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Becket, Thomas

Becket, Thomas (c.1120–70). Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his own cathedral and so became a saint. Son of a Norman merchant settled in London, Becket worked as an accounts clerk to a banker (a cousin of his) before entering the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury in 1145. He became Theobald's confidential agent and was rewarded with the rich archdeaconry of Canterbury. Soon after being crowned by Theobald, Henry II appointed Thomas chancellor. In this office he displayed a wide range of talents, administrative, diplomatic, and military. He also enjoyed an ostentatiously lavish life-style. His zeal in the king's interests, even when they appeared to conflict with the church's, gave Theobald cause for concern and, not surprisingly, led Henry to believe that Thomas was his loyal friend. When Theobald died, Henry decided that Thomas should succeed him. This ran counter to the strong Canterbury tradition that the archbishop ought to be a monk. Reluctantly the cathedral monks agreed to elect the king's good servant. On 2 June 1162 Becket was ordained priest, and the next day consecrated archbishop.

At once Becket began to oppose the king, even on fairly routine matters which raised issues of principle only for someone who was determined to find them. He began to campaign for the canonization of Anselm, a monk-archbishop who had defied kings. Many attempts have been made to explain the volte-face but, in the absence of good evidence for Becket's state of mind in 1162–3, they remain highly speculative. The earliest lives of Becket, in Latin by John of Salisbury, Edward Grim, and William fitzStephen, in French by Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, do little to unravel the mystery; written in the shadow of his murder and canonization, they present the martyred saint.

Whatever Becket's motives, Henry felt betrayed. Twelfth-cent. church–state relations bristled with problems which could be, and since the ending of the Investiture contest normally were, shelved by men of goodwill. King and archbishop were soon quarrelling over a wide range of issues, among them the question of ‘criminous clerks’, i.e. benefit of clergy. In January 1164 Thomas reluctantly but publicly accepted the constitutions of Clarendon, and then infuriated the king and confused his fellow-bishops by trying to wriggle out of his commitment. At the Council of Northampton (October 1164) Henry brought charges against Becket arising out of his conduct while chancellor. Becket, seeing that the king was determined to break him, fled in disguise to France, where he remained in exile until 1170, studying canon law, leading an ascetic life, and claiming to be defending the rights not only of the church of Canterbury but of the church as a whole. Both Louis VII of France and Pope Alexander III urged a reconciliation, but neither Henry nor Thomas could trust the other. After years of fruitless negotiations, the coronation of Henry the Young King in June 1170 by the archbishop of York brought matters to a swift conclusion. In Becket's eyes crowning the king was a Canterbury privilege. He agreed terms with Henry. This enabled him to return to England with the intention of punishing those who had infringed that privilege. In November he excommunicated the archbishop of York and two other bishops. They complained to the king, then in Normandy. Henry's angry words prompted four knights to cross the Channel and kill Becket on 29 December 1170, a murder that shocked Christendom. Little more than two years later, in February 1173, he was canonized by Alexander III.

During his lifetime few churchmen thought that Becket's truculence did much to help the cause of Canterbury, of the English church, or of the church in general. Probably no one thought his conduct was that of a saint, even if he had taken to wearing coarse and lice-ridden undergarments. But his murder changed everything. It put Henry in the wrong. It forced him to do penance and to make concessions, though none of lasting significance. The church of Canterbury clearly gained. The Canterbury Tales bear eloquent witness to the fact that for centuries Becket's tomb in the cathedral was the greatest pilgrimage shrine in England. In 1538 Henry VIII declared Becket a traitor, but though he destroyed the shrine, he could not eliminate the cult.

John Gillingham


Barlow, F. , Thomas Becket (1986).

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