St. Thomas Becket, (c. 1118 – December 29, 1170) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. He engaged in 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 this form may not have been contemporaneous. The "à" is now believed to be a complete error. Historian John Strype wrote in his Memorials of Thomas Cranmer (1694): "It is a small error, but being so oft repeated deserveth to be observed into corrected. The name of that archbishop was Thomas Becket. If the vulgar did formerly, as it doth now, call him 'Thomas à Becket' their mistake is not to be followed by learned men." Notwithstanding, the Oxford Dictionary of English, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors and Chambers Biographical Dictionary all prefer St. Thomas à Becket.
One of Thomas's father's rich friends, Richer de L'Aigle, was attracted to Thomas's sisters. He often invited Thomas to his estates in Sussex. There, Thomas learned to ride a horse, hunt, behave like a gentleman, and engage in popular sports such as jousting. Beginning when he was 10, Becket received an excellent education in civil and canon law at Merton Priory in England, and then overseas at Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre. Richer was later a signatory at the Constitutions 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 recommended him to King Henry II when the important office of Lord Chancellor was vacant.
Henry 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 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. Thomas was devoted to Henry'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 to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life. An emotional attachment to Becket as a foster-father may have been one of the reasons the younger Henry would turn against his father.
King Henry II presided over the assemblies at Clarendon Palace on January 30, 1164. In sixteen constitutions, he sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He employed all his skills to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but the Primate.
Finally even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but he still refused to formally sign the documents. This meant war between the two powers. Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on October 8, 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Lord Chancellor's office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.
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 sought to exercise the prerogatives of the Church, particularly the weapons of excommunication and interdict. But Pope Alexander III, though sympathising with him in theory, favoured a more diplomatic approach. 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, Becket continued to reject any limitations on the rights of his order. After another failed arbitration by Papal legates in the presence of the King of France, in April 1169, Becket excommunicated twenty people who had stood with Henry.
His firmness seemed about to meet with its reward when in 1170 the Pope was on the point of fulfilling his threats and excommunicating the entire population of England. At that point Henry, alarmed by the prospect, held out hopes of an agreement that would allow Thomas to return to England and resume his place. Even though both men met at a wooded area outside of Paris and negotiated with an apparent reconciliation, Becket refused to compromise on any issue whatsoever and thus even re-affirmed the Church's authority with even more stridency and obstinacy on his return to England.
In June 1170, the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury held the coronation of Henry the Young King in York. This was a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation, for which the Pope suspended the three. But for Becket, that wasn't enough, and in November 1170, he excommunicated all three. While the three bishops fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church. Soon word of this reached Henry who was in Normandy at the time.
After these latest venomous reports of Becket's activities, Henry is reported to have raised his head from his sickbed and roared a lament of frustration. The King's exact words are in doubt, and several versions have been reported:
Whatever the King said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, set out to consult the Archbishop of Canterbury. On December 29 1170 they arrived at Canterbury. According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a sycamore tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king's will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing. Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The four knights, carrying naked swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers. Several contemporary accounts of what happened next exist; of particular note is that of Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the attack.
This is part of the written account from Edward Grim:
...The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.'
Following his death, the monks prepared his body for burial. It was discovered that Becket had worn 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 canonised by Pope Alexander in St. Peter's Church in Segni. On July 12, 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb (see also St. Dunstan's, Canterbury), which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England. In 1220, Becket's remains were relocated from this first tomb to a shrine in the recently completed Trinity Chapel where it stood until it was destroyed in 1538, around the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on orders from King Henry VIII. The king also destroyed Becket's bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. The pavement where the shrine stood is today marked by a lit 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.
Local legends regarding Becket arose after his canonisation. 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 the inhabitants of the town and their descendants to 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.
The saint's cult quickly spread throughout the Norman world. The first holy image of Becket is thought to be a mosaic icon still visible in Monreale Cathedral, in Sicily, created shortly after his death. Becket's cousins obtained refuge at the Sicilian court during Thomas's exile, and King William II of Sicily wed a daughter of Henry II. The principal church of the Sicilian city of Marsala is dedicated to St Thomas Becket.