors regarded him with profound respect (Telegraph October 28, 2013). Together with Glenville, producer Hal Wallis brought stature to the set of Becket, which was considered to be one of the most ambitious and expansive of its time. Working at Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, and Universal Studios, Wallis’ career spanned fifty years he was involved in the production of more than four hundred feature films. He received sixteen Academy Award producer nominations for Best Picture, winning for Casablanca in 1943. For his consistently high quality of motion picture production he was twice honored with the Academy Awards’ Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. He was also nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards, winning twice for Best Picture. In 1975 Wallis received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in motion pictures (New York Times October 8, 1986). The choice of the historically accurate locations of Bamburgh Beach (for the scene in which Henry and Becket meet on horseback to discuss Becket’s return to England), Alnwick Castle and Bamburgh Castle, as well as the decision to construct reproductions of several interiors from Canterbury Cathedral indicate that Becket was intended to be historically accurate. Allowing for some changes for dramatic effect, both Becket and the Anouilh play on which it is based hold true to the facts of the well-known history of Henry II and Thomas Becket. The crowd scenes inside and outside of Canterbury Cathedral, as well as the use of medieval fine and decorative arts such as murals, sculpture, and textiles (Figs. 18, 23 and 32) support the architecture and locations and create a wonderful sense of being in the Middle Ages. Although Furse’s costumes stray into the Renaissance, their elaborate detail and their sumptuous fabrics certainly do their part to create the sense of a bygone era when Church and State vied to display their wealth and status. The hairstyles created under the direction of Joan Smallwood for Becket play only a small role in the overall production. Where they appear, as in fig. 32, they are period appropriate, and like the makeup by Eric Allwright and Charles Parker, do not fall into the trap of imposing contemporary styles onto the period depicted.

Historical Accuracy

The Men

The first ceremonial scene in Becket which is filmed with enough close-ups to be able to analyze the costumes occurs when Henry and Becket ride into the center of the city in France which they have just recaptured, by negotiation rather than by the sword, to accept the keys from the local bishop. The bliaud we see Henry wearing in fig. 13 is not as full in terms of the volume of draped fabric used, or as fitted about the torso as those depicted in figs. 1, 2 and 4. In length, embellishment and as worn belted it bears a strong resemblance, however, to the garment in fig. 3. Furthermore, the bliaud fabric shown is silk with gold embroidery, which would be accurate for the time and place. Because the sleeves are tucked into gauntlets, we can’t tell with certainty how full they are, but they appear to have some period accurate fullness to them. Although of what appears to be fine wool or velvet and embroidered about the collar, the outer garment Henry wears is unlined and too full to be considered a ceremonial mantle. In the previous scene this garment had been draped over the hindquarters of the horse on which Henry road into town and we could clearly see by its circular cut that it is a cloak. The crown, of course, is accurate for a king reclaiming his position as the people’s ruler. Becket’s costume in this scene is a bit more confusing, yet consistent with other scenes in the film in which he is usually dressed slightly less formally than the King. Here he is wearing a belted bliaud with an under-tunic and a surcote slit at the center front, and is bareheaded, all of which are appropriate for the period. Henry and Becket are again shown in figs. 18 and 19, in a less formal setting, for them at least if not for the  off-screen visiting archbishop. Here, both Henry’s and Becket’s tunics resemble more closely what would have been worn in the Renaissance and are too short to be accurate for the Middle Ages. Hose were still not joined in the mid- to late-twelfth century and would have been tied to the waist drawstring of braies, which also were not short in this time period. A tunic as short as that worn by either Henry or Becket in this and other scenes in this film (Figs.16 and 17) would have revealed both the braies and the top of the hose, both of which would have been extremely inappropriate in the throne room, and most other places as well. The slit front of Henry’s tunic seen clearly in fig. 19 and in many other scenes in the film as well, would also be quite unusual for the period. In addition, as can be seen in fig. 18, the garment Henry in wearing on his legs beneath his tunic is not really hose. They have a seam running up the side rather than the back of the leg, and wrinkle at the knee more like slim-cut pants than tight hose. Because Peter O’Toole was extremely thin when Becket was filmed, it is very possible that a conscious decision was made not to show him in tight hose, and perhaps the slit tunic addressed this costuming challenge as well as distinguishing Henry as King from the other characters in the film. The almost knee height gartered boots on Henry and the mid-calf height rolled down boots on Becket shown in fig. 19, are also perhaps more appropriate to the Renaissance than to the Middle ages, when boots were worn at ankle or mid-calf height. The soft leather from which the boots are made, however, is quite accurate and gives a pleasing, period appropriate effect.

The Women

Midway through the film, we see a woman playing a lute who is dressed in a style generally appropriate to the twelfth century (Fig. 32). The fitted sleeve of her under-tunic which is visible at the wrist and the fitted torso, long trailing sleeve openings and draped effect of the voluminous fabric of her bliaud all help create a true period effect. The open, tailored, square neckline of the bliaud, however, especially without an under-tunic, is not accurate and would not have been seen until the later Middle Ages or the Renaissance. Eleanor of Aquitaine (played by Pamela Brown), one of the most powerful Queens of the Middle Ages, is portrayed in the film as a shrewish wife spurned in favor of Becket. Her costume, seen in fig. 22, bears some resemblance to the layered garments of the period. The revealing neckline and tight fit, however, didn’t appear until the fourteenth century. The head gear worn by Eleanor in this scene, as well as by other female characters such as Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda, to Eleanor’s left in fig. 23, are exaggerations of the type of elaborate headdresses worn in the fifteenth century and seen in fig. 33. Eleanor, who died in 1204, is shown in fig. 8 wearing the proper veil of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Overall, although the royal female costumes in Becket push the limits of the Middle Ages and occasionally stray into later periods, these departures are understandable. Thanks in part to previous period films with medieval settings, Becket’s audience would have expected medieval royalty to wear fitted, yet voluminous and elaborate, highly decorated costumes.


Fig. 32 - Woman sitting on patterned textile and playing a lute in tapestry-lined bedroom. Becket, 1964. Source: Author

Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Coëtivy Master Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy

Fig. 33 - Anonymous. Elaborate fifteenth century century headgear. Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Coëtivy Master Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy, ca. 1460-70. Paris, JPGM, ms. 42, leaf 2V. Source: Author


Although armor doesn’t figure prominently in Becket, it can contribute to the general impression of historical accuracy if done correctly. Figs. 34 and 35 show that plate armor, which did not appear until the end of the thirteenth century, was properly eschewed in this film in favor of historically correct hauberks accessorized with chain mail hoods and leggings  (chausses). The conical helmet as well as the surcote emblazoned with the knight’s heraldic coat of arms, are accurate for the period as well. The knights’ cape for this period is questionable. Sources don’t include a cape as part of a proper knight’s ensemble. Nevertheless, it seems to appear over and over again in modern day depictions of medieval knights.


Fig. 34 - Knight intending to murder Becket approaches the Archbishop on the steps of the altar at Canterbury Cathedral. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 35 - Two knights stand guard. Becket, 1964. Source: Author

Ecclesiastical Vestments

As mentioned before, the ecclesiastical costumes in Becket are plentiful. The existence of Thomas Becket’s vestments and the detailed descriptions in Church records provide ample source material for getting these ecclesiastical costumes in Becket correct, and it is clear that these sources were studied. A comparison of the chasuble Margaret Furse created for Becket shown in fig. 30 to the extant chasuble of Thomas Becket in fig. 10 shows striking similarity in the basic design. Although the chasubles are of completely different color palettes and the Furse chasuble is much more elaborately decorated, the orphreys on the Furse chasuble are set up in the same pattern as those on the extant Becket chasuble. Furthermore, the extant dalmatic of Thomas Becket, with its blue diamond patterned embroidered design shown in fig. 36 was clearly the inspiration for the diamond patterned dalmatic designed for Becket by Margaret Furse shown in fig. 30. The mitre placed on Becket’s head at his consecration (Fig. 37), and the mitres of all the other bishops present as well, also look quite similar to the the rendering of Thomas Becket’s mitre in fig. 9. The decision to vary his ecclesiastical attire according to the setting in which he is placed, such as in fig. 38 where Becket is wearing a mitre simplex with no chasuble because he is not celebrating the Mass, is carried out consistently throughout the film and lends additional historical accuracy to the ecclesiastical costumes in Becket. Ecclesiastical costumes of this period were stable and slow to change. Given the various sources available to Furse, it was not so difficult to represent these costumes accurately, though their materials were chosen with care and the decoration was well executed.

Dalmatic of St. Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1117 - 1170)

Fig. 36 - Artist unknown. Dalmatic of St. Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1117 - 1170), twelfth century. Cathedral of Sens. Source: Dr. Genevra Kornbluth


Fig. 37 - The consecration of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, 1964. Source: Author


Fig. 38 - Thomas Becket in processional costume of Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, 1964. Source: Author

Influence on Fashion

When Becket was released in 1964 it was on the heels of another well-loved film set in the Middle Ages, El Cid (1961, directed by Anthony Mann, costume design by Veniero Colasanti and John Moore), starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. It was followed by Camelot (1967, directed by Joshua Logan, costume design by John Truscott), starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. The combined star-power of the lead actors in all three of these films is quite impressive. This talent, when coupled with these films’ epic productions and familiar, appealing themes, appear to have had the force necessary to permeate popular fashion. Figs. 39 through 42 show advertisements from Vogue, all of which reference medieval costume. Although these advertisements don’t indicate that a medieval craze was touched off by these films, their confluence and literal characterizations seem likely to be more than coincidental.


Fig. 39 - "Medieval madness" by Simonetta. Vogue, Oct. 1, 1962, p. 112. Source: Vogue Archive


Fig. 40 - "Crusaders Cross from Jerusalem". Vogue, Nov. 1, 1962, p. 92. Source: Vogue Archive

"Louvre paintings inspired by the cour d'amour of the middle ages," Vogue

Fig. 41 - Unknown. "Louvre paintings inspired by the cour d'amour of the middle ages," Vogue, Sept. 15, 1963, p. 23. Source: Vogue Archive


Fig. 42 - "St. Laurent in a medieval mood". Vogue, Nov. 1, 1966, p. 26. Source: Vogue Archive


Fig. 43 - "Richard Tam...goes medieval in a long cloistering dress". Vogue, Sept. 1, 1967, p. 159. Source: Vogue Arcgive


Margaret Furse made adjustments to the details of the actors’ garments and strayed from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance in her design of the costumes for Becket. Nevertheless, her representation of medieval costume is generally accurate, especially when considering the ecclesiastical costumes which often take center stage in the most elaborate scenes of this film. As a result, Becket is a good source of inspiration for costume designers and gives viewers insight into medieval dress.

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