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Thomas Becket: Canterbury's Martyred Saint

Thomas BecketSt Thomas Becket (December 21, 1118 - December 29, 1170) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170. He engaged in a conflict with King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church and was assassinated by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. He is also commonly known as Thomas à Becket, although some consider this incorrect.

Thomas Becket was born in London sometime between 1115 and 1120, though most authorities agree that he was born December 21, 1118, at Cheapside, to Gilbert of Thierceville, Normandy, and Rosea or Matilda of Caen. His parents were of the upper-middle class near Rouen, and Thomas never knew hardship as a child.

One of Thomas's father's rich friends, Richer de L'aigle, was attracted to the sisters of Thomas. He often invited Thomas to his estates in Sussex. There, Thomas learned to ride a horse, hunt, behave, and engage in popular sports such as jousting. When he was 10, Becket received an excellent education in "Civil & Canon Law" at Merton Priory in England, and then overseas at Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre. Richer was later a signer at the Constitution of Clarendon against Thomas.

Upon returning to the Kingdom of England, he attracted the notice of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and finally made him archdeacon of Canterbury and provost of Beverley. He so distinguished himself by his zeal and efficiency that Theobald commended him to King Henry II when the important office of Lord Chancellor was vacant.

Henry, like all the Norman kings, desired to be absolute ruler of his dominions, both Church and State, and could find precedents in the traditions of the throne when he planned to do away with the special privileges of the English clergy, which he regarded as fetters on his authority. As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king's danegeld taxes, a traditional medieval land tax that was exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. This created both a hardship and a resentment of Becket among the English Churchmen. To further implicate Becket as a secular man, he became an accomplished and extravagant courtier and a cheerful companion to the king's pleasures. Young Thomas was devoted to his master's interests with such a firm and yet diplomatic thoroughness that scarcely anyone, except perhaps John of Salisbury, doubted his allegiance to English royalty.

King Henry even sent his son Henry, later the "Young King", to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. Later that would be one of the reasons his son would turn against him, having formed an emotional attachment to Becket as a foster-father. Henry the Young King was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did his entire life.

Archbishop Theobald died April 18, 1161, and the chapter learned with some indignation that the king expected them to choose Thomas his successor. That election took place in May, and Thomas was consecrated on June 3, 1162, in accordance with the king's wishes.

At once there took place before the eyes of the astonished king and country an unexpected transformation in the character of the new archbishop. Having previously been a merry, pleasure-loving courtier, Becket became an ascetic prelate in simple monastic garb, fully devoted to the cause of the hierarchy and prepared to do his utmost to defend it. Most historians agree that Becket begged the king not to appoint him archbishop, knowing that this would occur, and even warning the king that he could not be loyal to two masters. Henry could not believe that his closest friend would forsake their friendship, and appointed him to the archbishopric anyway -- something he came to regret the rest of his life.

In the schism which at that time divided the Church, Becket sided with Pope Alexander III, a man whose devotion to the same strict hierarchical principles appealed to him, and from Alexander he received the pallium at the Council of Tours.

On his return to England, Becket proceeded at once to put into execution the project he had formed for the liberation of the Church in England from the very limitations which he had formerly helped to enforce. His aim was twofold: the complete exemption of the Church from all civil jurisdiction, with undivided control of the clergy, freedom of appeal, etc., and the acquisition and security of an independent fund of church property.

Thomas BecketThe king was quick to perceive the inevitable outcome of the archbishop's attitude and called a meeting of the clergy at Westminster (October 1, 1163) at which he demanded that they renounce all claim to exemption from civil jurisdiction and acknowledge the equality of all subjects before the law. The others were inclined to yield, but the archbishop stood firm. Henry was not ready for an open breach and offered to be content with a more general acknowledgment and recognition of the "customs of his ancestors." Thomas was willing to agree to this, with the significant reservation "saving the rights of the Church." But this involved the whole question at issue, and Henry left London in anger.

Henry called another assembly at Clarendon for January 30, 1164, at which he presented his demands in sixteen constitutions. What he asked involved the abandonment of the clergy's independence and of their direct connection with Rome; he employed all his arts to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but the Primate.

Finally even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the constitutions, the Constitutions of Clarendon; but when it came to the actual signature, he defiantly refused. This meant war between the two powers. Henry endeavoured to rid himself of his antagonist by judicial process and summoned him to appear before a great council at Northampton on October 8, 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Lord Chancellor's office.

Becket denied the right of the assembly to judge him, appealed to the Pope, and, asserting that his life was too valuable to the Church to be risked, went into voluntary exile on November 2, 1164 embarking in a fishing-boat which landed him in France. He went to Sens, where Pope Alexander was, while envoys from the king hastened to work against him, requesting that a legate should be sent to England with Denary authority to settle the dispute. Alexander declined, and when Becket arrived the next day and gave him a full account of the proceedings, he was still more confirmed in his aversion to the king.

Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, aimed at all his friends and supporters as well as Becket himself; but Louis VII of France received him with respect and offered him protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to move to Sens again.

Thomas BecketBecket regarded himself as in full possession of all his prerogatives and desired to see his position enforced by the weapons of excommunication and interdict. But Alexander, though sympathizing with him in theory, favoured a milder and more diplomatic way of reaching his ends. Differences thus arose between pope and archbishop, which became even more bitter when legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators. Disregarding this limitation on his jurisdiction, and steadfast in his principles, Thomas treated with the legates at great length, still conditioning his obedience to the king by the rights of his order.

His firmness seemed about to meet with its reward when at last (1170) the pope was on the point of fulfilling his threats and excommunicating the king, and Henry, alarmed by the prospect, held out hopes of an agreement that would allow Thomas to return to England and resume his place. But both parties were really still holding to their former ground, and the desire for a reconciliation was only apparent.

The tension between the two men would only be relieved by catastrophe. Passionate words from the angry king (reputedly "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?", "Who will rid me of this low-born priest?", "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?", or even "What a band of loathsome vipers I have nursed in my bosom who will let their lord be insulted by this low-born cleric!") were interpreted as a royal command, and four knights -- Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton -- set out to plot the murder of the archbishop. On Tuesday, December 29, 1170, they carried out their plan, murdering Thomas Becket at the entry of the Quire in Canterbury Cathedral as he was leading the monastic community in Vespers.

Most historians agree that Henry didn't actually intend for Becket to be murdered, despite his harsh words. Following his murder, it was discovered Becket wore a hairshirt under his archbishop's garments. Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and in 1173 -- barely three years after his death -- he was canonized by Pope Alexander. On July 12, 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173-1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb, which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England until it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1538 to 1541).

In 1220, Becket's remains were relocated from this first tomb to a shrine in the recently completed Trinity Chapel. The pavement where the shrine stood is today marked by a lighted candle. Modern day archbishops celebrate the Eucharist at this place to commemorate Becket's martyrdom and the translation of his body from his first burial place to the new shrine.

Thomas Becket Reliquary

Local legends in England connected with Becket arose after his canonization. Though they are typical hagiographical stories, they also display Becket's particular gruffness. Becket's Well, in Otford, Kent, is said to have been created after Becket had become displeased with the taste of the local water. Two springs of clear water are said to have bubbled up after he struck the ground with his crozier. The absence of nightingales in Otford is also ascribed to Becket, who is said to have been so disturbed in his devotions by the song of a nightingale that he commanded that none should sing in the town ever again. In the town of Strood, also in Kent, Becket is said to have caused that the inhabitants of the town and their descendants be born with tails. The men of Strood had sided with the king in his struggles against the archbishop, and to demonstrate their support, had cut off the tail of Becket's horse as he passed through the town.

St. Thomas of Canterbury remains the patron saint of Roman Catholic secular clergy. In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, his annual feast day is 29 December.

Related Articles:

Canterbury: Still the Perfect Pilgrimage!, by Julia Hickey

Canterbury Cathedral, by John P. Seely

More Information:

Thomas Becket
"A web page devoted to collecting resources for the study of Thomas Becket and the controversies surrounding him" (last updated in 2000).

The murder of Thomas Becket
Eyewitness account of the murder.

The Story Behind Thomas Becket

Edward Grim: The Murder of Thomas Becket
Eyewitness account.

Article and images reprinted from Wikipedia.org (stained glass photo courtesy of Britainonview.com).


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