Thomas Becket, by his contemporaries more commonly called Thomas of London, English chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry II, was born December 21, 1118 (the day consecrated to the memory of Saint Thomas the Apostle) in Cheapside, London, to Gilbert Beket of Thierville and Matilda (with a familiar name of Roheise or Rosea) of Mondeville near Caen.
In his late teens, he was sent to Paris for further schooling, including the study of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy. At age twenty-one, after his mother had died and his father had lost his fortune, Becket returned to London and became a city clerk to three sheriffs. Three years later, in about 1143, his father introduced him to Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury. Becket soon joined Theobald’s household, becoming a clerk and later a close adviser to the archbishop. In about 1150, Theobald sent Becket to Italy and France to study civil and canon law. Two years after his return to Theobald’s court in 1152, Henry II become the king of England.
In the same year, Theobald appointed Becket archdeacon of Canterbury. Less than three months later, on Theobald’s recommendation and in gratitude for Becket’s role in helping him to gain the throne, Henry II named Becket chancellor of England.
Becket became the king’s most trusted adviser and a constant and devoted companion. He was an effective chancellor, leading troops into war, repairing castles, conducting foreign policy, and negotiating a marriage between Prince Henry, son of the king, and the daughter of King Louis VII of France. Becket lived luxuriously, holding extravagant receptions and dressing in splendid clothes. Theobald disapproved of his protégé’s lavish lifestyle. To Theobald, it was inappropriate for Becket, who still remained archdeacon while serving as chancellor, to surround himself with worldly things. Becket ignored the concerns of his mentor and even refused to visit Theobald on his deathbed.
After Theobald died in 1161, Henry appointed Becket archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Becket, aware of the influence he now wielded as a religious leader, promptly abandoned the trappings of his previous life as chancellor. He devoted himself to the study of canon law and to the spiritual obligations of his new role. He also became involved in a series of clashes between the church and the state that put him at odds with King Henry, his closest friend and confidant.
In late 1163 Henry decided to abolish certain privileges enjoyed by the clergy, which exempted them, when they were accused of crimes, from the jurisdiction of the civil courts. “Criminous clerks,” as they were known, were instead allowed to stand trial before a bishop in the ecclesiastical courts, which usually resulted in much milder punishments. Under Henry’s reforms, an accused clerk would be required to appear first in a civil court to answer the charges. If the clerk denied the offense and asked to be heard in an ecclesiastical court, the clerk would then appear before a bishop. If convicted by the ecclesiastical court, the clerk would return to the civil court to face charges as a layperson.
Becket vehemently opposed Henry’s measures. He maintained that they subjected the clergy to be punished twice for the same offense: the clergy, he argued, would lose their clerical status in the ecclesiastical courts and would also face secular penalties imposed by the civil courts. However, under intense pressure from the monarchy, Becket eventually relented and agreed verbally to Henry’s proposals.
In January 1164 Henry summoned a convocation at Clarendon, where he planned to put his reforms into a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon, and to secure Becket’s signature. But at the last minute, Becket repudiated his previous verbal agreement to the measures and refused to sign the documents, on the grounds that they violated canon law. Becket’s defiance incurred the wrath of the king, who denounced him as a traitor to the throne. Henry then threatened to imprison Becket or at least force him to resign as archbishop. Becket, fearing for his safety, fled to France in late 1164 and remained in exile at Flanders for the next six years. In France, Becket struck back at Henry by excommunicating several of his councilors and threatening to excommunicate the king as well.
In 1169 Henry and Becket attempted a reconciliation, but Henry soon incensed Becket by having Roger, the archbishop of York and a rival of Becket’s, crown Prince Henry as his successor. Such coronations were traditionally undertaken by the archbishop of Canterbury. Becket retaliated by suspending Roger and the other bishops who participated in the coronation.
In late 1170 Henry and Becket briefly resolved their differences and Becket returned to Canterbury amid great fanfare. Almost immediately, however, officers of the king demanded that Becket absolve the suspended bishops involved in Prince Henry’s coronation. Becket steadfastly refused, maintaining that only the pope had the authority to give absolution.
The king, by now exasperated with Becket, is said to have roared, in a fit of anger, “Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four of his knights took his plea literally and on December 29, 1170, went to Canterbury, where they confronted Becket in the cathedral and again demanded that he absolve the suspended bishops. Becket refused. The knights cornered 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 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.’
Word of Becket’s murder spread quickly, and his tomb soon became a shrine visited by thousands of pilgrims. Becket, in his early fifties at the time of his death, was canonized by Pope Alexander II in 1173. Henry II did penance at Canterbury and was absolved of the murder. The four assassins did fourteen years’ service in the Holy Land as penance for the crime. A later English king, Henry III, had Becket’s remains placed in a more elaborate tomb at Canterbury, which remained a popular place of pilgrimage. The religious journeys to Becket’s tomb became the basis for Chaucer’s masterpiece Canterbury Tales, which was written almost two hundred years after Becket’s death.
In 1538 Henry VIII became embroiled in his own struggles with the church and viewed the pilgrimages to Becket’s tomb with increasing hostility. As a result, he had it destroyed 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.