Saint Thomas Becket


Saint Thomas Becket was born around 1119 (or in another tradition 1120) in Cheapside London on the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle (December 21). He came from a well off family as his father was a petty knight and his mother from minor Norman royalty. Growing up, Saint Thomas had a wealthy friend named Richer de L'aigle who would often invite him to his estates for hunting and hawking, teaching him much about the upper class life and lessons he had been passed down from his father.


At around the age of 10, Saint Thomas became a student at Merton Priory, stopping at the trivium (lower division of the seven liberal arts - literally meaning "where the three roads meet ", tri + va, and consisted mostly of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) and quadrivium (taught after the trivium, consisting arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). Shortly afterwards around the age of 20 he left for Paris, studying for about a year until his family's wealth began to decline. He was forced to take on a job serving as a clerk for some time to aid in the family's income but his father soon secured a position in the household of Theobald of Bec (who at the time was the Archbishop of Canterbury). It was this position that changed Saint Thomas's life forever.


While serving the Archbishop, he was sent to Rome several times and then to Bologna and Auxerre to study Canon law. This study paid off when Archbishop Theobald named Saint Thomas the Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. He did so well performing this role that he was recommended and then appointed to the post of Lord Chancellor for King Henry II in January of 1155. In this post he enforced the king's sources of revenue that came from landowners, churches and bishoprics. In 1162, Archbishop Theobald died and Saint Thomas was nominated for the position.



Coat of Arms of Saint Thomas Becket


After being ordained a priest on June 2, 1162 at Canterbury, he was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry of Blois (the Bishop of Winchester) on June 3rd. Though King Henry II had hoped Saint Thomas would put the needs of the kingdom above the needs of the church, the King had his hopes dashed when Saint Thomas resigned his chancellorship and began recovering and extending the rights of the Archbishopric. He was almost immediately pulled into conflict by asserting rights over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen. The final straw came when the King tried influencing other Bishops in Westminster during the month of October in 1163.


King Henry II assembled the higher English clergy at Clarendon Palace on January 30th, 1164 and formed sixteen constitutions that gave the clergy less independence and weakened the connection with Rome. These 16 constitutions (known as the Constitutions of Clarendon) were approved by all the clergy assembled except for Saint Thomas who initially expressed some willingness to agree of the general substance but did not formally sign the documents. The now enraged King Henry summoned Saint Thomas to Northampton Castle on October 8th of 1164, charging him with contempt of Royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor's office. Saint Thomas left the trial and fled to the European continent. This did not stop the king - instead the King began targeting Saint Thomas with several edicts that impacted both Saint Thomas and any known associates. King Louis VII of France offered him protection and Pope Alexander III sent Papal Legates in 1167 to resolve the situation with diplomacy. These efforts paid off and in 1170 a compromise was struct to allow Saint Thomas to return to England.


Almost immediately, things went from hopeful to despair. In June of 1107, the Archbishop of York crowned the heir apparent to the throne, Henry the Young King at York, breaching Canterbury's privilege of coronation, resulting in Saint Thomas excommunicating the archbishop along side the Bishops of London and Salisbury (who had aided in the coronation). When informed for this excommunication, Henry the Young King said to his aides:


"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

On December 29th, 1170, four knights Reginald Fitz Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton arrived at Canterbury to confront Saint Thomas. The entered the cathedral and informed Saint Thomas that he was to immediately leave and travel to Winchester to give an account for his actions but Saint Thomas adamantly refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The knights left, gathered their weapons and stormed back into the Cathedral shouting "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?". They found him in the stairs leading into the quire of the cathedral. Saint Thomas said to them:


"I am no traitor and I am ready to die". Eyewitness Edward Grim testified to the following account:


"...the impious knight... suddenly set upon him and [shaved] off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God... Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, 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 grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow... his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church... The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights... placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, "We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again."

The four knights fled to de Morville's Knaresborough castle, hiding for almost a year. Meanwhile, the monks prepared his body for burial and the laity throughout Europe began to venerate him as a martyr. To protect the body from being stolen, the monks place his remains beneath to the floor of the eastern crypt of the cathedral with a stone cover placed on top with two holes where pilgrims could insert their heads and kiss the tomb. On February 21, just two years after his death in 1173, Pope Alexander III canonized Saint Thomas in Saint Peter's Church in Segni. Saint Thomas's sister Mary was appointed Abbess of Barking as a reparation for the murder. Initially the four knights were excommunicated together, but when they travelled to Rome seeking forgiveness, the Pope ordered them to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for fourteen years as penance.


In 1220, on the 50th jubilee of his death, Saint Thomas's remains were moved to a shrine in the recently completed Trinity Chapel. The Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, King Henry III, the Papa Legate and large numbers of dignitaries oversaw the translation of his remains and a new major feast day was instituted throughout England and in some parts of France. When the English reformation began, the feast was suppressed and just two years later in 1538 the shrine was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII not only gave the order for the shrine to be destroyed but also had Saint Thomas's bones destroyed and all mentions of his name stricken.



Spot where Saint Thomas Becket was martyred

Today among many other patronages, Saint Thomas Becket is the patron Saint of the Clergy, secular clergy, Exeter College, and Portsmouth England. London was regarded him as a Londoner years later (Saint Thomas's father had been in the textile industry and so the Mercers venerated him) so much so that he was adopted as London's co-patron with Saint Paul. His fame spread across the Norman world extremely quickly, with the first holy image of Becket a mosaic icon that is still visible in Sicily. Over forth-five medieval chasse reliquaries survive, including the famous Becket casket.



Becket Casket at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mosaic Icon of Saint Thomas Becket, Monreale Cathedral Sicily

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