Thomas à Becket

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Saint Thomas Becket (ca. 1115December 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.

13th century manuscript illumination, an early depiction of Becket's assassination
13th century manuscript illumination, an early depiction of Becket's assassination

He was given the 'à' in his name many years after he died, alluding to that of Thomas à Kempis (b. 1379/80; d. 1471 - author of "The Imitation of Christ"); the allusion was made so as to make him appear more holy and worthy of sainthood.


Life before his consecration

He was born in London sometime during the 1110s. His parents were of the middle class, and his family was from near Rouen in France. He received an excellent education, which he completed at the University of Paris.

Returning to 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.

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.

Archbishop, 1162

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 gay, 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 uttermost to defend it.

In the schism which at that time divided the Church, he 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.

The 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.

The constitutions of Clarendon

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 charges of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Lord Chancellor's office.

Becket leaves England

Becket denied the right of the assembly to judge him, appealed to the Pope, and, feeling that his life was too valuable to the Church to be risked, went into voluntary exile on November 2, 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 plenary authority to settle the dispute. Alexander declined, and when, the next day, Becket arrived 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.

Becket 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, favored 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.

Both, however, seemed for the moment to have believed in its possibility, and the contrast was all the sharper when it became evident that the old irreconcilable opposition was still there. Henry, incited by his partisans, refused to restore the ecclesiastical property that he had seized, and Thomas prepared to issue the pope's sentence against the despoilers of the Church and the bishops who had abetted them. It had been already sent to England for promulgation when he himself landed at Sandwich, on December 3, 1170, and two days later entered Canterbury.


The tension was now too great to be endured, and the catastrophe that relieved it was not long in coming. Passionate words (supposedly "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?," though this may be apocryphal) from the lips of the angry king were interpreted as a command by four knights — Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracey, and Richard le Breton — who immediately plotted the murder of the archbishop, and accomplished it at the entry of the Quire in Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday December 29, as the Archbishop was going to Vespers with the monastic community.

Depiction of Thomas Becket's assassination and funeral, from a French casket made about 1180 to house his relics.
Depiction of Thomas Becket's assassination and funeral, from a French casket made about 1180 to house his relics.

The crime brought its own revenge. Becket was revered by the faithful throughout Europe as a martyr, and canonized by Alexander in 1173, while on July 12 of the following year in the midst of the Revolt of 1173-1174 Henry humbled himself to do public penance at the tomb of his enemy, which remained one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in England until it was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His remains were moved from this first tomb to a shrine in the newly completed Trinity Chapel in 1220. The pavement where the shrine stood is marked today by a lighted candle. Modern day Archbishops celebrate the Eucharist at this place on the commemorations of the Martyrdom and of the Translation of his body from his first burial place to the new shrine.

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 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.

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is set in a company of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The word "canter" came into the English language from the pace of the horses headed there, called the "Canterbury gallop."

Modern works based on the story of Thomas Becket include T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh's play Becket, which was made into a movie with the same title. In the 19th century, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer wrote the novella Der Heilige (The Saint) about Thomas Becket. Ken Follett's novel, The Pillars of the Earth is a fictional account of the struggles between the church and gentry, culminating in the assassination and martyrdom of Becket by Henry's men.

W. J. Williams has suggested that the story of the murder of Thomas à Becket may have inspired the masonic legend of the death of Hiram Abiff. This theory included reference to a company of masons in the City of London making a procession to St Thomas's Chapel on his saint's day. He suggests that they may have been an emblematic performance concerning the death of Thomas on that day. They also supported St Thomas's Hospital, HQ, which was the headquarters of the Knights of St Thomas, a military order during the crusades which was very close to the Templars.

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.

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Preceded by:
Robert of Ghent
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by:
Geoffrey Ridel
Preceded by:
Theobald of Bec
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by:
Richard of Dover
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