Archbishop and Martyr
d. 29 December 1170
Thomas Becket (or Thomas à Becket) was born on December 21, 1118, the son of Gilbert à Becket, an English merchant and at one time Sheriff of London, and a French Mother, Matilda of Caen in Normandy. He was educated at Merton Priory in Surrey and was later sent to Paris to study. After five years in Paris, Thomas returned to England where he joined the staff of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald. However, he did not remain in England for long and the Archbishop sent him abroad again to study law.
Following his return to England, Thomas was made Archdeacon of Canterbury because of his skills at administration. After the death of King Stephen in 1154, it was Archbishop Theobald who recommended Thomas to the new King, Henry II (formerly Henry of Anjou) as Chancellor, which was quite an increase in status. It is highly likely that Theobald was ensuring that he had a Church representative as close to the Throne as possible. Apparently the two men, Henry and Thomas, took an instant liking to each other and this could well have been based on the fact that they were both forthright and hot tempered.
Archbishop Theobald died in 1161 and at that time, the King was the person to choose the successor. The decision took some time but Henry made up his mind that his friend, Thomas, would become the new Archbishop. As Thomas had been acting as Chancellor he had not risen in the Church as he might have. Because of this, in 1162, on June 2nd he was firstly ordained as a priest and then ordained as a Bishop on the following morning. He was then made Archbishop later on the same day.
It was probable that Henry believed that with his friend in the highest office in the Church in England there would be an easy alliance between Church and State. However, when Henry amended laws to place the State in a position to take charge of cases involving the clergy, trouble started. Thomas originally agreed to the changes but subsequently changed his mind and did penance to show that he had been wrong in his original decision. This act, in those days, was considered a considerable ‘slap in the face’ for Henry. As a result, Henry called Becket to Northampton and asked him to account for sums of money that had passed through his hands while he was Chancellor and then later as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The conflict caused by these accusations was extreme and Thomas, already well liked by the general populous, was helped in October 1164 to flee England for France.
Thomas remained in exile in France for six years, with the support of the King of France, first at Pontigny and then at Sens. In 1169, while still in France, he excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury who had stood against him and supported the King. In 1170, while Henry was in France himself, Thomas returned to England and landed at the Port of Sandwich. He was cheered by the local people from the time he landed to his arrival back in Canterbury.
Meanwhile, back in France, Thomas’ most ardent opponent, Archbishop Roger of York, had the ear of the King. He suggested to Henry that, ‘while Thomas lives, you will have neither quiet times nor a tranquil kingdom’. This threw Henry into one of his rages and he is supposed to have exclaimed something like, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
These words were overheard by four of his knights who decided that they could gain great favour by dealing with the problem, and they left immediately for England. The knights were; Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse, and William de Tracy. They made for Canterbury and arrived there in the late afternoon of December 29th, 1170.
The knights arrival and their cries frightened the Monks, and they persuaded Thomas to flee from his residence towards the Cathedral, where they felt that he would be safe. The service of Vespers was in progress when the knights burst into the Cathedral. Thomas, now in a rage himself, shook off the Monks and returned to the transept to face the four knights.
There was a scuffle, and FitzUrse threatened The Archbishop with his sword. De Tracey also drew his sword and called out, “Strike! Strike!” to the others and delivered the first blow. It took three more wounds before Thomas went down but then Brito delivered an mighty blow which actually severed the top of the cranium.
It is said that there was a great storm within an hour of the death of the Archbishop, and people flocked to the Cathedral to mourn for him. Three days after this there began a series of miracles which were attributed to Thomas. He was canonised in 1173, and on July 12, 1174 Henry II came to Canterbury to perform penance at the tomb of the Saint. He put on sack-cloth and ashes at Harbledown and walked barefoot into the City where he was beaten with birch twigs by eighty monks. He then did penance at the tomb of the martyr in the crypt, remaining there for the night and leaving the next morning.
It is said that the FitzUrse family was so ashamed for his part in this deed that they changed the family name to Bearham, based on the ‘Urse’ (or Ursa) part of the name. This eventually became Barham; the village about six miles South of Canterbury, once owned by the family, still carries this name.
Thomas’ tomb became one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in Europe for the next three-and-a-half centuries. Perhaps the best-known chronicle of such a medieval pilgrimage is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The poet T. S. Eliot retold the story in the form of the poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral, whose first performance was held at Canterbury Cathedral in 1935. To this day, pilgrims visit the site of the martyrdom.