St. Thomas Becket, Martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, born at London, 21 December, 1118; died at Canterbury, 29 December, 1170.
Thomas à Becket, was born on December 21, 1118, the son of Gilbert à Becket, an English merchant and at one time Sheriff of London, and a French Mother, Matilda of Caen in Normandy. He was educated at Merton Priory in Surrey and was later sent to Paris to study.
After five years in Paris, Thomas returned to England where he joined the staff of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald. However, he did not remain in England for long and the Archbishop sent him abroad again to study law.
Following his return to England, Thomas was made Archdeacon of Canterbury because of his skills at administration. After the death of King Stephen in 1154, it was Archbishop Theobald who recommended Thomas to the new King, Henry II (formerly Henry of Anjou) as Chancellor which was quite an increase in status.
It is, of course, highly likely that Theobald was ensuring that he had a Church representative as close to the Throne as possible. Apparently, the two men, Henry and Thomas, took an instant liking to each other and this could well have been based on the fact that they were both forthright and hot tempered.
Archbishop Theobald died in 1161 and at that time, the King was the person to choose the successor. The decision took some time but Henry made up his mind that his friend, Thomas, would become the new Archbishop.
As Thomas had been acting as Chancellor he had not risen in the Church as he might have and did not hold a particularly high ‘rank’. Because of this, in 1162, on June 2nd he was firstly ordained as a priest and then ordained as a Bishop on the following morning. He was then made Archbishop later on the same day. The die, as it is said, was cast.
It was probable that Henry believed that with his friend in the highest office in the Church in England there would be an easy alliance between Church and State. However, when Henry amended laws to place the State in a position to take charge of cases involving the clergy, the trouble started.
Thomas originally agreed to the changes but subsequently changed his mind and did penance to show that he had been wrong in his original decision. This act, in those days, was considered a considerable ‘slap in the face’ for Henry.
As a result, Henry called Becket to Northampton and asked him to account for sums of money that had passed through his hands while he was chancellor and then later as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The conflict caused by these accusations was extreme and Thomas, already well liked by the general populace, was helped in October, 1164, to flee England for France.
Thomas remained in exile in France for six years, with the support of the King of France, first at Pontigny and then at Sens. In 1169, while still in France, he excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury who had stood against him and supported the King. In 1170, while Henry was in France himself, Thomas returned to England and landed at the Port of Sandwich. He was cheered by the local people from the time he landed to his arrival back in Canterbury.
Meanwhile, back in France, the most ardent opponent of Thomas, who was Archbishop Roger of York had the ear of the King. Archbishop Roger, who, as Archbishop of York, would have been number two in the hierarchy of the Church in England, suggested to Henry that, ‘while Thomas lives, you will have neither quiet times nor a tranquil kingdom’. This threw Henry into one of his rages and is supposed to have exclaimed one of the following:
“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest“
“Who will rid me of this lowborn priest”
or, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest”
The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
Whichever words he used, they were overheard by four of his knights who decided that they could gain great favour by dealing with the problem and left immediately for England.
The knights were; Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse, and William de Tracy. They made for Canterbury and arrived there in the late afternoon of December 29th, 1170 at the entrance that stood at that time, half way down Palace Street.
The knights arrival and their cries frightened the Monks and they persuaded Thomas to flee from his residence towards the Cathedral where they felt that he would be safe. They fled across what is now Green Court, down into the Dark Entry, turned left into the Cloisters and entered The Cathedral through the North West Transept.
The service of Vespers was in progress when the knights burst into the Cathedral after following The Archbishop and the monks from the gates in Palace Street. Thomas shook off the Monks, now in a rage himself, and returned to the transept to face the four knights.
The knights initially just grabbed at Thomas but he pushed them away and actually knocked FitzUrse to the floor. At this point, FitzUrse, who had been called ‘a pimp’ by Thomas in this shoving match drew his sword and threatened The Archbishop.
De Tracey also drew his sword and called out, “strike! strike!” to the others and delivered the first blow. It took three more wounds before Thomas went down but then Brito delivered an almighty blow which actually severed the top of the cranium, spilling the brains of the priest on the floor. The tip of the sword came off with the strength of the impact.
It is said that there was a great storm within an hour of the death of the Archbishop and people flocked to the Cathedral to mourn for him. Three days after this there began a series of miracles which are depicted in ‘the miracle windows’ and were attributed to Thomas. In 1173, the Archbishop was canonized by Pope Alexander III.
On July 12, 1174 Henry II came to Canterbury to perform penance at the tomb of the Saint, probably more as a result of public pressure than anything else but it would be nice to thing that he was saddened by his part in the tragedy. It is said that he put on sack-cloth and ashes at Harbledown and walked barefoot into the City where he was beaten with birch twigs by eighty monks. He then did penance at the tomb of the martyr in the crypt, remaining there for the night and leaving the next morning.
Immediately after the murder the body of the Archbishop was prepared for burial and laid in state before the high altar before being taken into the East end of crypt where it was hastily buried behind the altar of the Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft.
The remains of the Saint were kept in this location from 1170 to 1220 when they were moved to a new location in the Shrine which had been constructed in the Trinity Chapel. The Shrine was eventually destroyed by “Our ‘Enery” (Henry VIII) in 1538.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Thomas Becket (1118 – 1170)" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/thomas-becket/, March 3, 2022