Becket, Thomas, St.
BECKET, THOMAS, ST.
Archbishop and martyr; b. London, 1117–18; d. canterbury, Dec. 29, 1170. He was educated at Merton Priory (Surrey) and at Paris. Thomas, of Norman bourgeois parents, became a merchant's clerk in London, but soon joined the household of Abp. theobald of can terbury, and may subsequently have studied at bolo gna. Tall, handsome, vigorous, extroverted, intelligent but not intellectual, Thomas of London, as he was called, lived the life of an ambitious young cleric, ingratiating himself to the old archbishop, who made him archdeacon of Canterbury, and to other prospective patrons.
Chancellor. In 1154, on Theobald's recommendation, the young King henry ii (b. 1132), to whom Thomas was bound by strong mutual affection, appointed him chancellor. His gifts of administration and initiative and his taste for magnificence together with his charm, his energy, and his efficiency were displayed fully. He amassed wealth and spent lavishly and generously; while archdeacon
he even appeared in full armor at the siege of Toulouse. Yet he remained pure and even devout.
Archbishop. Theobald's death (1161) was followed by a long vacancy of the See of Canterbury. The king had begun his lifelong endeavor to gain complete control of his kingdom, with a program that included a submissive Church, and saw in his chancellor the perfect agent and ally. Passing over the respectable Gilbert foliot, he pressed Thomas upon the unwilling monks and bishops (1162). The chancellor resisted sincerely, knowing both the king and his own conscience. Once elected, he completely changed his style of life to one of regularity, piety, and austerity, while retaining his magnificence, his generosity, and his commanding personality. He resisted with audacity all royal encroachments on ecclesiastical liberty, as well as attacks on the possessions and prerogatives of his see.
Conflict with Henry. Discord between king and archbishop came to a head in the matter of "criminous clerks," the king asserting his traditional right of judgment, the archbishop maintaining the strictest canonical position of complete jurisdiction for the Christian courts. At a council at Westminster (1163) the king demanded from the bishops acceptance of all the "ancient customs" of the realm. They refused, but Thomas later submitted in private. The king repeated his demands at clarendon (wiltshire) in January 1164, finally producing in writing the 16 celebrated Constitutions to which he demanded assent. The bishops submitted, but Thomas immediately repented.
Meanwhile Pope alexander iii condemned some of the constitutions. In October 1164 the king, in a council at Northampton, demanded the condemnation of the archbishop for feudal insubordination. His colleagues demurred, but in the end yielded. Henry then pressed a series of frivolous and punitive demands, and there were threats of imprisonment and even of death. The bishops, forbidden by Thomas to judge him, appealed against him to the pope while the lay barons passed judgment. Anticipating his sentence, the archbishop fled and escaped to France, taking refuge in the Cistercian Abbey of pon tigny and devoting himself to penitential exercises and the study of canon law. His exile lasted until 1170; the king of France welcomed him, and the pope, then in France, proclaimed the justice of his cause. But Alexander III was himself in grave difficulties with the emperor and his antipope, and was unwilling to go to extremes with Henry, and the months and years passed while the king harassed and exiled the archbishop's relatives and allies, and the archbishop excommunicated and suspended his opponents. Negotiations, and even a meeting of the two in 1169, broke down.
At last Henry and some bishops made the grave error of crowning (June 14, 1170) "the young king," Henry's son, in defiance of Canterbury's rights, which had been reaffirmed by the pope. The bishops were excommunicated, and the king felt it necessary to yield. A reconciliation, satisfactory to Thomas, took place at Fréteval (Orléanais) on July 22. Once more the king broke faith, supported by some bishops; once more Thomas excommunicated his enemies. His return to England was a triumph. But the injured prelates had inflamed the king's mind: he called for a riddance from his enemy and four knights crossed at once to Canterbury where, after a stormy interview, they murdered the archbishop in his cathedral (December 29). The atrocity shocked all Europe. Miracles were reported at the tomb; the pope excommunicated the king, who later did penance and abated his principal claims and was reconciled at Avranches (1172). In 1173 Thomas was canonized, and his tomb rapidly became a resort of pilgrims; churches were dedicated to him from Iceland to Spain.
Estimate of Becket's Career. The issue between king and archbishop was confused by clashes of temperament and emotion and embittered by the king's insincerity and the archbishop's pugnacity. Henry aimed at a complete control of the Church at a time when Europe had accepted the papal claims of gregory vii (see grego rian reform). Thomas stood for those claims in their entirety. Had he not resisted, England might have become for a time a separated unit in Christendom. By his death he won for his cause an immediate victory, which gave place in time to a compromise in practice. His biographers all wrote to celebrate a saint, but there will always be disputes about his character and his cause. Worldly and ambitious for long, and retaining even as archbishop traits of impetuosity and harshness, he nevertheless showed in adversity a steadfast courage and devotion to principle that gained him a death he and others regarded with justice as a sacrifice for the freedom of the Church in England.
Feast: Dec. 29.
Bibliography: Sources. Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, ed. j. c. robertson, 7 v. (Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores 67; London 1875–85); for criticism. e. walberg, La Tradition hagiographique de Saint Thomas (Paris 1929). The Correspondence of Thomas Becket, ed. and tr. a. j. duggan (New York 2000). Literature. e. abbott, St. Thomas of Canterbury (London 1898, reprinted New York 1980). f. barlow, Thomas Becket (Berkeley 1986). c. baronio, The Life or the Ecclesiasticall Historie of S. Thomas (London 1639, reprinted Ilkley 1975). t. borenius, St. Thomas Becket in Art (Port Washington, N.Y. 1970). j. r. butler, The Quest for Becket's Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury (New Haven, Conn. 1995). t. corfe, The Murder of Archbishop Thomas (Minneapolis 1977). a. duggan, Thomas Becket: A Textual History of His Letters (Oxford 1980). c. duggan, Canon Law in Medieval England: The Becket Dispute and Decretal Collections (London 1982). g. w. greenaway, tr. and ed., The Life and Death of Thomas Becket, Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, based on the account of William fitz Stephen, His Clerk, with Additions from Other Contemporary Sources (London 1965). guernes de pont– sainte–maxence, La vie de saint Thomas Becket, tr. j.–g. gouttebroze and a. queffelec (Paris 1990). t. m. jones, The Becket Controversy (New York 1970). d. knowles, The Episcopal Colleagues of Archbishop Thomas Becket (Cambridge, Eng. 1951); The Historian and Character (New York 1963); Thomas Becket (Stanford, Calif. 1971). r. foreville, L'Église et la royauté en Angleterre … 1154–1189 (Paris 1943), is full and scholarly, but biased. f. ozanam, Two chancellors of England, tr. j. findlay, ed. j. dawes (Sydney 1967). w. urry, Thomas Becket: His Last Days ed. p. a. rowe (Stroud 1999). f. watt, Canterbury Pilgrims and Their Ways (Philadelphia 1977).
[m. d. knowles]