Despite holding the title way back in the 12th Century, Thomas Becket is probably the most famous Archbishop of Canterbury to date. But who is this man, now recognised as a saint, and why do pilgrims still flock to Canterbury Cathedral to pay homage to him?
Thomas Becket was born in London in approximately 1118 to Gilbert Becket and his wife Matilda. Both of Becket’s parents were of Norman ancestry. Gilbert Becket was a textile merchant and property owner who was also the Sheriff of London for a period of his life. Educated at Merton Priory in Surrey and later at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Becket the younger had a rather basic education and never studied civil or canon law. Towards the end of Becket’s schooling, his Father Gilbert suffered a reversal in fortunes and the young Thomas was sent out as a clerk. Fortunately for him he received great patronage from his employer Theobald of Bec, who as well as being a relative of the Beckets was also the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Theobald, much pleased with Thomas’s work, sent him on several important journeys to Rome and France. Whilst in France Thomas started to study cannon law and was later given the title of Archdeacon of Canterbury by Theobald. Thomas had a reputation for being incredibly efficient and reliable and Theobald had no qualms in recommending him to King Henry II as capable of filling the vacant position of Lord Chancellor. Thomas was approximately 37 when he was officially appointed to this high office by the King. It is believed that Thomas and Henry got along famously, both being of similar temperament and tastes. Thomas loved to attend royal parties and it is said that he even rivalled the King in his style of living during his Chancellorship.
Just seven years later, following the death of Theobald of Bec, Henry II nominated Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry wanted to increase the reach of his rule in church and thought that Becket would be ‘his man’ on the inside. Henry could not foresee that with this change of office would come a change of Becket’s allegiance. The once pleasure loving cleric adopted a radical ascetic lifestyle almost overnight and now spurned worldly and sensual pursuits. Becket took the part of the church against Henry and thus began a quarrel that would eventually be his downfall. Whilst there were several disputes between Becket and the King, many of them to do with lands and taxation in regards to the church, in the main the conflict centred on the rights of the church to try clergy of secular crimes. Henry wanted the power to execute justice over priests who transgressed but Becket strongly believed that this should fall to the church alone. In 1664 the King forced through the ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’, 16 articles which attempted to restrict the power of Church courts and the influence of the Pope in England. After coming under immense pressure from the King, all members of the higher clergy signed the constitution document; all that is except Becket. Eventually Becket was forced to agree in principle to the constitution but he never actually put pen to paper to sign the document.
Expecting further trouble, Becket fled to France and sought refuge with England’s enemy, King Louis VII much to the chagrin of King Henry. Becket remained in exile at the French court for 6 years. He returned to England in late 1170 following the Coronation of Henry II’s son, Henry the Young King. The Connotation service was a privilege afforded to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Becket excommunicated the Archbishop of York and two other ministers who had performed the service without him. Hearing of Beckets behaviour towards the Bishop of York, the King is said to have uttered the following fateful words: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Four of the King’s knights took this exclamation as an order and set out on a bloody mission towards Canterbury. On arrival at the Cathedral they laid their weapons down outside and went in unarmed to challenge Becket. Finding him inside they insisted he go to Winchester to give an account of his conduct but he staunchly refused. The Knights rushed back outside for their swords and returned to Becket just as he reached the Alter. Edward Grim, an eye witness of the attack will tell us what happened next… “The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more”.
The brutal assassination of Becket horrified Christian Europe and led to the once unpopular Archbishop being labelled a martyr by his church colleagues. King Henry, who it is said knew nought of the mission, was likewise horrified and later paid penance for the sacrilegious murder of his old friend and enemy. He walked barefoot to Canterbury Cathedral where a shrine to Becket had been erected, kissed the alter where the priest was slain and submitted to being flogged by local monks. Meanwhile the murderers fled to the North Country with the plan of crossing the border into Scotland. However the Scots did not welcome them and the threat of hanging drove them back to England where they gave themselves up to the King. The King refused to help them and so they journeyed to Rome to seek forgiveness from the Pope. The Pope, who had already excommunicated the renegade Knights, ordered them to make amends by serving as Knights in the Holy Lands for 14 years.The Monks of Canterbury buried Becket’s remains under the floor of the eastern crypt of the Cathedral. Pilgrims started to flock in, wanting to see the site of the murder and kiss the tomb of the now canonised Archbishop.
Sign up to receive the latest information on World Walks