Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr

Archbishop, Canterbury Cathedral

Adapted fr. E. Livingstone, Oxford Dict. of the Christ. Church, (2nd ed.)


THOMAS BECKET (c. 1120-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr.

A SON of Normans who had settled in London, Thomas was educated at Merton Priory (Surrey), at a school in London, and in Paris, where Robert of Melun may have been among his teachers; but he was never a great scholar. By 1146 he was a member of the household of Theobald, Abp. of Canterbury, who sent him to study law at Bologna and Auxerre and, after ordaining him deacon, appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In 1155 Henry II made him his Chancellor, and his influence was enhanced by an intimate friendship with the King. He liked hunting and the display of pomp, and during a military expedition to France took a personal part in the fighting. His policy as Chancellor was generally in harmony with the wishes of the King, often against the interests of the Church; and when, in 1162, he was elected Archbishop of Canterbury at the instigation of the King, he accepted the office with reluctance, knowing a break to be inevitable.

FROM now on Becket championed his own rights and those of his archbishopric and of the Church with surprising determination. He resigned the chancellorship, and disputes with the King, crucially over how criminous clerks should be tried and punished, led Henry in 1163 to require the bishops to sanction the ‘ancient customs of the kingdom’. When a code of these customs, the ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’, was promulgated in 1164, Becket was forced to submit, an act of which he soon repented. Henry, therefore, began to persecute him because of his ‘ingratitude’, required him to account for money he had received when Chancellor, and charged him with breaking his promise to observe the Constitutions. His trial and condemnation in the royal court at Northampton in October led him to flee to France and appeal for justice to Alexander III, then at Sens.

DURING the following negotiations between the Pope, Henry, and the Archbishop, Thomas stayed at first at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy, and when the King threatened to expel all Cistercians from his dominions (1166), he moved to the Benedictine abbey of Ste-Colombe at Sens, which was under the special protection of the French King. After he had issued sentences of excommunication against some bishops and royal servants in 1166 and 1169, he made peace unexpectedly with Henry at Fréteval in July 1170. The King promised to make amends for the coronation of his son by the Abp. of York (Roger of Pont-l’Évêque), a flagrant infringement of the prerogatives of Canterbury, while Thomas sent Papal letters of suspension to the bishops who had assisted at the ceremony.

BECKET crossed to England on 30 Nov., where he was received with popular enthusiasm. He refused, however, to absolve the bishops, unless they would swear to accept penalties which the Pope would impose. Henry, naturally furious, uttered some words in a fit of rage which were enough to inspire four knights (Hugh de Morville, William do Tracy, Reginald Fitz-Urse, Richard le Breton) to make their way to Canterbury in revenge. Becket was assassinated in his cathedral in the late afternoon of 29 Dec. 1170.

THE murder provoked great indignation throughout Europe. Miracles were soon recorded at Becket’s tomb and a widespread cult developed. On 21 Feb. 1173 he was canonized by Alexander III and on 12 July 1174 Henry did public penance at the shrine. Becket’s remains were translated to their place in the choir (the ‘Trinity Chapel’) in 1220 and until the destruction of the shrine under Henry VIII (1538) it remained one of the principal pilgrimage centres of Christendom. Feast day, 29 Dec.; of his translation, 7 July.


Correspondence ed., with Eng. tr., by A. J. Duggan (2 vols., Oxford Medieval Texts, 2000); id., Thomas Becket: A Textual History of his Letters (Oxford, 1980). J. C. Robertson and J. B. Sheppard, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket (RS, 7 vols., 1875–85); The Life and Death of Thomas Becketbased on the account of William fitzStephen his clerk, with additions from other contemporary sources, tr. and ed. G. Greenaway (Folio Society, 1961); M. Staunton (ed.), The Lives of Thomas Becket [Eng. tr. of selected sources] (Manchester, 2001).

F. Barlow, Thomas Becket [1986]. Earlier works include W. H. Hutton, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1910; rev. edn., 1926); E. Walberg, La Tradition hagiographique de Saint Thomas Becket avant la fin du XIIe siècle: Études critiques (1929); R. Foreville, L’Église et la royauté en Angleterre sous Henri II Plantagenet, 1154–1189 (1943); id., Le Jubilé de Saint Thomas Becket du XIIIe au XVe siècle (1220–1470): Étude et documents (1958); [M.] D. Knowles, Thomas Becket (1970), and other works of this author; B. Smalley, The Becket Conflict and the Schools (Oxford, 1973), esp. pp. 109–37. Thomas Becket: Actes du Colloque International de Sédières, 19–24 Août 1973, ed. R. Foreville (1975). Dramatic interpretation in T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1935). M. D. Knowles in NCE 2 (1967), pp. 212–14, s.v.

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