Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who had a troubled relationship with King Henry II of England which ultimately led to him being murdered by knights of the emperor. Here are 10 interesting facts about the life and death of Saint Thomas Becket.

 

#1 He was born on the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle

Thomas Becket Depiction
A depiction of Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in 1118 or 1120. He was born on December 21, which was the feast day of St Thomas, the Apostle. Thomas was the son of a prosperous merchant Gilbert Becket and his wife Matilda. He was educated first at Merton priory, then in a City of London school, and finally at Paris. When he was 24, his father secured a position for Thomas in the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

#2 Becket served as Chancellor to King Henry II

In 1154, Theobald appointed Thomas Becket as Archdeacon of Canterbury, a senior clergy position. The post of Lord Chancellor was vacant and Theobald recommended Becket to King Henry II. In January 1155, Thomas Becket was made Chancellor, the most important position in England after the king. He proved to be an able aide to Henry and helped in gathering power for the monarchy even when it was against the interests of the church.

#3 He became a close friend of King Henry II when he was his chancellor

King Henry II portrait
A portrait of King Henry II

Thomas Becket was a trusted and close friend of King Henry II. Among other things they hunted and socialized together. Such was the trust Becket had gained that when Henry went to sort out problems in France he left Becket in charge of England. It was a custom for noble children to be fostered in other noble houses and Henry chose Becket’s household for his son Henry to live in.

#4 Thomas Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162

Theobald of Bec died in 1161 leaving vacant the post of Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important position in the church in Medieval England. Henry sensed this as an opportunity to assert royal supremacy over the English Church by appointing Becket as the next archbishop. Becket didn’t want this and he even warned Henry that their friendship would be ruined. However Henry persisted and Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.

 

#5 He was famously transformed after becoming archbishop

After becoming archbishop, Thomas Becket went through a drastic transformation and changed his entire lifestyle. Before he had lived ostentatiously but now he became an ascetic. He became devout and austere and embraced the integral program of the papacy and its canon law. Also, much to the irritation of Henry, he resigned the chancellorship but clung to the archdeaconry until Henry forced him to resign. Historians debate over the reasons for this famous transformation.

Thomas Becket enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury
Depiction of Thomas Becket being enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury

 

#6 He stood up for the church leading to disagreements with King Henry

After becoming archbishop, Becket stood up for the church in its disagreements with the king and this led to a long quarrel between the two. The major point of disagreement was about clerks (churchmen) who were accused of committing a serious crime. Becket maintained that they could be only judged by ecclesiastical hierarchy (Church courts). Henry wanted the royal court to get involved as he felt that the present situation prevented him from governing effectively and undercut law and order in England. Ecclesiastical courts were limited in their punishment and didn’t allow killing anyone. Henry got his way when the Constitutions of Clarendon were passed in 1164.

Thomas Becket with King Henry II
14th-century depiction of Thomas Becket with King Henry II

 

#7 Becket spend six years in exile

In 1164, with the rift between the two coming to the point where Henry was about to imprison or force Becket to resign, Becket fled into exile in France where King Louis VII offered him protection. His exile lasted for six years. During this period Henry issued official orders against Becket and his supporters while Becket excommunicated a number of Henry’s advisers and clerical servants.

Henry II exiles Thomas Becket
1165 Depiction – Henry exiles Becket’s family and servants, Becket lies sick after excessive fasting

 

#8 King Henry allowed Becket to return as he feared an interdict for England

Thomas Becket Murder Depiction
Depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket

In 1170, Henry’s eldest son was crowned as co-king by Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the Archbishop of York. This was undermining the authority of the pope as only Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, had the right to crown English monarchs. With the pope behind him, Becket became strong. He excommunicated all those who were responsible, including Roger of York. Fearing an interdict for England, Henry allowed Becket to return to Canterbury where he was welcomed enthusiastically by the crowd.

#9 Thomas Becket was murdered by knights of King Henry II

After his return, Becket continued to carry excommunications against royal servants and refused to lift the excommunication of Roger of York. When news of Becket’s actions reached Henry he was infuriated and spoke some violent words. Four knights of the court took his words literally and went to Canterbury to confront the archbishop. They asked Becket to give an account of his actions to the king. When he refused they followed him to the cathedral, where on further altercation, they murdered him with their swords. The day was 29 December, 1170.

#10 Becket was declared a saint by Pope Alexander III

Soon after his death many people throughout Europe started venerating Becket as a martyr. His shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England. On 21 February 1173, Pope Alexander III officially declared him a saint. His fame spread and his life remained a popular theme in art. Major works based on his story include Alfred Tennyson’s play Becket, T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s play Becket or the Honour of God, on which the 1964 Academy Award winning movie Becket was based.

Murder in the Cathedral being performed
TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, performed in 1970 in Canterbury Cathedral

 

Legends of Thomas Becket

After Becket was canonized several legends became associated with him. Like it is said that once Becket was disturbed in his devotions by the songs of a nightingale and hence commanded that none should ever sing in the town of Otford in Kent again, leading to the absence of nightingales in Otford. Also it is said that Becket’s Well in Otford was created as Becket was displeased with the taste of water in the town.

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