Sir Thomas Becket changed
from being a 'patron of play actors and a follower of hounds
to being a shepherd of souls.


Thomas Becket was the son of a wealthy London merchant. He was born on 21 December 1118, began his education at Merton Priory, and continued it in London, Paris, and Italy. He never achieved great academic distinction, but he was an ambitious young man, determined to rise above his simple station in life. He soon decided that the most hopeful path for his ambition lay in the Church. He therefore joined the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, was soon ordained a deacon and rapidly rose to the position of Archdeacon of Canterbury.

In 1154, on Theobald's recommendation, he was given the high office of Chancellor to the King, Henry II, and over the next eight years the mercurial and intelligent Henry and the ambitious Thomas developed a close—even passionate—friendship. Becket was a skillful administrator who have absolute support to Henry II's policy of 'unifying' Church and State largely by seeking to deprive the Church of the many concessions granted to it by his predecessor, King Stephen.

When, in 1162, Henry selected his worldly and loyal Chancellor as the new Archbishop of Canterbury he thought Becket would continue to support his policy of subordinating Church to State to an extent that would allow his plan of unification to be accomplished—misreading of Becket's character that was to have dire consequences for the new Archbishop.

The See of Canterbury had been, since its establishment in 0597 AD, the focal point of the Church of England and had also played a major role in the history of the country. The office of its Archbishop was second in importance only to that of the King and, as a result, if an Archbishop strong of character there was every likelihood that there would be a conflict with the monarch, resulting in exile or assassination. The Archbishop, representing Church and Pope, believed the papacy to have power over any monarch, whereas the Crown, as England began to grow into a powerful state, bitterly resented the interference of papal power in English Church affairs and the flow of English money into the coffers of Rome.

The conflict between Henry and Becket arose partly from Henry's determination to impose lay (or non-clerical) justice on errant clerics (he called them 'criminous clerks') and partly from a personal antagonism between the King and his once great friend and Chancellor, who had given, during his Chancellorship, not only a friendship the loss of which Henry deeply mourned, but also every indication that as Archbishop he would continue to support Henry's policy.

That policy was to make the law equal for all and universally applied. The main obstacle to it was the right of 'benefit of clergy', which gave any cleric, however humble, the right to be tried for any crime expect treason in the ecclesiastical courts and thus escape trial in the lay courts. This benefit could probably be justified in theory; but we must remember that in the Middle Ages large numbers of alleged clerics had only the most tenuous connection with the Church, and what vexed Henry most of all was the well-known leniency of the ecclesiastical courts. These courts might occasionally unfrock a cleric and thus deprive him of the right to exercise his office in church, or they might fine him and jail him; but they refused to give the severe sentences that the King considered necessary to keep order in a turbulent age.

The King did not claim the right to try 'criminous clerks' in the first instance in the lay courts. He simply wanted a ruling that any cleric found guilty in an ecclesiastical court should be unfrocked and retried by a lay court and, if found guilty, be given the same punishment as any layman. It was this policy — one resented by many of the influential — that Becket had supported during his term as Chancellor.

On 03 June, 1162, Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. He had accepted the office with the greatest reluctance, but having accepted it, he began to demonstrate traits of character consistent with his new office and not with the high-living sophisticate Henry had once known him to be. He resigned his post as Chancellor, saying that he could not serve two masters. He then adopted the life of an ascetic and lived in monastic seclusion in Canterbury. As he himself put it, he changed from being a ‘patron of play actors and a follower of hounds to being a shepherd of souls.’

It is difficult to explain this sudden change. It may be that, sobered by the importance of his new office, he experienced a spiritual conversion. Or his earlier vanity and self-importance may suddenly have been revealed to him as sins of great magnitude for which he had to atone. Whatever the reason for the change, it soon caused Becket to quarrel with the King, first on minor matters in which no principle appeared to be involved, then on the serious matter of 'criminous clerks’.

It was soon drawn to Henry's attention that clerics in minor orders who had been found guilty of quite serious crimes had been able to escape with light sentences in the ecclesiastical courts. He was furious, and challenged Becket. The Archbishop received very little support from his bishops and the whole thing came to a climax at the Council of Clarendon in 1164, where Crown and Church fought a bitter battle. The decision reached there prohibited appeals to Rome without the King's approval, forbade the clergy to leave the country without the Crown's approval, and took away the power of the Church to protect any convicted cleric.

The archbishop, assailed by pleas and threats, finally gave way and assented to what came to be called the Constitutions of Clarendon; though he still refused to authenticate the Constitutions with his seal—and, indeed, continued to support the trial of clergymen, however minor their orders, in the church courts.

The quarrel between Henry and Becket became more acrimonious and the King decided that it was in the Crown's interest to ruin the Archbishop. In October 1164 Becket was ordered to appear before the King's representative at Northampton to face trial on several points at issue—all of them trivial but used as a pretext to bring about the Archbishop's downfall. The Earl of Leicester, Henry's spokesman, dredged up incidents from the years when Becket was Chancellor and demanded a strict accounting of the finances during those years and also of the revenues of the See of Canterbury during the same time that See was vacant, before Becket had accepted the appointment. Clearly this demand of the King was unfair, since it would have been impossible to give a strict accounting without adequate preparation.

The quarrel continued for days and became more and more bitter. Some of the courtiers even suggested that Becket resign his office of Archbishop. However, even the bishops who opposed Becket vetoed that suggestion because it would have made it impossible in the future for any prelate to resist the Crown.

Then rumors began to circulate that the King was going to imprison Becket for life after mutilating him by having his eyes put out and his tongue cut off. These were no idle rumors, for, not long before, a bishop in Henry's domains in France (he was Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou and Maine) had displeased a feudal lord and had suffered mutilation of his private parts. It was a violent age. Becket, ill with a kidney stone, lost his courage and took to his bed.

But in a few days his courage returned and he again faced his accusers. Barefoot in his vestments and carrying his great cross he defied the Earl of Leicester. Cutting the Earl short after he had uttered the words, ‘Hear, then, your sentence...’ the Archbishop thundered that a nobleman could not judge a bishop, nor the King, nor the King's spokesman. ‘I will be judged by our Lord the Pope alone, for he alone is competent to judge me and to him, in your presence, I appeal.’ With that Becket fled the court.

On 02 November Becket, with his personal servant, Roger, and two companions, left England and landed in Flanders. He stayed for a while at the Abbey of St. Bertin near Clair-Marais, and there began to set in motion a chain of intense diplomatic activities to counteract the activities of King Henry, who had sent envoys to King Louis VII of France requesting that no sanctuary should be given to his ‘former’ Archbishop. Louis asked a simple question of the envoys: 'Who has deposed the Archbishop?' The French King then told the envoys that he was as much a king as Henry was and that he did not have the power to depose 'the least of the clerks' in his realm.

Becket sent envoys to the Pope, Alexander III, who was also in exile at Sens, having been driven out of Rome after a bitter quarrel with the German Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, over supremacy of rule in Italy. At the moment Frederick Barbarossa was supreme, so Alexander was in no position to give Becket any support except lip service. But he suggested that the exiled Archbishop might retire to a monastery for a while and there contemplate his past actions, search his conscience, and decide his future course.

So Becket and a few of his followers retired to the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, where for two years he wore the habit of a monk and adapted his life to that of his hosts—a life of extremely harsh discipline which he not only bore bravely, but chose to increase its austerity. During those two years he was supported, so far as financial contributions to the Cistercians were concerned, by King Louis, who, resentful over King Henry's rule over much of Louis's rightful kingdom, was delighted to succor any enemy of the English King.

But there were ways and means for Henry to retaliate. He sent some 400 of Becket's friends and relatives into exile and warned the Cistercian Brotherhood that if they continued to harbor Becket he would confiscate all their property in his domains. To avoid such confiscation King Louis provided Becket with another sanctuary at the Benedictine abbey of St. Columba, near Sens; and the Pope, who was temporarily back in Rome, victor for the moment in his struggle with Barbarossa, ordered Becket not to take an retaliatory action against Henry.

There were other ways, however, in which Becket could move toward revenge. In 1166 he went on a pilgrimage to Vézelay in Burgundy, and there, in the cathedral on 12 June, he excommunicated John of Oxford, Richard of Ilchester, Robert de Lacy (Henry's justicar or regent in England), and Joceline de Balliel for their part in opposing him by supporting the Constitutions of Clarendon. Ranulf de Broc, Hugh of St. Clair, and Thomas FitzBernard were excommunicated for stealing money and other possessions of the See of Canterbury.

The Pope now tried to mediate between Henry and Becket by appointing two papal legates to bring the parties together. On 16 November, 1167 the legates stopped at Sens and conferred at length with Becket, but no solution was reached. Later, Henry met the legates outside Caen and was told that they had been unable to change the Archbishop's mind; and after talking with Henry they found that the King was in no mood for compromise either. In fact, Henry was so disgusted with the Pope's ambassadors that he was reported to have said 'I hope to God I never set eyes on a Cardinal again.'

But by 1168 many of Becket's supporters in exile with him were weary of living abroad. Becket, listening to their woes, promised to try and seek an agreement with the King. It so happened that in January 1169 Henry and Louis met for a conference at Montmirail on the border of their domains, and Louis asked Becket to be present. As might have been expected, when King and Archbishop met their tempers flared, another argument developed, and they soon parted enemies, each damning the other.

By the beginning of 1170 all parties were understandably weary of the struggle, and the Pope and Henry were both impatient for a settlement. Also, it was rumored that the Pope might put all Henry's European peoples under interdict. This was mass excommunication, and meant that all Henry's vassals could be absolved of their allegiance to the English king and their loyalties bidden for by Louis. However, some progress toward a settlement might have been achieved if Henry hadn't committed a stupid act.

He wanted his eldest son to be crowned as the future king of England—an anticipatory coronation about which there was nothing unusual in those days. But instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry commissioned the Archbishop of York to crown young Henry on 14 July, 1170. Assisting York (who was one of Becket's bitterest enemies) in the ceremony were the Bishops of Durham, London, Salisbury, and Rochester. The foolishness of the King's action was not immediately apparent; but it was soon to become so.

On 27 July, 1170 Louis and Henry met for another conference at Freteval, halfway between Chartres and Tours, and Becket also was present by invitation. This time there was no flare-up of tempers; King and Archbishop were friendly and peace was made. Henry was reported as having said later: 'Since I find the Archbishop well disposed toward me, I would be the worst of men if I were not well disposed toward him, and would prove true all the evil things that are said of me.'

The matter of the crowning of young Henry was settled—or so it seemed for the moment—when the King promised that there would be a second and final coronation at the proper time. The two men met on several more occasions and apparently settled their differences. But no word was said of the main cause of the quarrel—the Constitutions of Clarendon—and no oath was demanded of either party. It was perhaps an uneasy peace; but peace it was. And before Becket departed on the journey back to his See the King sent to England the official notice of the reconciliation.

Becket arrived back in Canterbury on 1st December, 1170 and was received there, and later in London, where he distributed alms among the people, as a conquering hero. But he seemed to be courting martyrdom for he remarked to Alexander Llewellyn, his crucifier: 'One martyr, Saint Alfege, you have already; another if God wilt, you will have soon.' And in his sermon on Christmas Day he told his congregation, 'I am come to die among you.' (Alfege had been Archbishop of Canterbury early in the previous century. He was stoned or clubbed to death by the Danes in the arm of Thorkell the Tall on 29 April, 1012, near Greenwich.)

Becket now appeared to court the death to which he had alluded. He began to excommunicate all those who had opposed him during his exile—clergy and laity alike; he furiously attacked the Archbishop of York and the bishops who had presided at the coronation of young Henry; and he renewed the bans of excommunication on the King's advisers.

Henry was then in Normandy where the excommunicated bishops now went and laid their cases before him. Henry was understandably weary of the whole affair and asked Roger of York what he should do. The Archbishop replied: 'I assure you, my Lord, that while Thomas lives you will have no good days, nor quiet times, nor a tranquil kingdom.'

The reply drove Henry into a furious rage and he shouted his famous invitation to murder: 'The man Becket ate my bread and mocks my favors. He tramples on the whole royal family! What a parcel of fools and darstards have I nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of this upstart clerk!'

Taking him at his word, four knights now began to hatch a plot against Becket. They were Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton. They made their separate ways to England, landing at dusk on 28 December, 1170, and going on to Saltwood Castle near Canterbury, where they were greeted by their friends Robert and Ranulf de Broc.

FitzUrse (Son of a Bear), typified his name; le Breton was styled Brito, meaning Brute; de Moreville, whose name meant City of Death, had reputedly boiled alive a man alleged to have made improper advances to de Moreville's wife; only de Tracy seems to have been a man of unblemished character who had won a reputation as an heroic soldier.

The knights lied to the Brocs, and to many others, about their authority, saying that the King himself had ordered them to arrest Becket. But they cannot have worked out any definite course of action, though they must certainly have known that the Archbishop would resist arrest. At all events, they arrived at Canterbury about noon on 29 December and went straight to the Abbey of St. Augustine where they were wined and dined by the Abbot, who was at odds with Becket. After dinner the four men and their supporters sought out their quarry and found him at work in the Archbishop's palace. They remonstrated with him about the excommunication of the bishops, and, when Becket refused their requests for restoration of the bishops' rights, left him with fury in their eyes and murder in their hearts.

Leaving the monks of St. Augustine's to manhandle Becket and drag him to the cathedral, they put on their armor and again sought out the Archbishop. They found him in a chapel in the north transept, crowded around him and attempted to take him prisoner. But, as expected, Becket not only taunted them but offered immense physical resistance. He threw Tracy to the floor and in turn was set upon by FitzUrse, at whom he shouted: 'Let go of me, you pimp!'

Tracy then delivered the first blow with his sword. Edward Grim, Becket's crosier, tried to parry the blow and was cut severely on the arm; Tracy's sword had drawn blood from the crown of Becket's head, and now he struck again. But it was a blow from Brito that split the Archbishop's skull—a blow so savage that the sword broke on the floor. A few minutes later, their murderous work done, the Archbishop dead with his blood and brains oozing out on the stone flags, the knights made their way out of the cathedral, fought their way through the horrified populace, and escaped.

'Willingly I die in the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church.' These were Becket's last words, so reported. Almost overnight he became a hero. Miracles were attributed to him, and soon there developed a Becket cult fostered by real, as well as imaginary, beliefs. The cult spread south to the Holy Land and north as far as Iceland. Becket's determination to achieve martyrdom had borne fruit; for on Ash Wednesday 1173, at a church council at Westminster, the slain Archbishop was canonized and 29 December was designed a feast day in the liturgical calendar.

Henry was never able to convince the world that he was not responsible for the murder, and later made his peace with the Church. He appeared in Canterbury in the garb of a penitent, walked barefoot through the streets to the cathedral, and submitted to a flogging at the hands of the monks. Yet another miracle was attributed to his penitence, for at the exact moment of the flogging, the King of Scotland, busily invading south of his border, was captured by the English.

St. Thomas Becket

Martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, born at London, 21 December 1118 (?); died at Canterbury, 29 December 1170. St. Thomas was born of parents who, coming from Normandy, had settled in England some years previously. No reliance can be placed upon the legend that his mother was a Saracen. In after life his humble birth was made the subject of spiteful comment, though his parents were not peasants, but people of some mark, and from his earliest years their son had been well taught and had associated with gentlefolk. He learned to read at Merton Abbey and then studied in Paris. On leaving school he employed himself in secretarial work, first with Sir Richer de l'Aigle and then with his kinsman, Osbert Huitdeniers, who was “Justiciar” of London. Somewhere about the year 1141, under circumstances that are variously related, he entered the service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and in that household he won his master's favor and eventually became the most trusted of all his clerks. A description embodied in the Icelandic Saga and derived probably from Robert of Cricklade gives a vivid portrait of him at this period.

To look upon he was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and lovable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.
Theobald recognized his capacity, made use of him in many delicate negotiations, and, after allowing him to go for a year to study civil and cannon law at Bologna and Auxerre, ordained him deacon in 1154, after bestowing upon him several preferments, the most important of which was the Archdeaconry of Canterbury.

It was just at this period that King Stephen died and the young monarch Henry II became unquestioned master of the kingdom. He took “Thomas of London”, as Becket was then most commonly called, for his chancellor, and in that office Thomas at the age of thirty-six became, with the possible exception of the justiciar, the most powerful subject in Henry's wide dominions. The chroniclers speak with wonder of the relations which existed between the chancellor and the sovereign, who was twelve years his junior. People declared that “they had but one heart and one mind”. Often the king and his minister behaved like two schoolboys at play. But although they hunted or rode at the head of an army together it was no mere comradeship in pastime which united them. Both were hard workers, and both, we may believe, had the prosperity of the kingdom deeply at heart. Whether the chancellor, who was after all the elder man, was the true originator of the administrative reforms which Henry introduced cannot now be clearly determined. In many matters they saw eye to eye. The king's imperial views and love of splendor were quite to the taste of his minister. When Thomas went to France in 1158 to negotiate a marriage treaty, he traveled with such pomp that the people said: “If this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?”

In 1153 Thomas acted as justice itinerant in three counties. In 1159 he seems to have been the chief organizer of Henry's expedition to Toulouse, upon which he accompanied him, and though it seems to be untrue that the impost of “scutage” was called into existence for that occasion, still Thomas undoubtedly pressed on the exaction of this money contribution in lieu of military service and enforced it against ecclesiastics in such a way that bitter complaints were made of the disproportionately heavy burden this imposed upon the Church. In the military operations Thomas took a leading part, and Garnier, a French chronicler, who lived to write of the virtues of St. Thomas and his martyrdom, declares that in these encounters he saw him unhorse many French nights. Deacon though he was, he lead the most daring attacks in person, and Edward Grim also gives us to understand that in laying waste the enemy's country with fire and sword the chancellor's principles did not materially differ from those of the other commanders of his time. But although, as men then reported, "he put off the archdeacon", in this and other ways, he was very far from assuming the licentious manners of those around him. No word was ever breathed against his personal purity. Foul conduct or foul speech, lying or unchastity were hateful to him, and on occasion he punished them severely. He seems at all times to have had clear principles with regard to the claims of the Church, and even during this period of his chancellorship he more than once risked Henry's grievous displeasure. For example, he opposed the dispensation which Henry for political reasons extorted from the pope, and strove to prevent the marriage of Mary, Abbess of Romsey, to Matthew of Boulogne. But to the very limits of what his conscience permitted, Thomas identified himself with his master's interests, and Tennyson is true to history when he makes the archbishop say:

I served our Theobald well when I was with him:
I served King Henry well as Chancellor:
I am his no more, and I must serve the Church.
Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and in the course of the next year Henry seems to have decided that it would be good policy to prepare the way for further schemes of reform by securing the advancement of his chancellor to the primacy. Our authorities are agreed that from the first Thomas drew back in alarm. "I know your plans for the Church," he said, "you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose." But Henry would not be gainsaid, and Thomas at the instance of Cardinal Henry of Pisa, who urged it upon him as a service to religion, yielded in spite of his misgivings. He was ordained priest on Saturday in Whitweek and consecrated bishop the next day, Sunday, 03 June 1162. It seems to have been St. Thomas who obtained for England the privilege of keeping the feast of the Blessed Trinity on that Sunday, the anniversary of his consecration, and more than a century afterwards this custom was adopted by the papal Court, itself and eventually imposed on the whole world.

A great change took place in the saint's way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practiced secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected. On 10 August he went barefoot to receive the envoy who brought him the pallium from Rome. Contrary to the king's wish he resigned the chancellorship. Whereupon Henry seems to have required him to surrender certain ecclesiastical preferments which he still retained, notably the archdeaconry, and when this was not done at once showed bitter displeasure. Other misunderstandings soon followed. The archbishop, having, as he believed, the king's express permission, set about to reclaim alienated estates belonging to his see, a procedure which again gave offense. Still more serious was the open resistance which he made to the king's proposal that a voluntary offering to the sheriffs should be paid into the royal treasury. As the first recorded instance of any determined opposition to the king's arbitrary will in a matter of taxation, the incident is of much constitutional importance. The saint's protest seems to have been successful, but the relations with the king only grew more strained.

Soon after this the great matter of dispute was reached in the resistance made by Thomas to the king's officials when they attempted to assert jurisdiction over criminous clerks. The saint himself had no wish to be lenient with criminous clerks. It was with him simply a question of principle. St. Thomas seems all along to have suspected Henry of a design to strike at the independence of what the king regarded as a too powerful Church. With this view Henry summoned the bishops at Westminster (01 October 1163) to sanction certain as yet unspecified articles which he called his grandfather's customs (avitæ consuetudines), one of the known objects of which was to bring clerics guilty of crimes under the jurisdiction of the secular courts. The other bishops, as the demand was still in the vague, showed a willingness to submit, though with the condition "saving our order", upon which St. Thomas inflexibly insisted. The king's resentment was thereupon manifested by requiring the archbishop to surrender certain castles he had hitherto retained, and by other acts of unfriendliness. In deference to what he believed to be the pope's wish, the archbishop in December consented to make some concessions by giving a personal and private undertaking to the king to obey his customs "loyally and in good faith". But when Henry shortly afterwards at Clarendon (13 January 1164) sought to draw the saint on to a formal and public acceptance of the "Constitutions of Clarendon", under which name the sixteen articles, the avitæ consuetudines as finally drafted, have been commonly known, St. Thomas, though at first yielding somewhat to the solicitations of the other bishops, in the end took up an attitude of uncompromising resistance.

Then followed a period of unworthy and vindictive persecution. When opposing a claim made against him by John the Marshal, Thomas upon a frivolous pretext was found guilty of contempt of court. For this he was sentenced to pay £500; other demands for large sums of money followed, and finally, though a complete release of all claims against him as chancellor had been given on his becoming archbishop, he was required to render an account of nearly all the moneys which had passed through his hands in his discharge of the office. Eventually a sum of nearly £30,000 was demanded of him. His fellow bishops summoned by Henry to a council at Northampton, implored him to throw himself unreservedly upon the king's mercy, but St. Thomas, instead of yielding, solemnly warned them and threatened them. Then, after celebrating Mass, he took his archiepiscopal cross into his own hand and presented himself thus in the royal council chamber. The king demanded that sentence should be passed upon him, but in the confusion and discussion which ensued the saint with uplifted cross made his way through the mob of angry courtiers. He fled away secretly that night (13 October 1164), sailed in disguise from Sandwich (2 November), and after being cordially welcomed by Louis VII of France, he threw himself at the feet of Pope Alexander III, then at Sens, on 23 November. The pope, who had given a cold reception to certain episcopal envoys sent by Henry, welcomed the saint very kindly, and refused to accept his resignation of his see. On 30 November, Thomas went to take up his residence at the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy, though he was compelled to leave this refuge a year later, as Henry, after confiscating the archbishop's property and banishing all the Becket kinsfolk, threatened to wreak his vengeance on the whole Cistercian Order if they continued to harbor him.

The negotiations between Henry, the pope, and the archbishop dragged on for the next four years without the position being sensibly changed. Although the saint remained firm in his resistance to the principle of the Constitutions of Clarendon, he was willing to make any concessions that could be reasonably asked of him, and on 6 January 1169, when the kings of England and France were in conference at Montmirail, he threw himself at Henry's feet, but as he still refused to accept the obnoxious customs Henry repulsed him. At last in 1170 some sort of reconciliation was patched up. The question of the customs was not mentioned and Henry professed himself willing to be guided by the archbishop's council as to amends due to the See of Canterbury for the recent violation of its rights in the crowning of Henry's son by the Archbishop of York. On 01 December 1170, St. Thomas had brought with him, as well as over the restoration by the de Broc family of the archbishop's castle at Saltwood. How far Henry was directly responsible for the tragedy which soon after occurred on 20 December is not quite clear. Four knights who came from France demanded the absolution of the bishops. St. Thomas would not comply. They left for a space, but came back at Vesper time with a band of armed men. To their angry question, "Where is the traitor?" the saint boldly replied, "Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God." They tried to drag him from the church, but were unable, and in the end they slew him where he stood, scattering his brains on the pavement. His faithful companion, Edward Grim, who bore his cross, was wounded in the struggle.

A tremendous reaction of feeling followed this deed of blood. In an extraordinary brief space of time devotion to the martyred archbishop had spread all through Europe. The pope promulgated the bull of canonization, little more than two years after the martyrdom, 21 February 1173. On 12 July 1174, Henry II did public penance, and was scourged at the archbishop's tomb. An immense number of miracles were worked, and for the rest of the Middle Ages the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury was one of the wealthiest and most famous in Europe. The martyr's holy remains are believed to have been destroyed in September, 1538, when nearly all the other shrines in England were dismantled; but the matter is by no means clear, and, although the weight of learned opinion is adverse, there are still those who believe that a skeleton found in the crypt in January 1888, is the body of St. Thomas. The story that Henry VIII in 1538 summoned the archbishop to stand his trial for high treason, and that when, in June 1538, the trial had been held and the accused pronounced contumacious, the body was ordered to be disinterred and burnt, is probably apocryphal.

Becket, Saint Thomas,

also called Thomas À Becket, or Thomas Of London
born 21 Dec 1118, Cheapside, London
died 29 Dec 1170, Canterbury, Kent, England
canonized 1173; feast day 29 December

chancellor of England (1155-62) and archbishop of Canterbury (1162-70) during the reign of King Henry II. His career was marked by a long quarrel with Henry that ended with Becket's murder in Canterbury cathedral.

Early life and career.

Thomas was born to Norman parents of the merchant class. He was educated first at Merton priory, then in a City of London school, and finally at Paris. Deeply influenced in childhood by a devout mother who died when he was 21, Thomas entered adult life as a city clerk and accountant in the service of the sheriffs. After three years he was introduced by his father to Archbishop Theobald, a former abbot of Bec, of whose household he became a member. His colleagues were a distinguished company that included the political philosopher John of Salisbury, the Roman lawyer Vacarius, and several future bishops, including Roger of Pont l'Évêque, later archbishop of York. Thomas won Theobald's confidence, acted as his agent, and was sent by him to study civil and canon law at Bologna and Auxerre.

His contemporaries described Thomas as a tall and spare figure with dark hair and a pale face that flushed in excitement. His memory was extraordinarily tenacious and, though neither a scholar nor a stylist, he excelled in argument and repartee. He made himself agreeable to all around him, and his biographers attest that he led a chaste life--in this respect uninfluenced by the King.

As chancellor.

In 1154 Theobald, as a reward of his services, appointed Thomas archdeacon of Canterbury, an important and lucrative post, and less than three months later recommended him to Henry as chancellor. Here Thomas showed to the full his brilliant abilities, razing castles, repairing the Tower of London, conducting embassies, and raising and leading troops in war. Trusted completely by the King, Thomas was compared by a biographer to Joseph under Pharaoh. To Henry himself Thomas was a welcome companion and intimate friend, both at court and in the chase, aiding the King in his policy of gathering all power into the hands of the monarchy, even when that policy went against claims of the church. Thomas, older than Henry by 15 years and celibate, may well have felt, at least initially, a quasi-paternal or elder-brother affection, mingled with admiration for Henry's talents and charm. He must also have enjoyed the satisfaction of moving in a rank of society to which he had not been born. Henry's attitude is less easy to identify, but the efficiency and intelligence of Thomas must have recommended him to a king surrounded by uneducated and at times truculent barons.

Whether Becket was fully satisfied with his life as chancellor is another matter. Throughout his life Thomas gave with prodigality and acted with panache. The description of the procession of men, beasts, and carriages laden with objects of luxury that accompanied him as envoy to Paris in 1158 is one of the highlights of William FitzStephen's Life of Thomas Becket. This, and his customary splendor of clothing and furnishings, suited ill with his status as archdeacon. More serious in the eyes of contemporaries was his refusal to surrender his archdeaconry while neglecting its duties, and his extraction of scutage (payment in lieu of military service) at a high rate from ecclesiastical fiefs. Most serious to modern minds is his failure to visit the disapproving and dying Theobald when summoned. In general, there can be no doubt that in public affairs he was the King's man, even when Henry endeavored to reassert what he claimed to be his ancestral rights.

Meanwhile, the great movement known as the Gregorian reform had spread from Italy to France and the Holy Roman Empire and had begun to influence English churchmen. In its program, free elections to clerical posts, inviolability of church property, freedom of appeal to Rome, and clerical immunity from lay tribunals were leading points. Under Henry I and Stephen, the archbishops had stood out for these reforms, sometimes with partial success. Henry II, however, undoubtedly aimed at a complete return to the practice of Henry I, who had strict control over the church. He had begun to press his claims, and his chancellor had aided him. With the death of Theobald in 1161, Henry hoped to appoint Thomas as archbishop and thus complete his program.

As archbishop.

For almost a year after the death of Theobald the see of Canterbury was vacant. Thomas was aware of the King's intention and tried to dissuade him by warnings of what would happen. Henry persisted and Thomas was elected. Once consecrated, Thomas changed both his outlook and his way of life. He became devout and austere and embraced the integral program of the papacy and its canon law. This spectacular change has baffled historians, and several explanations have been attempted: that Thomas was intoxicated by his ambition to dominate or that he threw himself, as before, into a part he had agreed to play. It is simpler to suppose that he accepted at last the spiritual obligations he had ignored as chancellor and turned into a new channel his mingled energy, force of character, impetuosity, and ostentation. Greatly to Henry's displeasure, he immediately resigned the chancellorship but clung to the archdeaconry until forced by the King to resign. Henry had been in Normandy since August 1158, and on his return in January 1163 Thomas began the struggle by opposing a tax proposal and excommunicating a leading baron. More serious was his attitude in the matter of "criminous clerks." In western Europe, accused clerics for long had enjoyed the privilege of standing trial before the bishop rather than secular courts and usually received milder punishments than lay courts would assess. In England before the Conquest this was still the custom. If found guilty in an ecclesiastical court, clerics could be degraded or exiled but were not liable to death or mutilation. For 60 years after the Norman Conquest little is heard of clerical crime or its punishment, while on the Continent, Gregorian reformers were tending to emphasize the sole right of the church to try and punish clerks in major orders. The position of Thomas, that a guilty clerk could be degraded and punished by the bishop but should not be punished again by lay authority--"not twice for the same fault"--was canonically arguable and ultimately prevailed. Henry's contention that clerical crime was rife and that it was encouraged by the absence of drastic penalties commends itself to modern readers as a fair one. But it must be remembered that the King's motives were authoritarian and administrative rather than enlightened. Nevertheless, it may be thought that Thomas was ill-advised in his rigid stand on this point. The issue was joined in a council at Westminster (October 1163), but the crisis came at Clarendon (Wiltshire, January 1164), when the King demanded a global assent to all traditional royal rights, reduced to writing under 16 heads and known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. These asserted the King's right to punish criminous clerks, forbade excommunication of royal officials and appeals to Rome, and gave the King the revenues of vacant sees and the power to influence Episcopal elections. Henry was justified in saying that these rights had been exercised by Henry I, but Thomas also was justified in maintaining that they contravened church law. Thomas, after verbally accepting the constitutions, revoked his assent and appealed to the Pope, then in France, who supported him while deprecating precipitate action.

Quarrel with Henry.

Good relations between Thomas and Henry were now at an end; the Archbishop was summoned to trial by the King on a point of feudal obligation. At the Council of Northampton (06 to 13 Oct 1164), it was clear that Henry intended to ruin and imprison or to force the resignation of the Archbishop. In this he was encouraged by some of the bishops, among them Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London. Thomas fled in disguise and took refuge with Louis VII of France. Pope Alexander III received him with honor but hesitated to act decisively in his favor in fear that he might throw Henry into the arms of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick I and his antipope, Paschal III.

Thomas' exile lasted for six years (02 Nov 1164 to 02 Dec 1170). He was joined by many of his distinguished household and lived ascetically, first at Pontigny Abbey and then, when Henry threatened the monks, at an abbey near Sens. Henry meanwhile had seized the properties of the Archbishop and his supporters and had exiled all Thomas' close relatives. In the following years several abortive attempts were made at reconciliation, but new acts of hostility by the King and declarations of excommunication hurled by Thomas at his opponents embittered the struggles.

The bishops were divided, but a majority of them, led by Foliot, were either hostile to Thomas or hesitant in supporting him. Papal legates more than once endeavored to mediate, and the King and the Archbishop came together at Montmirail in 1169, only to part in anger. Thomas distrusted the King and was, in turn, hated by him. In the same year, Henry put out additions to the Constitutions of Clarendon, virtually withdrawing England from papal obedience. Finally, in 1170, he had his eldest son crowned as co-king by the archbishop of York, Becket's old rival.

This was a flagrant breach of papal prohibition and of the immemorial right of Canterbury to crown the king. Thomas, followed by the Pope, excommunicated all responsible. Henry, fearing an interdict for England, met Thomas at Fréteval (22 July), and it was agreed that Thomas should return to Canterbury and receive back all the possessions of his see. Neither party withdrew from his position regarding the Constitutions of Clarendon, which on this occasion were not mentioned. This "open-ended" concordat has remained an inexplicable event. Thomas returned to Canterbury (December 2) and was received with enthusiasm, but further excommunications of the hostile royal servants, refusal to lift the excommunication of Roger of York and Foliot, as well as his ready acceptance of tumultuous acclaim by the crowds infuriated Henry in Normandy.


Some violent words of Henry were taken literally by four leading knights of the court, who proceeded swiftly to Canterbury (29 December), forced themselves into the Archbishop's presence, and, on his refusal to absolve the bishops, followed him into the cathedral. There, at twilight, after further altercation, they cut him down with their swords. His last words were an acceptance of death in defense of the church of Christ.

Within a few days after Thomas' death, his tomb became a goal of pilgrimage, and he was canonized by Alexander III in 1173. In 1174 Henry did penance at Canterbury and was absolved. For almost four centuries, Becket's shrine was one of the most famous in Europe. Thomas was portrayed in illuminations and sculpture, and churches were dedicated to him throughout western Christendom.

Judgment on the character and actions of St. Thomas has been varied. From his martyrdom until the reign of Henry VIII, he was the "blisful martir" of Chaucer's pilgrims, who had heroically defied a tyrant. Henry VIII despoiled his shrine, burned his bones, and erased his name from all service books. Thenceforth Thomas was a hero to Catholics and a traitor to Protestants.

Many recent historians, impressed by the legal and administrative reforms of Henry II, have seen Thomas as an ambitious and fanatical nuisance. Certainly there is room for debate, for both Thomas and his king were remarkable men with complex characters. If Henry had moral failings and made private and political miscalculations, Thomas can rightly be accused, at various moments of his life, of worldly behavior, ostentation, impetuosity, weakness, and violent language. If Henry was ill-advised in committing his claims to writing at Clarendon and in crowning his son, Thomas was equally ill-advised in needlessly opposing the King in 1163 and in wavering between compliance and intransigence when careful diplomacy might have won out. But his courage and sincerity cannot be doubted, and in the quarrel between church and state he gave his life for what he took to be a vital issue.

A sword's crushing blow extinguished the life of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on a cold December evening as he struggled on the steps of his altar. The brutal event sent a tremor through Medieval Europe. Public opinion of the time and subsequent history have laid the blame for the murder at the feet of Becket's former close personal friend, King Henry II.

Becket was born in 1118, in Normandy the son of an English merchant. His family was well off, his father a former Sheriff of London. Becket benefited from his family's status first by being sent to Paris for his education and from there to England where he joined the household of Theobold, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket's administrative skills, his charm, intelligence and diplomacy propelled him forward. The archbishop sent him to Paris to study law and upon his return to England made him Archdeacon of Canterbury.

Becket's big break came in 1154, when Theobold introduced him to the newly crowned King, Henry II. The two hit it off immediately, their similar personal chemistries forming a strong bond between them. Henry named Becket his Chancellor. Archbishop Theobold died in 1161, and Henry immediately saw the opportunity to increase his influence over the Church by naming his loyal advisor to the highest ecclesiastical post in the land. Henry petitioned the Pope who agreed. There was only one slight hindrance. Becket, busy at court, had never been ordained. No problem, Becket was first invested as a priest. The next day he was ordained a Bishop, and that afternoon, June 2, 1162, made Archbishop of Canterbury.

If King Henry believed that by having "his man" in the top post of the Church, he could easily impose his will upon this powerful religious institution, he was sadly mistaken. Becket's allegiance shifted from the court to the Church inspiring him to take a stand against his king. In those days, the Church reserved the right to try felonious clerics in their own religious courts of justice and not those of the crown. Henry was determined to increase control of his realm by eliminating this custom. In 1163, a Canon accused of murder was acquitted by a church court. The public outcry demanded justice and the Canon was brought before a court of the king. Becket's protest halted this attempt but the action spurred King Henry to change the laws to extend his courts' jurisdiction over the clergy. Becket vacillated in his support of the king, finally refusing to agree to changes in the law. His stand prompted a royal summons to Henry's court at Northampton and the king's demand to know what Becket had done with the large sums of money that had passed through his hands as Chancellor.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Becket fled to France where he remained in exile for six years. The two former friends appeared to resolve their dispute in 1170 when King Henry and Becket met in Normandy. On November 30, Becket crossed the Channel returning to his post at Canterbury. Earlier, while in France, Becket had excomunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for their support of the king. Now, Becket remained steadfast in his refusal to absolve the bishops. This news threw King Henry (still in France) into a rage in which he was purported to shout: "What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest."

The king's exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.

The death of Becket unnerved the king. The knights who did the deed to curry the king's favor, fell into disgrace. Several miracles were said to occur at the tomb of the martyr and he was soon canonized. Hordes of pilgrims transformed Canterbury Cathedral into a shrine. Four years later, in an act of penance, the king donned a sackcloth walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him with branches. Henry capped his atonement by spending the night in the martyr's crypt. St. Thomas continued as a popular cultist figure for the remainder of the Middle Ages.

Observations of a Monk

Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from the safety of a hiding place near the altar. He wrote his account some time after the event. Acceptance of his description must be qualified by the influence that Becket's sainthood had on Grim's perspective. However, the fundamentals of his narrative are no doubt true. We pick up the story after the knights have stormed into the cathedral.

“The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’

“He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’

‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’

‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’

“Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’

“The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’

“Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortalityThe Murder of Becket promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martyr Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

“Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’

“Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

“As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.