Thomas Becket (Thomas à Becket)

Thomas Becket (Thomas à Becket)
Thomas Becket (Thomas à Becket)

Saint Thomas Becket was the archbishop of Canterbury in England during the reign of King Henry II. He was the son of Gilbert Becket, who was born in Rouen, but became a merchant in London. Becket received an excellent education despite his middle-class origins.

He completed his degree at the University of Paris and then studied law at Bologna and Auxerre. Theobald of Bec, archbishop of Canterbury since 1139, made him deacon and assistant archbishop of Canterbury. Becket and Henry became close friends and spent considerable time together. Henry made Becket chancellor.

Theobald was seriously concerned that the trappings of the royal lifestyle would turn Becket against the needs of the church. Upon Theobald’s death in 1163, Henry offered Becket the position of archbishop of Canterbury, but he initially declined, realizing it would cause great havoc between Henry and himself.

Once Becket became archbishop in 1164, he set aside the hedonistic lifestyle, became excessively ascetic, and resigned as chancellor. His efforts focused on the church rather than on the interests of the man who had befriended and promoted him. In 1163 at the Council of Westminster, Henry passed a law that would try “criminous clerks” who had already been tried by the ecclesiastical courts.

Some of the canonical laws were ambiguous, imprecise, and contradictory, and Henry wanted clearly stated laws that would govern accurately. Becket disagreed, but withdrew his dissent when Pope Alexander III (pope from 1159 to 1181) pressured him. Henry then implemented the constitutions of Clarendon to which Becket orally agreed. The constitutions accurately reflected traditional church and state relations, which Henry II wished to guarantee.

When Becket discovered that some of the sections would reduce ecclesiastical power, he vehemently objected to the changes. However, several of the Crown’s practices were quite divergent from canon law, so that Alexander refused to assent. Becket had little choice but to admit publicly that he had committed perjury regarding the Constitution of Clarendon.

Becket was forced to appear at the Council of Northampton in October 1164 and was charged with misappropriating funds during his chancellorship. He quickly contravened the Constitutions of Clarendon, denying its jurisdiction and declaring that the church and the pope had greater jurisdiction than the Constitutions. Becket had no option but to flee abroad.

While Becket lived in exile for six years, he garnered scant support from Alexander because the pope and Henry had their own disagreements to solve. Yet both Henry and Becket went to extremes to maintain their quarrel.

The situation was exacerbated when Henry, who was quite ill, had his son and heir, Henry the Younger, (1155–83) crowned as joint king by the archbishop of York in June 1170; this was a direct violation of customary practices. Becket threatened an interdict with Alexander’s support and then aggravated the situation by suspending and excommunicating the bishops who had partaken in the coronation.

The irate Henry then uttered the phrase “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights took this phrase literally, traveled to Canterbury, and murdered Becket on December 29, 1170. This event astonished and repulsed Christians everywhere. Becket was canonized three years later; his tomb became a well-visited shrine. In 1174 Henry was forced to offer penance publicly at Becket’s tomb.