Thomas Becket

Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r
An early representation of Thomas Becket from Alan of Tewkesbury’s collection of his letters (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r).

Biography

Thomas Becket was a royal chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in Canterbury cathedral church by four knights from the court of the Anglo-Norman King Henry II (r. 1154–1189). Soon after his death in 1170, he was canonised as a saint. 

Early life and career

The son of a merchant family, Becket was born and raised in London. He attended one of the London grammar schools and spent a year in Paris, though he did not immediately take up a career in the Church. Instead, in 1143 he became a clerk, working for a wealthy London merchant and banker. He then quickly gained employment in the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury (b. c. 1090, d. 1161), who sent him for a year to study law at Bologna and Auxerre and made him an archdeacon. Theobald’s influence also helped advance the young clerk’s career at the royal court and, on the accession of Henry II in 1154, Becket was made chancellor, quickly becoming a close friend to the King. 

Archbishop of Canterbury and quarrels with the King

When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry pushed for Becket to succeed him. On 2 June 1162, Becket was ordained as a priest at Canterbury and then consecrated archbishop the following day. As soon as he took up his new role, the archbishop renounced his other offices, including the royal chancellorship, an act that upset the King. Becket and Henry had a turbulent relationship for the next eight years, as the archbishop devoted himself to extending the rights of the Church, even going into exile in France, much as his predecessor Anselm had done half a century before. 

Their conflict came to a head in 1170, when Henry had his young son crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey, as a means of securing the succession. Becket’s response was to ask the Pope for decrees against the ten English and Norman bishops who had participated in the coronation, announcing their sentences in a sermon he delivered in Canterbury cathedral on Christmas Day. The archbishop’s actions exasperated the King and the royal court. 

Martyrdom 

On 29 December 1170, four knights came to Canterbury from Henry’s court, presumably to pressure Becket to absolve the bishops and swear allegiance to the King. They found him in the cathedral, where he had sought asylum on learning of their arrival. Becket refused the knights’ requests. They tried to arrest him and, when he fought back, killed him. 

There was condemnation of Becket’s murder throughout the kingdom and on the Continent. The four knights were excommunicated and Henry expressed his sorrow at what had happened. Several years later, the King even made a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb. A cult around the archbishop quickly developed at Canterbury, with many believing Becket’s blood possessed the power to heal the sick. Becket was eventually canonised by the Pope in 1173. His shrine at Canterbury was a popular pilgrimage site throughout the medieval period until its destruction during the English Reformation. 

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