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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Early career
- Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury
- The Constitutions of Clarendon
- Exile and assassination
- Posthumous dedications in Spain
KEY FACTS AND INFORMATION
Let’s know more about Thomas Becket!
- Thomas Becket became the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of King Henry II of England. Whilst maintaining his friendship with the king, Thomas served loyally and aided Henry II in his policy to gain absolute sovereignty. When he transformed radically upon his appointment to archbishop, tensions arose between Thomas and the king as they argued over clerical privilege in the years that followed. Thomas Becket stood firm in opposing the king’s policies against the clergy, and died for it.
- He is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church and martyr by the Anglican Communion.
- Thomas Becket was born on 21 December 1118 to Gilbert and Matilda Becket.
- His bourgeois family was originally from Caen, Normandy.
- One of his father’s wealthy friends, Richer de L’Aigle, taught him good manners, horseback riding and hunting.
- During Thomas’ youth, he took part in numerous jousts and tournaments.
- At the age of ten, he started studying at Merton Priory in Surrey.
- He was educated at a London grammar school and then in Paris.
- As a young adult, he was forced to earn a living as a city clerk and as an accountant in the service of the sheriffs.
- Later, his father secured him a place in the service of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- He was also sent to Bologna and Auxerre to study civil and canon law.
- In 1154, he was named Archdeacon of Canterbury and Provost of Beverley.
- Recommended by Theobald to Henry II of England, Thomas was appointed as Lord Chancellor of the kingdom in January 1155.
Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury
- Henry II of England, like all Norman kings, wanted to be the absolute sovereign, both of the kingdom and of the Church.
- In fact, he wanted to eliminate the privileges acquired by the English clergy, which he thought diminished his authority.
- Thomas thought he was the right person to defend the king’s interests: therefore, the young chancellor became not only Henry II’s faithful servant, but also the king’s excellent companion and intimate friend.
- He aided the king in his policy to gain all powers of the monarchy, even when the policy was against the claims of the Church.
- The king sent his son Henry to live in Becket’s house, as was customary with the children of the nobility.
- Archbishop Theobald’s death on 18 April 1161 left the see of Canterbury vacant for almost a year.
- Whilst Gilbert Foliot was the legitimate successor of the position, Thomas was elected as Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Thomas was consecrated on 3 June 1163 whilst Foliot was given the bishopric of London.
- Henry II wanted strict control over the Church and with Thomas’ appointment to archbishop, he hoped to achieve this goal.
- However, from the moment Thomas was consecrated, he underwent a radical transformation and he changed his outlook and way of life.
- When Thomas became austere in his administration, the king realised his mistake and began to rely more on the Bishop of London, Foliot, who turned out to be the true supporter of the autonomy of the Church of England.
- The king was dismayed when Thomas resigned his chancellorship to focus on the archbishopric.
- Thomas began to implement the project he had prepared: to free the Church of England from the limitations that he himself had initially consented to.
- His objective was twofold: 1) the complete abolition of all civil jurisdiction over the Church, with control not shared by the clergy, freedom of choice of its prelates and 2) acquisition and security of property as an independent fund.
- The king quickly understood the inevitable results of the archbishop’s attitude and summoned the clergy in Westminster on 11 October 1163.
- He called on the clergy to repeal all demands for civil legal exception and to recognise the equality of all individuals before the law.
- The high prelature was ready to accept the king’s requests, however, the archbishop firmly refused.
The Constitutions of Clarendon
- The king convened another assembly in Clarendon on 30 January 1164, during which he presented his demands exposed in sixteen articles.
- The Constitutions of Clarendon insisted the clergy’s abandonment of their independence and their consequent dependence on Rome.
- Clergy who had been accused of committing a serious secular crime were to be tried in the king’s court.
- Whilst Thomas tried to reach an agreement by discussing the points exposed by the king, he refused to sign the treaty.
- This meant war between the archbishop and the king.
- Henry tried to get rid of Thomas by judicial means and summoned him before the great council of Northampton on 8 October 1164, to answer the accusations that he was opposed to royal authority and abused his position as chancellor.
Exile and assassination
- Realising the danger he was facing, Thomas voluntarily went into exile on 2 November and took refuge in France.
- He went to Sens where he met Pope Alexander III, who also received some envoys of the king who asked, in his name, to take action against Thomas, and sent a legacy to England with plenary authority to solve the problem.
- Alexander III refused to help the king and lent his support to Thomas.
- Henry persecuted the fugitive archbishop, creating a series of decrees against Thomas that extended to his friends and supporters.
- However, Louis VII of France welcomed the former archbishop to his court and offered him protection.
- Thomas spent six years in exile staying in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny and in an abbey near Sens when Henry forced him to return.
- Thomas maintained his position and threatened the king, bishops and the kingdom with excommunication and interdict.
- In 1167, papal legates were sent to England to mediate.
- Persistent in his principles, Thomas agreed with the legates and submitted to the conditions of the king as long as he was allowed to maintain his power.
- The king then put out additions to the Constitutions of Clarendon and had his eldest son, Henry the Young King, crowned as co-king by the Archbishop of York, Roger de Pont L'Évêque, Thomas’ old rival.
- Thomas’ firmness was about to result in the excommunication of the king in 1170 but Henry reached for an agreement that allowed Thomas’ return to England to continue his ministry.
- The tension between both parties prevented a satisfactory resolution.
- Four Anglo-Norman knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugo de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton, planned to confront the archbishop on behalf of the king.
- The knights forced their way into the cathedral when Thomas refused to lift the excommunications of Roger of York and Foliot.
- They cut the archbishop with their swords on Tuesday, 29 December 1170, in the atrium of Canterbury Cathedral.
- Thomas was revered by the faithful throughout Europe, who considered him a martyr.
- Just three years later, in 1173, he was canonised by Alexander III.
- On 12 July 1174, Henry II had to carry out public penance before the tomb of the archbishop.
- The archbishop’s tomb became one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in England for four centuries until it was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries between 1538 and 1541.
- In 1220, Thomas’ remains were moved from his first tomb, where they had been buried by his successor, Richard of Dover, to a reliquary in the recently completed Trinity Chapel.
- Today, the archbishops celebrate the Eucharist in this place to commemorate Thomas Becket’s martyrdom.
Posthumous dedication in Spain
- In 1170, Alfonso VIII, king of Castile, married Eleanor Plantagenet, daughter of Henry II of England, and gave to his wife, among other cities and castles that he owned, the city of Soria.
- Eleanor of England wanted to honour her father’s old friend by commemorating Thomas Becket’s death in the church of San Nicolás de Soria.
- A representation of the archbishop’s death was depicted on the walls of one of the chapels of this church, which is now in ruins.
- Another church in Spain, Iglesia de Santo Tomás Cantuariense, was named after him in Salamanca.
- A chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket is located in Terrassa (Barcelona), in the church of Santa María, which presents a magnificent fresco made around 1180.
- The parochial church of Vegas de Matute, in Segovia, is also dedicated to Thomas Becket, who is the patron saint of the town.