Feast Day : December 29
Patronage: Secular clergy in England; officials; Portsmouth, England
Also known as: Thomas Becket; Thomas of Canterbury
Thomas Becket, the most revered English saint, was born in London to middle-class Norman parents. As a young boy he studied with the canons regular at Merton priory in Surrey. At age 24, he accepted a post in the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, who was quite taken with the young man. Thomas received minor orders under the archbishop’s tutelage, and the archbishop sent him to study law in Bologna and Auxerre. Theobald also provided Thomas with several church benefices for his support. In 1154, Thomas was ordained a deacon, then appointed archdeacon of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical position in England after the bishops and abbots. On Theobald’s urging, King Henry II Plantagenet named Thomas as chancellor in 1155, a post equaled only by the justiciar and ranking second only to the king. Thomas was 36 years old; Henry was 22, married for three years and king for one. They became great friends and fellow carousers; one account described their merrymaking as “frolicsome.” Thomas lived more grandly than his liege, owning palaces, giving banquets, wearing fine clothing and employing hundreds. In 1159, Thomas served as one of Henry’s generals on a campaign to Toulouse to recover Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s property, engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Henry and Thomas were inseparable. Archbishop Theobald died in 1161 while Thomas and Henry were at court in Normandy. Henry, eager to assert his secular authority, proposed that his friend Thomas assume the see. But Thomas, realizing the potential for church-state conflict, declined, remarking that if he were archbishop many of the king’s policies would put them at odds, jeopardizing their friendship. Henry scoffed at Thomas’s objections and pressed his chancellor to accept, but Thomas refused. Finally Cardinal Henry of Pisa, papal legate, convinced Thomas to accept the post, and the election was made in May 1162. As Thomas was not even a priest, he was first ordained by Walter, bishop of Rochester, and consecrated by Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, before receiving the official pallium from Pope Alexander III. Relations between Thomas and Henry remained good for a few months, but by the end of 1162 Thomas was a changed man. He took his responsibilities on behalf of the Church as seriously as he had those of the king. Thomas no longer wore fine robes but instead donned a hair shirt crawling with vermin under a simple black cassock. He read Scripture continuously and performed self-flagellation. He ate sparingly, took a personal interest in the household, gave away much of his fortune, and frequently celebrated Mass at the cathedral. Tensions mounted, and in October 1163 Henry convened a meeting of the bishops at Westminster to demand that the “criminous clerks”—clergy convicted of civil crimes—be handed over to the king’s authorities and not judged solely by the Church. Henry had long believed Church courts were far too lenient. The bishops were prepared to acquiesce, but Thomas saw such efforts as an affront to Church jurisdiction. Then King Henry demanded the bishops promise to observe unspecified royal customs. Thomas agreed conditionally as long as the customs didn’t infringe on the Church. Insulted, King Henry demanded Thomas renounce certain castles and honors he had held since his chancellorship. Thomas refused, and the conflict came to a head at the Council of Clarendon, near Salisbury, in early 1164. Although Thomas initially tried to be conciliatory and accept some of the so-called Constitutions of Clarendon, he angrily rejected the entire document when he read the king’s proposed customs: No prelate could leave the kingdom without royal permission nor appeal to Rome without the king’s consent; no tenantin- chief could be excommunicated against royal will; custody of empty Church benefices—and, most important, their revenues—were to be held by the king; and most critical, clerics convicted and sentenced in ecclesiastical courts could be at the disposition of royal authorities, leading to double punishment. Thomas was filled with remorse at the thought that he considered accepting such an attack on church jurisdiction and refused to perform Mass for over 40 days. Henry saw Thomas’s intransigence as disloyalty and betrayal. Henry sued Thomas for 30,000 marks then refused to speak to him. In October 1164 Henry summoned the bishops and barons to a council at Northampton, which deteriorated into antagonism toward the archbishop. On October 13, without wearing his mitre or pallium, but carrying his metropolitan’s cross of office, Thomas went to the council hall after celebrating a Mass for St. Stephen. He was kept waiting for quite a while; finally, the earl of Leicester came out and demanded that Thomas render his accounts or suffer the king’s judgment. Thomas indignantly replied that he had received the see of Canterbury without temporal obligation and was not liable for any judgment from the king. He, the archbishop, would answer only to the pope and God. Thomas fled Northampton that night and arrived in Flanders three weeks later. King Louis VII of France welcomed Thomas in exile. Meeting Pope Alexander III at Sens, Thomas tried to resign his office, but the pope refused, instead sending him to the Cistercian monastery at Pontigny. Thomas lived there as a simple monk; Henry, meanwhile, confiscated the goods of anyone connected to Thomas and suggested they travel to Pontigny to plead their case. Negotiations among King Henry, Pope Alexander and Thomas dragged on for six years. King Louis VII tried to arrange a reconciliation at least 10 times. By 1169 Thomas had excommunicated some of his adversaries and was preparing a sentence of interdict on England. Still, in July 1170, Henry and Thomas unexpectedly met in Normandy and briefly reconciled without settling anything. On December 1, 1170, Thomas landed in England and made a triumphal return to Canterbury. But the archbishop did not come in peace. Thomas was furious that during his exile King Henry’s oldest son, Henry, had been crowned the heir-apparent by the archbishop of York, Roger de Pont-l’ Eveque, assisted by the bishops of London and Salisbury. By Church tradition, coronations could be performed only by the archbishop of Canterbury. So before returning to Canterbury, Thomas had already excommunicated the bishops and suspended the archbishop. The three clerics went to Normandy to plead their case at court, and someone said there would be no peace as long as Becket lived. In a rage, King Henry reportedly asked if no one could rid his kingdom of the “pestilent clerk,” and four knights left for England to answer the king’s “order”: Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton. The knights arrived during the afternoon of December 29 and demanded that Thomas remove the bishops’ censures. Thomas refused, and the four left while threatening his life. Shouting and breaking of doors was heard moments later as Thomas slowly walked to the church, holding his cross before him. As Thomas entered the cloister of the church, armed men were seen in the dim light. The frightened monks bolted the doors in confusion, but Thomas opened them. Only three clerics accompanied Thomas as he walked toward the front, and finally only Edward Grim remained. According to Grim’s first-person account, the knights were joined by a subdeacon, Hugh of Horsea. The five angrily called for the traitor Thomas. Thomas identified himself and came down to stand between the altars of Our Lady and St. Benedict. After again demanding the removal of the bishops’ censures, Fitzurse grabbed the archbishop’s robe and tried to pull him from the altars, threatening him with an axe. Thomas wrenched free and courageously demanded submission from the knights. Fitzurse dropped the axe and struck Thomas with his sword. Then Tracy swung his sword, nearly severing Grim’s arm. Tracy struck again, knocking Thomas to his knees, and Thomas commended his soul to God. Le Breton sliced off Thomas’ scalp, coming down so hard on the stones that he broke his sword, and then the subdeacon Hugh of Horsea stepped on Thomas’ neck and scattered his brains on the floor. The knights fled while Thomas’s body remained on the floor. Although King Henry may not have been legally responsible for Thomas’s death, outrage throughout Christendom required that the most powerful king in Europe humble himself. King Henry performed a public penance in July 1174 and received absolution. Pope Alexander III canonized Thomas in 1173, and reports of miracles at his tomb appeared almost immediately. In July 1220, Thomas’s body was transferred to a shrine behind the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral, where it became one of the most popular medieval pilgrimage sites. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims were going there in The Canterbury Tales. The shrine was destroyed in September 1538 by King Henry VIII, who appropriated the jewels, exhumed Becket’s bones and allegedly burned them, condemning the saint for daring to oppose his king.