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Thomas a Becket

Updated on July 11, 2013

Thomas Becket

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was murdered in December 1170 by four knights who thought they were obeying their King's wishes. Becket and King Henry 2nd had many problems. While Henry wanted to control both Church and State, Becket put every obstacle in his way so that the Church would retain its priviledges.

Lord Chancellor

Thomas Becket was born in 1118 in London, to Gilbert Becket and Matilda. Gilbert, a knight's son, was a property-owner, living on his rents.

One of Thomas's father's rich friends, Richer de Laigle was attracted to Thomas's sisters and often invited Thomas to his estates in Sussex. Thomas learned to behave like a gentleman and was taught to ride and hunt and engage in the popular sports of the day. When he was 10 years old Thomas started on his first-class education in law, both civil and canon. He attended Merton Priory in England, and also attended universities abroad in Bologna, Auxerre and Paris.

When he returned to England, Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury took him on as an emissary, entrusting him with missions to Rome. He later made him an Archdeacon and Provost of Beverley.

He distinguished himself by both his zeal and efficiency so well that Theobald recommended him to King Henry 2nd when the very important office of Lord Chancellor became vacant. Henry was pleased to appoint Thomas as Chancellor in 1155.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Henry wanted to be the absolute ruler of his dominions, both in Church and in State, and decided that the traditions of the special privileges of the clergy were to be discontinued. He regarded the influence of the church as a great encumbrance to his authority. Chancellor Becket was empowered to enforce the King’s traditional land tax that was exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. His enthusiasm in enforcing the law created both a hardship and a resentment of Becket among English Churchmen. Thomas was devoted to Henry's interests with such a firm and yet diplomatic thoroughness that scarcely anyone doubted his allegiance to English royalty.

King Henry sent his son to live in Becket's household, as it was the custom in those days 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 in his entire life, and he formed an attachment to Becket as a father figure.

In 1162 Thomas was made Archbishop of Canterbury after the death of Archbishop Theobald. Henry intended to control the actions of Thomas, his loyal appointee, and lessen the independence and influence of the Church in England.

A light-hearted view

Disagreements

A rift grew between Henry and Thomas and the king's friendship was put under strain when it became clear that Becket would now stand up for the church in its disagreements with the king.

King Henry believed that by having his own man in the top post of the Church, he could easily impose his will upon this powerful religious institution but he was sadly mistaken. Becket now changed his allegiance from the court to the Church, deciding that he would oppose the king. The Church had the right to try felonious clerics in their own religious courts of justice, and not those of the crown in those days and Henry was determined to increase control of his realm by eliminating this custom. A Canon, accused of murder in 1163 was acquitted by a church court. The public outcry demanded justice and the Canon was brought before a court of the king. Becket protested and the attempt was stopped, but this infuriated King Henry. He vowed to change the laws and extend his courts' jurisdiction over the clergy. Becket refused to agree to changes in the law. His stand prompted a royal summons to Henry's court at Northampton and the king demanded to know what Becket had done with the large sums of money that had passed through his hands as Chancellor. Becket was terrified at this accusation so he fled to France where he remained in exile for six years. In 1170 when King Henry and Becket met in Normandy, they resolved their differences and on November 30, Becket crossed the Channel and returned to his post at Canterbury. Earlier, while in France, Becket had excomunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for their support of the king and the king now demanded that they be reinstated. Becket refused to absolve the bishops which threw King Henry, who was still in France, into a rage in which he was said to shout: "What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord? Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

The king's exact words are a matter of conjecture but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid their monarch of the Archbishop. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for him. Thomas fled to the Cathedral where a service was underway. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim, finally splitting his skull.

Becket's death unnerved the king. The knights who did the deed to curry the king's favour were in disgrace. Several miracles were said to have occurred at the tomb of the martyr and he was soon canonized. Pilgrims flocked to Canterbury Cathedral and it was turned into a shrine. Four years later, in an act of penance, the king donned a sack-cloth walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him with branches. Henry capped his atonement by spending the night in the martyr's crypt. St. Thomas continued as a popular cultist figure for the remainder of the Middle Ages.



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    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks rope. I like your enthusiasm for English history. Keep watching.

    • The Rope profile image

      The Rope 

      8 years ago from SE US

      Two out of five! You're hitting a homerun here ST! Care to go for the gold?

    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Thank you No.7 Your comments are always appreciated.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 

      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      I always enjoy reading your very interesting and informative hubs. This one, especially, because Becket is something of a hero of mine, and because I'm especially fascinated by that period of history. Thank you for the well-researched and interesting read.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      I enjoyed reading your comprehensive hub. I heard about Thomas Becket but never knew the full story. Thank you.

    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for reading the hub jayjay and A M Werner. Your comments are greatly appreciated.

    • A M Werner profile image

      Allen Werner 

      8 years ago from West Allis

      Nice hub scarytaff, I always found Becket to be one of the most colorful and interesting figures in medieval history.

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 

      8 years ago from Bristol England

      Very interesting, these two certainly had a stormy relationship. Thanks for writting an easy to read hub

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