Thomas à Becket, Saint

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Thomas à Becket, Saint

Saint Thomas à Becket, or Saint Thomas Becket, 1118–70, English martyr, archbishop of Canterbury, b. London. He is called St. Thomas of Canterbury and occasionally St. Thomas of London.

Early Career and Chancellor

He came from a middle-class Norman family and was well educated, completing his studies at the Univ. of Paris. He entered (c.1142) the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, in whose service he performed several delicate missions. Theobald apparently sent him to Bologna and to Auxerre to study law. In 1154 he was ordained deacon and appointed archdeacon of Canterbury.

In the same year the young Henry II, acting on the advice of Theobald, appointed him chancellor. Theobald and the clerical party expected Becket to represent their interests at court, but the chancellor, who rapidly became an intimate friend of the king, devoted himself largely to secular affairs. He lived in magnificence, took an unclerical part on the battlefield in the Toulouse campaign (1159) and, when a clash of interests arose between church and state, usually supported the king. It is not surprising, therefore, that when Theobald died (1161), Henry, who hoped to curb the growth of church power, nominated his friend to succeed to the archbishopric. Becket himself, foreseeing the conflict that lay ahead, was reluctant to accept, but the king insisted, and, in 1162, Becket was ordained priest and consecrated archbishop of Canterbury.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Apparently determined to be archbishop as conscientiously as he had been chancellor, Becket immediately changed his way of life. He abandoned his worldliness for a life of extreme asceticism, angered the king by resigning the chancellorship, and began to work exclusively for the interests of the church. He soon came into conflict with Henry, and as the tension between the two men mounted, the series of minor disputes developed into a major quarrel.

Matters came to a head over the question of punishing "criminous clerks." At the Council of Westminster (1163), Henry claimed that such clerics, once tried and convicted in the ecclesiastical courts, should be punished by the secular authorities. Becket rejected this claim and also persuaded the other bishops to attach the qualification "saving our order" to their assent to the king's demand that they swear obedience to the (unspecified) "ancient customs" of the realm. Under pressure from the pope, Becket subsequently withdrew this reservation. The following year Henry codified these customs (including his claim concerning the "criminous clerks" ) in the Constitutions of Clarendon (see Clarendon, Constitutions of) and Becket, although he refused to sign them, did give his oral assent.

The Constitutions of Clarendon were, for the most part, an accurate statement of the customs governing relations between church and state in the reign of Henry's grandfather, Henry I. Several of the practices were, however, contrary to canon law, and the pope now refused to approve them. This stiffened Becket's resolution, and he publicly indicated that he had perjured himself at Clarendon. In Oct., 1164, the archbishop was summoned to the Council of Northampton to stand trial for allegedly misappropriating funds while he was chancellor. There in a stormy meeting he openly breached two clauses of the constitutions, by denying the jurisdiction of the council over himself and by appealing to the pope. He fled the country immediately after.

Exile and Death

In exile for the next six years, Becket did not receive the active support from Pope Alexander III for which he had hoped; the pope was too enmeshed in difficulties of his own to alienate the English king further. The quarrel dragged on, and both sides took extreme stands. Finally in 1170 a sort of reconciliation was arranged, but under circumstances that boded ill. In June, 1170, Henry had his eldest son crowned by the archbishop of York, in direct violation of custom and of a papal ban. Becket reacted by threatening, with papal support, to place England under an interdict. Under this threat the king hastily made his peace with his erstwhile friend.

The peace did not last long, however. Before returning to England in Dec., 1170, Becket released papal letters suspending the bishops who had taken part in the coronation. He followed this, after his arrival, by excommunicating them. These actions infuriated the king, who, in his rage, uttered his fateful plea to be rid of the archbishop. Four knights of his household acted on his words. They hurried to Canterbury, where, on Dec. 29, 1170, they murdered Becket in the cathedral itself. Thomas à Becket's death shocked the whole of the Christian world, and his tomb in Canterbury became an immediate shrine. He was canonized in 1173, and in the following year Henry was forced by the weight of public revulsion to do penance at the saint's tomb.

The popularity of the cult of St. Thomas continued through the Middle Ages; Canterbury's preeminence as a place of pilgrimage (immortalized in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) continued until the shrine was destroyed, probably along with the martyr's remains, under Henry VIII in 1538. Feast: Dec. 29.


T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is a poetic dramatization of St. Thomas's martyrdom, and the saint's career is the subject of Jean Anouilh's play Becket. See also J. C. Robertson, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket (7 vol., 1875–85, repr. 1965); biographies and studies by D. Knowles (1951 and 1971), A. L. Duggan (1952, repr. 1966), R. Winston (1967), B. Smalley (1973), and J. Guy (2012); Z. N. Brooke, The English Church and the Papacy from the Conquest to the Reign of John (1931, repr. 1968).

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