Thomas a Becket


Thomas Becket is best known as a defender of papal authority in England, who defied King Henry II and paid the price of martyrdom. He was highly revered in England throughout the middle ages, and the famous work by Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, occurs as a group of pilgrims travel together across England to visit his tomb. The striking thing about Becket's character, which made him a popular hero, was that he was appointed to the position of Archbishop by Henry II, specifically so he could be "his man". Becket had already served Henry II with great distinction as Chancellor, and Henry believed that he would still control him as Archbishop, but instead, Becket became a genuinely devout ascetic, a dedicated bishop, and served the church instead of the king, to the point of martyrdom.

Thomas Becket was born into a Norman commoner family, which had taken up residence in England. He showed talent at a young age, received an excellent education, and as a young man was taken into the service of Theobald, a Norman Archbishop who had been appointed by King Stephen and served during the years of anarchy that preceded the reign of Henry II. By the time Henry came to the throne, Becket had accomplished a great deal, and Theobald recommended him as Chancellor. As Chancellor Becket gained Henry's entire trust, not only as an able administrator who enforced the kings dictates (even in opposition to the church), but as a friend and companion who joined the king in his leisure.

With the death of Theobald, Henry sought to make Becket Archbishop, and although Becket warned that him that his allegiance would change as Archbishop, he followed through with the appointment. The main conflict that arose between Henry II and Becket had to do with the jurisdiction of the secular and church courts. Henry II was dedicated to legal reform, and had already made important improvement in how laws and courts were administered in his realm, and sought to make this reformed system over-ride the church courts. While recognizing and approving of his reforms, the church hesitated to surrender its prerogatives, because of the obvious possibility that secular law could be abused to the detriment of the church (as they were in fact, 400 years later, by Henry VIII). In spite of the fact that both positions were reasonable, and over time, a compromise may have been reached, Henry was personally enraged at Becket's defiance of him, and within a short time Becket was driven into exile.

It was a full six years before Becket returned to England, and shortly afterward some of the king's men, believing they were acting the interests of the king, killed Becket, and the murder was accomplished inside Canterbury Cathedral itself. This act outraged the faithful, and Becket was canonized only three years after his death. Henry expressed extreme regret for the incident, denied foreknowledge, and did public penance. Becket's tomb became a popular shrine until it was destroyed by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Key events during the life of Saint Thomas Becket:

Thomas a Becket is born of humble birth.
Enters service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Death of Stephen, accession of Henry Plantagenet.
Ordained as a deacon. Installed as a Chancellor.
Travels with Henry II on state visit to France.
Death of Theobald; Becket becomes Archbishop.
Henry II and Becket disagree about clerical privilege
Driven into exile in Europe.
Reconciliation between Henry II and Thomas a Becket.
Thomas murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.
Becket canonized as a saint

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Thomas Becket, The Chancellor  in  Stories from English History  by  Alfred J. Church
Henry II., the First Plantagenet King  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding
Becket, 1118-1170  in  Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages  by  George Hodges
Story of Thomas a Becket  in  Tales from Canterbury Cathedral  by  Mrs. Frewen Lord
Henry Plantagenet—Thomas a Becket  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Thomas Becket  in  Great Englishmen  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

Becket made Archbishop
 in Stories from English History

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
 in  The Story of the English

The murdered Archbishop
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

Thomas a Becket
 in Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages

Short Biography
Henry II Reclaimed kingdoms in England and Normandy after chaotic reign of Stephen. Founded Plantagenet dynasty.
Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury who proceeded St. Thomas a Becket. Introduced critical law reforms.