Becket, Thomas

Becket, Thomas
(Thomas à Becket)
   Born in London in 1118 on the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Thomas à Becket lived a dramatic life that continues to inspire Christians and artists even in the 21st century. His parents were Norman settlers: His father was Gilbert, a knight turned businessman, and his mother was a pious lady who ingrained her Christian principles into her son’s character. During his early years Becket was educated at Merton priory in Surrey and later at Paris. He returned to London to work as a financial clerk for a relative for three years, but in 1141, having lost both of his parents by the age of 24, Becket went to live at the house of Theobald, the archbishop of Canterbury.
   With his energetic and charming personality, Becket won the regard of his master, and Theobald sent Becket to study law at Bologna and Auxerre. Thus when the position of chancellor opened in 1154, Theobald recommended his favorite student, and in 1155, King HENRY II made Becket chancellor of England. Becket carried out his duties as chancellor with pomp, efficiency, energy, and unequalled quality, providing the young king (12 years his junior) with advice and friendship. After Theobald died in 1161, King Henry, against Becket’s warnings, recommended Thomas as his successor, an appointment Henry assumed would give him an ally and agent in the church who would aid him in fulfilling his endeavor to gain complete control of his kingdom, including power over the church. Although as chancellor Becket had generally proceeded according to the wishes of the king even if they were disagreeable to the church, he knew that if he became archbishop his conscience would force him to act in favor of the church’s rather than the king’s interests, and that therefore a break in his friendship with Henry was inevitable. Becket was reluctantly ordained a priest and then a bishop and was consecrated as archbishop of Canterbury, ultimately relinquishing his office as chancellor.
   After Becket was consecrated he underwent a great deal of change, going from a brazen, irascible, pompous man to an archbishop of austere, devout, and temperate lifestyle, while retaining his brilliance, generosity, and authoritative personality. He began doubling the alms to the poor, personally examining the candidates to the priesthood, regularly visiting the monks in their cloister, and wearing a penitential hair shirt. Thomas protected the church from the changes King Henry wished for it and resisted all royal assaults on religious liberty. By 1163 St. Thomas and Henry had experienced conflicts, and dissension between the two former friends reached its peak in the matter of “criminous clerks.” At a council at Westminster, Henry demanded that the bishops accept all of the ancient customs of the realm. The bishops refused, but Thomas later submitted in privacy. In 1164 King Henry II demanded consent to the Constitutions of Clarendon, a written document outlining the ancient customs, contrary to the law of the church, that Henry wished to reinstate. One of the main ambitions of the Constitutions was to transfer the trials of clerics to secular courts (at the time they could only be tried in church courts). The bishops, including Thomas, submitted, but then the archbishop quickly repented and opposed the king.
   Thomas fled threats of death and imprisonment to France. During this time the king harassed and exiled Thomas’s relatives and allies and the archbishop excommunicated and suspended Henry’s allies. Peace negotiations between the two former friends repeatedly failed, and in 1170, Henry excluded Becket, the one man who could crown kings in England, from his son’s coronation and got the archbishop of York, Becket’s enemy, to perform the ceremony, thus defying the rights of the See of Canterbury. Thomas sent papal letters of suspension to the bishops who had assisted at the ceremony and refused to absolve the bishops unless they swore obedience to the pope. The king realized he must try to restore peace with the archbishop, and a res-olution was reached. Becket returned from France—he was joyful to be back in Canterbury and enthusiastically received; however, he immediately provoked Henry by excommunicating those bishops who supported the king during his own exile. Henry became furious, and when the archbishop of York told the king that while Thomas lived he would never have peace, Henry angrily responded, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four knights heard these words and believed they would gain the king’s favor by getting rid of the archbishop. On December 29, 1170, they murdered Becket in front of the main altar of Canterbury Cathedral after Becket refused to relent to the king, saying,“It is useless to threaten me. . . .You will find my foot set against yours in God’s fight.” Becket’s final words were, “I accept death in the name of Jesus and for the church.” The murder shocked the continent, and soon pilgrims began to flock to his grave, and miracles were attributed to him. King Henry II was excommunicated by the pope, and he suffered much public shame as a result of the murder. Two years later, on February 21, 1173, Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander III, and on July 12, 1174, King Henry did public penance at the Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Becket’s remains were kept in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, the Trinity Chapel, and there his shrine remained one of the most frequently visited pilgrimage sites until Henry VIII, while destroying the Catholic religion in his realm, ordered the destruction of the shrine and demanded that wherever Becket’s name appeared it should be scratched out.
   Becket has been memorialized in all forms of art, particularly literature, and most notably in Policraticus and Metalogicus, philosophical treatises dedicated to Becket by JOHN OF SALISBURY, Becket’s intimate friend and secretary while archbishop of Canterbury; in Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, a modern dramatization of Becket’s murder; and in The CANTERBURY TALES, by Geoffrey CHAUCER, a group of stories that, combined, make up the greatest work of English medieval literature and one of the most influential literary works of all time. The Canterbury Tales, in which a story collection is framed by the larger story of a group of pilgrims from all walks of life who are traveling from London to Canterbury to pay homage at Becket’s shrine, reveals the awe and passion English Christians have continually felt for their martyr, Thomas à Becket.
   ■ Barlow, Frank. Thomas Becket. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
   ■ Butler, John. The Quest for Becket’s Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.
   ■ Duggan, Anne. Thomas Becket: A Textual History of His Letters. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
   ■ Jones, Thomas M., ed. The Becket Controversy. New York:Wiley, 1970.
   ■ Knowles, David. Thomas Becket. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1970.
   ■ Staunton,Michael, trans. The Lives of Thomas Becket. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2001.
   ■ Warren,W. L. Henry II. Berkeley: University of California, 1973.
   Leslie Johnston

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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