Thomas Becket was born on the 21st December 1118, which was also the feast day of St.Thomas the Apostle. The son of Gilbert Becket and his wife Matilda from France, a London Merchant and Sheriff of the city.
Becket was educated at Merton Priory in Surrey, then Paris. Whilst studying abroad, his father’s fortune took a terrible crumble, and he was forced to return home. For three years worked as an auditor in the City of London, also served as secretary to Lord Pevensey’s secretary.
By the time he reached his mid-twenties, had moved onwards and upwards, and worked within the Theobald household, for the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was during this time; he entered the world of power and policy within the church, and then went on to study canon law at Bologna and Auxerre in Italy.
In the year 1154, Henry II was crowned King of England, and Becket was his Lord Chancellor, a post recommended by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops, looking for a protector and defender of their rights.
It wasn’t long before the same Bishops who had recommended
Becket for the post of Lord Chancellor complained that he had forgotten the interests of the church.
His reply to these Bishops: I follow the rules of the church, and in the eyes of God remain a devout believer in a court full of promiscuous behaviour and over indulgence. I attend mass at dawn and pray late into the night.
In 1162 Thomas Becket was nominated as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and on the 23rd May 1162 confirmed by the council of bishops and nobleman, and ordained on the 2nd June and consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury on the 3rd June.
Henry had expected Becket would continue his work putting the royal government first, in front of those of the church. This was not to be for he resigned his post as Lord Chancellor, to become a champion of ecclesiastical claims, which would see a rift grow between King Henry and Thomas Becket.
Henry, who believed in the rights of the justice system, was provoked by several errors, in the church courts, claiming the right to punish clerical criminals, after they have been degraded by the bishop’s court. Becket felt compelled to oppose the King’s request, this angered him immensely. Becket carried the full support of the bishops with him; but neither they nor the pope were prepared to go to any lengths in opposing Henry. Eventually having to concede to Henrys demands, but not willingly.
Following the stand down by myself and the bishop’s, Henry put forward a document known as the ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’ relating to the way the church is run, but contrary to Cannon Law?
Becket was angered by this document, and the quarrel between Becket and Henry erupted once again, over how the church should be run.
Becket forced the King’s hand, which outraged him.
At Northampton Castle a council was held to fine Thomas Becket and charge him with alleged offences in his personal and ministerial life.
Before the King could have Becket formally charged for these offences, he escaped to France taking refuge in the Abbey of Pontigny, where he remained in exile for six years.
Whilst in exile, Becket gathered support from loyal followers for his cause, however, the pope and did not condone his actions.
In 1167, the King’s anger, enraged that the exiled archbishop had found safe refuge, decreed, that all English scholars studying on the continent were to return home. Many students and teachers alike, gathered at Oxford, here they tried to re-create the scholarly atmosphere they had experienced in Paris and other universities in France.
Britain’s oldest university ‘Oxford’, owes its origin to the quarrel between King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.
As the year 1170 drew to a close. The conflict which had divided England for the past six years, was reaching its climax. It was in early December that Becket agreed to meet Henry in Normany, and there they reconciled their differences.
Thomas Becket had remained in exile over the King’s demands to have control over the church. These demands were limitless. Henry, had forbidden the clergy to exercise their given rights, to appeal to Rome as the final authority in matters relating to the church. Furthermore, he had ordered the priests of England to take an oath, against the pope.
When Becket returned to Canterbury he publicly excommunicated his enemies from the pulpit of the cathedral on Christmas Day 1170, to the utter disgust of Henry.
This was the final straw, Henry could take no more, he had met Becket in Normandy to discuss their differences and this is what he does in return. In a moment of anger, Henry said, “idle cowards of my court, who stand by while this miserable priest insults me to my face”. These hasty words were enough to inspire a deed, which shocked the whole of Christendom.
Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton took the King at his word. To get rid of him, would surely be of great service to the realm. They left the royal court and made their way to Canterbury. There they had planned to arrest the archbishop Thomas Becket, imprison him to await the King’s pleasure, if this was not possible, they would take it upon themselves to kill him.
By the time the knights had reached Canterbury on December 29, 1170, crowds had gathered outside the cathedral, amid rumours of violence and murder. FitzUrse ordered his men to stand guard at the cathedral gates, whilst he and his three loyal followers sought out Thomas Becket.
Upon hearing the commotion outside, Becket was escorted into the cathedral by the monks, fearing for his safety.
Moments later, the knights burst through the cathedral doors. “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to his king and kingdom? demanded FitzUrse.
“I am here, no traitor but a priest of God and an archbishop, “Becket replied from the steps leading to the High Altar.
It was here Becket was slain on the steps leading to the High Altar by Reginal FitzUrse and his trusted followers, from King Henry II’s court.
But Thomas Becket had the final word, an eyewitness to the tragedy wrote that “the sun’s gaze was averted, its ray’s hidden from the earth and the day veiled in darkness…a terrible storm cloud overhung the firmament, the rain fell suddenly and swiftly and the thunder rolled around the heavens. After this, the sky turned a deep red in token of the blood which had been shed in horror at the outrage.”
Shrine dedicated to Thomas Becket
Within three years of this brutal murder, Thomas Becket, had been canonised by Pope Alexander III, and his tomb had become a shrine, for pilgrims from all over Europe.
It was one of those symbolic acts which colour and fortify the convictions of the many. The few who were closely involved had to extricate themselves.
The penance of the four knights was fourteen years’ service with the Knights Templar in the Holy Land.
The King had to provide 200 knights for a year for the defence of Jerusalem.
In 1174, King Henry II himself was forced into doing a public penance – being whipped in Canterbury Cathedral on the site of Becket’s murder.
But this did not stop him in his purpose. He succeeded in bringing the English Church, under royal control – a position which his successors, never lost.
Becket had failed in his ongoing struggle, by opposing the King, at every turn, as the rightful head of the Church. He was slain in his own cathedral for his actions, and became a martyr to his cause.
For the next 360 yrs, his memory lived on in the shrine dedicated to him, and became one of the greatest centres of pilgrimages in the Christian world.
Becket’s fame spread further. In the Holy Land, an order of Christian Knights was founded in his memory.
In the 1530’s, England broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1536 an act of Parliament by order of Henry VIII saw the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, and this act was followed by the dissolution of Abbey’s in 1539. Henry VIII ordered the shrine to be destroyed, and all the rich gifts, which had been lavished upon it over the centuries-confiscated.
But even this action could not destroy the legend, of a man of God, who perished for his beliefs.
Today, a plaque marks the spot in Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket paid with his life in 1170 for his opposition to King Henry II’s demands.