Archbishop of Canterbury
Companion to the King.
Thomas Becket was the son of Norman settlers who lived in the city of London. His father was a merchant who traveled among the circles of French-speaking Norman immigrants. The name "Becket" is likely a nickname, possibly meaning beak or nose, which was given to his father. As a boy, Thomas studied with the Augustinian canons at Merton Priory and later at the cathedral school of St. Paul. Some suggest that as a young man Becket studied in Paris under Thomas Melun. Around 1141 he came into the service of Theobald, the archbishop of Canterbury, whose household companions included several future bishops. Thomas was later sent to study law at Bologna and Auxerre, likely entering into minor clerical orders along the way, and eventually becoming a subdeacon. Theobald consecrated Thomas as an archdeacon at Canterbury in 1154, and he continued in the service of the bishop's household where he had been for nearly ten years prior. Soon after, the young king Henry II's backers chose Thomas for the position of chancellor of the realm, which was essentially a secular position as royal counselor. While working in the English court, Becket developed an extremely close friendship with the king, accompanying him on hunting expeditions and even a successful military campaign in Aquitaine, where Thomas commanded an army of hundreds of knights and thousands of mercenary soldiers. Upon the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1162, Henry asked Thomas to take the position of archbishop of Canterbury. It may have been Henry's wish that his close friend hold both positions of chancellor and archbishop since the king then would be able to exert significant influence over the English church.
A Surprising Conversion.
To Henry's surprise, upon his friend's ordination to the priesthood in June of 1161, and his elevation to the archbishopric one day later, Thomas resigned his post as chancellor. He quickly began to take his new office very seriously. It is said that he lived an almost ascetic lifestyle, rising early to pray, enduring humilities like washing the feet of the poor, wearing a purposely uncomfortable hair shirt, scourging himself out of indifference to his flesh, studying the scriptures, and surrounding himself with learned churchmen. It was not long before he came into conflict with the king over the rights and authority of the church, as well as the notion of church taxation. One particularly distasteful battle took place over a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. Issued by Henry II near Salisbury in 1164, it reasserted the church-state customs and relationship conducted during the time of Henry's grandfather, Henry I (r. 1100–1135). Issues concerning the judgment and punishment of clerics by secular powers, freedom of the bishops to travel outside the realm without royal consent, the requirement that the church obtain the king's permission before excommunicating his tenants, and the crown's entitlement to income from vacated church lands were among the more vexing statutes. In essence, these propositions gave the king specific and, as Thomas saw it, excessive legal authority over the church. Henry demanded that the bishops swear oaths to the effect that they would uphold the Clarendon conditions. Thomas reluctantly did so, along with other bishops present. However, Thomas later regretted the decision when Pope Alexander III openly denounced the Constitutions of Clarendon. Thomas felt obliged to uphold the opinion of Rome and, after being found guilty at a public trial, escaped England and fled to France where he lived in exile for six years. His years living as a penitent monk in Cistercian and Benedictine houses were not comfortable, especially since he had little support from his fellow bishops or even from Pope Alexander, who was distracted by the claims of an anti-pope. After several attempts at reconciliation and the threat of interdict issued by Alexander III, Thomas and Henry agreed to a "rhetorical" compromise, which in no way actually modified either man's position. Becket returned to England in 1170 and resumed his role as archbishop of Canterbury. But less than a month after his arrival, disgruntled elements in the royal circle inflated issues related to Thomas's excommunication of several bishops who had acted in defiance of Rome, on the king's behalf, and were being punished by Thomas. Hearing Henry II's displeasure over another confrontation with Thomas, four of the king's knights took the initiative to rid the realm of the troublesome cleric for good. After an argumentative exchange in Thomas's chambers, the knights followed the archbishop into Canterbury Cathedral, where they attacked and killed him.
Sainthood and Kingly Penance.
Upon news of Thomas Becket's murder, Pope Alexander III went into mourning, then placed an interdict (exclusion from sacraments) upon King Henry II. At Sens, the French archbishop imposed interdict over the inhabitants of all the king's lands on the European continent. Henry was eager to make peace with the church, and at Avranches in 1172 conceded to give in to the notion of appeals to Rome in all cases of church disputes. He also restored all property to the archbishopric of Canterbury and made a vow to go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Henry even agreed to the exemption of clerics from the jurisdiction of secular courts. In 1173, just two years after his death, Thomas was canonized as a saint of the church. The cathedral at Canterbury where he was murdered became a famous pilgrim site, one even visited by the penitent Henry II himself in July of 1174. It is said that he walked barefoot from the city gates to the tomb of his former friend, admitted his guilt in the arch-bishop's death, and submitted himself to some 240 lashes administered by the monks from Canterbury Cathedral. As in the case of Henry IV of Germany during the investiture crisis (some 100 years earlier), a monarch's act of penitence and humility, whether calculated or not, demonstrated the power of devotion that was held by Christians in Europe, even in the face of dominant secular authority.
Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986).
Anne Duggan, The Correspondence of Thomas Becket (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 2000).
David Knowles, Thomas Becket (London: A. and C. Black, 1971).
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.
Barlow, F. , Thomas Becket (1986).