Thomas Becket: The Martyred English Saint

Thomas Becket
c. 1118 – December 29, 1170

Early Life

His defiance against the monarchy would end in tragedy. Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118. His father, Gilbert Becket, was a London merchant. Through his father, Thomas would meet the powerful Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald was impressed with Thomas’s work ethic and took the young man under his wing. The archbishop would serve as a mentor to Thomas for the next several decades.

Rise in Status

In his early 20s, Theobald sent Thomas Becket to learn civil and canon law in Europe. When he returned to England, Thomas’s relationship with Theobald continued to grow. The archbishop’s confidence in Thomas became so great that he would sometimes act as regent on Theobald’s behalf. By 1154, the 36-year-old Thomas had worked his way up to become the Archdeacon of Canterbury. It was during 1154 when he would meet England’s king, Henry II.

Chancellorship

Henry II of England
Henry II of England

As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald held the highest religious position in England. Because of this, he was in contact with King Henry II. When the chancellorship became available, Theobald recommended his protege for the job. Henry considered the archbishop’s request and felt impressed by Thomas Becket’s abilities. In 1155, the king granted Thomas the chancellorship, which elevated the archdeacon to the highest political position below Henry himself.

Relationship with Henry II

Thomas Becket immediately proved to be a competent administrator. On the king’s behalf, he led troops, met with emissaries, and oversaw repairs to the Tower of London. By 1160, the archdeacon had become entrusted by Henry II to manage the daily operations of his government. Henry viewed Thomas as a good friend, a loyal servant, and as a link between the monarchy and church. The king knew that if his long-term plans were to succeed, Thomas would play an essential part in carrying them out.

The King’s Reforms

During Henry II’s reign, the king sought to expand the monarchy’s power at the expense of the church. Throughout the 1100s, European rulers consistently came into conflict with the papacy over this issue. In response to having their authority challenged, the church would either threaten excommunication or place an interdict on the offender’s country. By the end of the conflict, the ruler would be forced to relent, and the underlying issue would remain unresolved. To avoid such an ordeal, Henry decided to take a different approach.

On April 18, 1161, Theobald died. Upon his death, the Archbishopric of Canterbury had been vacated. Seeing an opportunity to further his plans, Henry II decided to promote Thomas Becket to the position. The king reasoned that his friend would make a great ally against the church and could be easily influenced by him. Henry would later regret this decision.

Archbishop of Canterbury

As the newly appointed archbishop, Thomas Becket had the full support of the monarchy. However, the same couldn’t be said about England’s clergy. Canterbury’s monks strongly objected to his ascension. They argued that Thomas wasn’t a true man of God, but a mere secular administrator. They didn’t appreciate the king ignoring their authority to elect the next archbishop either.

Despite their protests, Henry II remained unfazed. On June 2, 1161, Thomas Becket became a priest and became the archbishop the following day. The king reveled in his victory over the church but failed to realize the impact of the clergy’s criticism on Thomas. The archbishop felt that he needed to prove himself worthy of his new position. To accomplish this, Thomas decided to change his life drastically.

Growing Conflict

Thomas Becket would undergo a radical transformation that no one could’ve predicted. Almost overnight, Thomas became a devout Christian. He also rejected his former life as a wealthy royal administrator. The archbishop’s first action was to resign as England’s chancellor. He then began to pursue policies that strengthen the church.

At first, King Henry II felt uneasy with his friend’s change but still supported him. When he returned from Normandy, France in January 1163, Henry believed that Thomas Becket remained his ally. The king began enacting his reforms, which included establishing a clear line between the monarchy and the church’s authority. It was assumed that Thomas would fully support this. However, he protested instead.

Archbishop vs. King

Henry II sought to create a better justice system in his kingdom. For years, the English church had the ability to prosecute clerical crimes, while the monarchy didn’t. Under the king’s system, both secular and religious figures would be equally prosecuted. Thomas Becket strongly opposed such a plan. The archbishop argued that canon law and secular law should remain separate. He protested against any perceived infringement of the church’s authority, infuriating Henry in the process.

In 1163, both men clashed again but this time over taxation. At the Council of Woodstock, Henry II demanded that the church help pay for sheriffs. The sheriffs themselves maintained law and order throughout the kingdom. As a staunch opponent of the king’s reforms, Thomas Becket adamantly refused. He claimed that this was merely an effort by the monarchy to gain more power over the church.

As the king and archbishop continued their fight over authority, the relationship between the two deteriorated. Their conflict came to a head in October 1163 at the Council of Northampton. During the meeting, Henry II declared that all his subjects must obey him, including those in the church. The king again asserted that his government could prosecute clerical crimes. Thomas Becket and his bishops disagreed, which ended in a heated exchange between both men.

Fallout of Northampton

After the disastrous council meeting, Henry II retaliated against Thomas Becket. Under threat of violence, Thomas was forced to publicly proclaim the supremacy of the monarchy over the church. Humiliated, the archbishop fled to France and received protection from King Louis VII. While abroad, the king seized Thomas’s properties, exiled his relatives, and persecuted his supporters. Multiple attempts at reconciliation were made throughout the years but all failed.

When Henry II began to openly disobey the papacy’s rules, the pope retaliated by excommunicating him. Before it could become an interdict on England, Henry agreed to meet with Thomas Becket on the pope’s behalf. It was agreed upon that the archbishop could return to Canterbury and regain his lost possessions. In return, the papacy lifted their excommunication. However, the issue of authority remained unsolved.

Martyrdom

In 1170, Thomas Becket returned to England after six years in exile. However, his outspoken attitude and stubbornness hadn’t changed. By December, the archbishop’s speeches once more provoked Henry II. Frustrated by his former friend’s actions, Henry angrily asked at court who would get rid of Thomas for him. The question was assumed to be rhetorical but some of Henry’s knights thought otherwise.

Assassination of Thomas Becket
Assassination of Thomas Becket

Taking the king’s words literally, four knights departed for Canterbury. Arriving at the cathedral on December 29, the knights broke in and demanded to see Thomas Becket. The unarmed archbishop presented himself, and the knights attempted to arrest him. Thomas resisted and the knights struck him down with their swords. Henry II’s former friend was now dead.

Conclusion

Thomas Becket’s death stained Henry II’s reign. The king eventually performed penance at Canterbury for his knight’s actions. In 1173, Pope Alexander III canonized Thomas for his defense of the church. His tomb became a religious site, and his shrine gained fame throughout Europe. Despite his tragic end, he lives on as one of England’s national saints.

Sources

Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.

Jones, D. (2014). The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. New York: Viking Peguin Books.

Knowles, M. D. (2019, June 7). St. Thomas Becket. Retrieved November 29, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Thomas-Becket.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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