The 40th Archbishop of Canterbury is assassinated in his own cathedral by four knights acting on the orders of Henry II.
Country: France

Biography of Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, also known as Thomas of London, was born in London. His father, Gilbert, was a successful London merchant of Norman knight descent, and his mother was from Normandy as well. At the age of ten, Thomas was sent to the monastery school of Merton, now known as London, and later received his education in schools in London and Paris.

After returning from Paris at the age of 21, Becket became a notary. He then engaged in commerce until 1142 when he was introduced by Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury into his circle. After accompanying the archbishop on a trip to Rome in 1143, Thomas was sent to study canon law in Bologna and Auxerre. With his handsome appearance, tall stature, pale complexion, and sharp senses, Becket caught the attention of many.

In 1154, when Henry became king as Henry II, Becket was ordained a deacon and appointed as the Archdeacon of Canterbury. The following year, Henry appointed Becket as the Chancellor of England, a position he held for seven years. Becket also served as a teacher to Henry's heir, using his influence and charm to elevate the importance of the chancellor's post. Gradually, Becket gained immense political and personal influence over the entire Angevin royal family.

In 1158, Becket led an embassy to Paris, where he successfully negotiated the marriage of Prince Henry to the eldest daughter of the French King Louis VII. He financially supported the king's wars with the proceeds from church revenues and played a role in organizing the campaign against Toulouse in 1159. Becket authored the treaty concluded after the war in May 1160.

In 1162, after the death of Archbishop Theobald, Becket became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry II likely saw his former chancellor as a tool for controlling the highest episcopal see in England. However, within a year, Becket opposed royal taxes at the council in Woodstock in July 1163 and objected to secular interference in church affairs at a council held by Pope Alexander III in Tours. Under strong pressure, Becket agreed to accept the Clarendon Constitutions (January 1164), which further curtailed the rights of the clergy. These constitutions limited appeals to Rome, allowed royal officials to attend church court sessions, and subjected clergymen to civil jurisdiction immediately after a conviction. After the pope refused to endorse these constitutions, Becket changed his previous decision and did not sign them.

Becket's clash with Henry in Clarendon marked the climax of his struggle against the king, after which he made two unsuccessful attempts to flee England. In the winter of 1164, Becket finally managed to escape to France. He met with the pope in Sens and sought his support against Henry, but the pope's own difficulties prevented him from assisting Becket in returning to England. Becket spent two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy, but was eventually expelled by the monks under pressure from Henry. During his last four years of exile, Becket resided in the Abbey of Saint Columba in Sens.

In 1166, Becket used papal authority to excommunicate members of Henry's royal council from the church. He also began to denounce the English bishops who supported the king. On June 14, 1170, Henry violated the traditional rights of the Archbishop of Canterbury by assigning the coronation of Prince Henry to the Archbishop of York. Under the threat of imposing an interdict on England, Pope Alexander III forced Henry to officially reconcile with Becket in Freteval (near Vendôme) on July 22. However, the reconciliation was soon broken as Becket demanded the publication of papal letters condemning the Clarendon Constitutions and the removal of bishops of London, Salisbury, and York, who sided with the king. Upon his return to England, Becket was warmly welcomed, and in early December, he triumphantly entered Canterbury.

It is reported that when Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, heard that the archbishop had returned to Canterbury unrepentant, he made a remark like, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?". Four knights from his entourage, Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Breton, traveled to England and arrived in Canterbury on December 29, 1170, where they killed Becket, accusing him of treason. The murder sparked a protest throughout the Christian world and compelled Henry to suspend his encroachment on church privileges. In 1174, he publicly repented at Becket's tomb. Soon after, Becket's tomb became a place of worship. He was canonized in 1173, and his death day, December 29, became the feast day of St. Thomas in the liturgical calendar. During Henry VIII's reign, the shrine was dismantled, and Becket's name ceased to be mentioned in churches.