The Unmaking of a Saint: Thomas Becket and the English Reformation

By Scully, Robert E. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Unmaking of a Saint: Thomas Becket and the English Reformation


Scully, Robert E., The Catholic Historical Review


The long and complex relationship between Church and State in Western Christendom-both creative and destructive-is particularly well illustrated by examining the history of England, especially the relations between various English monarchs and the Church. More specifically, by focusing on the rise, the importance, and, especially, the fall of the cult of St. Thomas Becket from the twelfth century through the sixteenth century, we can gain some valuable insights into the complex series of events known as the English Reformation.1

From the late eleventh century onward, a process of centralization was underway in both Church and State. The Norman Conquest (1066) greatly accelerated this process of state building by the Anglo-Norman kings, and this same era witnessed the rising power and influence of the Papacy. In fact, it has been argued that papal influence in England was generally at its peak in the century and a half from the Conquest to the death of King John (1216).2 Yet, it was during the reign of John's father, Henry II,3 that some of the most dramatic Church-State conflicts occurred.

Ironically, Henry assumed the English crown in the same year11 54-as Nicholas Breakspear ascended the papal throne as Hadrian IV, the only English pope in history. It was, arguably, more than just a desire to extend church reforms throughout Europe that induced Hadrian to bestow upon Henry II the overlordship of Ireland.4 In the same period, Henry appointed his good friend, Thomas Becket, as Chancellor of England. Becket, in general, proved to be a staunch royalist, and it was during this period that the cause for the canonization of Edward the Confessor was brought to a successful completion.5 The new pope, Alexander III (1159-1181), desired to regularize the canonization process and bring it under papal control. Thus, in 1161 the pious English king, Edward the Confessor, was declared to be a saint, the first English saint to be formally canonized by a pope.6

In that same year the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, died and the way was open for Henry to appoint his own man, Thomas Becket, as primate of the English Church. For his part, Thomas, evidently perceiving not just the opportunities but the potential perils of such a step, was somewhat reluctant to accept this exalted position. But in the end he accepted and was consecrated at Canterbury Cathedral in June, 1162.7

After assuming the office of Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket began to change; the prelate's devotion to God and the Church became even more consuming than the chancellor's devotion to the king and the State.8 Becket decided that he could no longer serve two masters and, therefore, he resigned the chancellorship, to the king's great regret. The conflict heated up considerably in 1164 when Henry issued "The Constitutions of Clarendon," which were said to contain "recognized customs and rights of the kingdom."9 Among the sixteen articles were stipulations which: prevented clerics accused of crimes from circumventing the royal courts; prohibited clergy from leaving England without the king's permission; and banned ecclesiastical appeals to the papal court "without the assent of the lord king."10 Although Henry was within his rights on strictly historical grounds, Becket argued that custom had to give way when it conflicted with canon law and Holy Scripture." Although Becket had given way in the short run, he could not ultimately support the royal decrees because they, in effect, viewed the king as "the real head and master of the English church."12

Relations between the king and the archbishop continued to deteriorate and in November, 1164, Becket fled England and spent six years in exile. Although Alexander III supported Becket with regard to the rights and independence of the Church, the pope was somewhat embarrassed by the archbishop's undiplomatic zeal and the danger of a schism in the Church.13 Henry and Thomas finally achieved a partial reconciliation in 1170, but deeply rooted personal and ideological differences remained.

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