Born in London of a wealthy Norman family, Thomas was educated at Merton Abbey and at Paris. He was a financial clerk for a while and then joined the curia of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, notable for the quality of its personnel and the skill of their legal expertise. He was sent to study law at Bologna and Auxerre; after being ordained deacon, he became archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In this position he was notably successful and was used by Theobald as a negotiator with the Crown. When Henry II succeeded to the throne of England in 1154, he chose Thomas, at Theobald’s suggestion, as Chancellor of England in 1155. Thomas’ close friendship with the young king, his employment on embassies, and on military expeditions in which he actually led his troops in battle, apparently presaged a brilliant future in the political sphere. His personal efficiency, lavish entertainment and support for the king’s interests even, on occasion, against those of the Church, made him a quite outstanding royal official.
In 1162, Henry, expecting the same relationship to continue, obtained his election as Archbishop of Canterbury. But from this time Thomas deliberately adopted an austere way of life and immediately, to the king’s annoyance, resigned the chancellorship. However, the hairshirt, discipline, vigils, and maundies which he adopted did not end his previous magnificence or determination. In character he was sensitive and intransigent, ready in speech and thorough in action.
Now that he was archbishop, through no choice of his own, Thomas was determined to carry through, at whatever cost, what he saw as the proper duties of his state. These included the paternal care of the soul of the king, tactlessly presented by his friend of yesterday in a way which caused considerable annoyance. Thomas also opposed Henry in matters of taxation, on the claims of secular courts to punish ecclesiastics for offences already dealt with by church courts, and most important, on freedom to appeal to Rome. A long and bitter struggle ensued, and neither king nor archbishop would give way. At a council in Northampton Thomas, nearly alone, withstood royal claims of money owing the king from the days of Becket’s chancellorship and appealed to the pope. He then escaped to France.
His exile lasted over six years, during which time he lived first in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny and later at Sens. Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, who tried hard to find an acceptable solution. But the dispute grew in bitterness. Henry was bent on Becket’s ruin, while the archbishop used ecclesiastical censures against the king’s supporters among the higher clergy and even attempted to obtain an interdict of England. Thomas came to believe that deeper issues of principle were at stake in the dispute: the claims of Church and State, ultimately of God and Caesar.
Although peace was eventually patched up in 1170 and Thomas returned to his diocese, the reconciliation was superficial. In defiance of the rights of Canterbury, Prince Henry had been crowned, and Becket answered by excommunicating the bishops most concerned. In a rage Henry asked his courtiers who would rid him of “this turbulent priest”. Four barons took the king at his word. After an altercation with Becket, they murdered him in his own cathedral. Although he had not always lived like a saint, he died like one, commending his cause to God and his saints, accepting death “for the name of Jesus and for the Church”.
The news of his death shocked Christendom. Miracles were soon reported at his tomb, his faults were forgotten, and he was hailed as a martyr for the cause of Christ and the liberty of the Church. He was canonized in 1173, and his relics were translated in 1220. Representations of his martyrdom rapidly appeared all over Europe: early examples survive not only from France and Germany, but also from Iceland, Sicily, and even Armenia. At Canterbury Thomas more or less replaced the following of earlier local saints by the popularity of the pilgrimage, which soon became one of the most important in Europe. The Pilgrims’ Way, from London or Winchester to Canterbury, can still be traced. The stained glass windows that depict it at Canterbury are a rich source for many details of medieval life, and Chaucer immortalized its practice and its personnel in the Canterbury Tales. The great 16th century Catholic humanist Erasmus later attacked several elements of the cult and Henry VIII destroyed the shrine, ordering all mention of his name in liturgical books to be erased.
In recent years his commemoration has been restored to the sanctoral calendars of Anglican Churches.
- Adapted from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God, our strength and our salvation, you called your servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of your people and a defender of your Church: Keep your household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Thomas Becket, Archbishop and Martyr, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The Becket Panel of Wymondham Abbey, seen in an image supra, “depicts Saint Thomas Becket and eight scenes from his life [from his archiepiscopal consecration to his martyrdom]. It was painted by Father David Hunter, a former chaplain at Wymondham Abbey, and was given by him to the parishioners of Wymondham Abbey in thanksgiving for 900 years of Christian witness here in this place”. The panel and its individual scenes, with descriptions, may be viewed at the Wymondham Abbey website.