Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

Incarnations of El Morya

Thomas Becket was the Lord Chancellor of England and later the Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century under King Henry II. Thomas was a man of action, delighting in hard work and quick debate. As a young man, he was educated in the finest schools of Europe and served in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, who introduced him to the king and recommended him for the chancellorship.

Becket and the king were said to have been of one heart and one mind and it is likely that the chancellor's influence was largely responsible for many of the reforms in English law for which Henry is credited. Sir Thomas had a taste for magnificence and his household was considered even finer than the king's. Wearing armor like any other fighting man, he led assaults and engaged in hand to hand combat—strong willed, stern, yet blameless in character and deeply religious.

In 1161, Archbishop Theobald died and Henry called Becket to fill the office. The chancellor declined, however, warning the king that such a position would separate them on moral principles. Sir Thomas told him: "There are several things you do now in prejudice of the rights of the Church which make me fear you would require of me what I could not agree to." The king paid no heed and hastened to have Thomas consecrated archbishop on the octave of Pentecost, 1162.

Obedient to the king and in loving submission to the will of God, Becket left his household and his finery and began the life of an ascetic. He secretly wore a hairshirt next to his skin. The beloved archbishop spent his days distributing alms to the poor, studying holy scripture, visiting the infirmary, and supervising monks in their work. Serving as an ecclesiastical judge, Thomas was rigorously just.

Although as archbishop Becket had resigned the chancellorship against the king's wish, nevertheless, as he had foretold, the relationship between Church and State soon became the crux of serious disagreements. Since at that time the Church owned large parcels of land, when Henry ordered that property taxes be paid directly to his own exchequer—actually a flagrant form of graft—Thomas protested.

In another matter, a cleric accused of murdering a king's soldier was, according to a long established law, tried in ecclesiastical court and was there acquitted. A controversy arose because Henry considered the archbishop a partial judge. The king remained angry and dissatisfied with Thomas and called together a council at Westminster where the bishops, under pressure from the king, reluctantly agreed to the revolutionary Constitutions of Clarendon, which provided certain royal "customs" in Church matters and prohibited prelates from leaving the kingdom without royal permission. These provisions were severely damaging to the authority and prestige of the Church.

Heedless of the new law, Thomas crossed the Channel to put the case before the Pope. Bent on vengeance, the king commanded him to hand over certain properties and honors and began a campaign to discredit and persecute him. King Louis of France was inclined in the Church's favor and accepted the archbishop in exile. While submitting himself to the strict Cistercian rule in the monastery at Pontigny, Thomas received a letter from the bishops and other clergy of England deploring his "hostile attitude" to the king and imploring him to be more conciliatory and forgiving.

Becket replied: "For a long time I have been silent, waiting if perchance the Lord would inspire you to pluck up your strength again; if perchance one, at least, of you all would arise and take his stand as a wall to defend the house of Israel, would put on at least the appearance of entering the battle against those who never cease daily to attack the army of the Lord. I have waited; not one has arisen. I have endured; not one has taken a stand. I have been silent; not one has spoken. I have dissimulated; not one has fought even in appearance....Let us then, all together, make haste to act so that God's wrath descend not on us as on negligent and idle shepherds, that we be not counted dumb dogs, too feeble to bark."

The historic quarrel had dragged on for three years when at last King Louis was able to effect a partial reconciliation between Thomas and Henry. But when the archbishop returned to London on December 1, 1170, he was met with fierce hostility. Three bishops who had been excommunicated by Thomas for direct disobedience to the Pope went before the king who remained yet in France. In a fit of anger, Henry shouted words which four of his knights took as cause to set out for England, to arrest the archbishop while he was in the sanctuary of Canterbury Cathedral, and there to insult and brutally murder him.

The incredible sacrilege of murdering an archbishop in his own cathedral produced a reaction of horror throughout Christendom. When the news was brought to the king, he realized that his mistaken remark had caused Becket's death. Henry shut himself up and fasted for forty days and later did public penance in Canterbury Cathedral.

The body of Thomas á Becket was placed in a tomb in the cathedral, which became the focus for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims—immortalized by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales—who came to the shrine to witness the miracles that were wrought by Archbishop Becket's intercession. Within three years, Thomas á Becket was canonized a saint and martyr. The motion picture Becket, based on the play of the same name by Jean Anouilh, is a dramatic portrayal of the life of Thomas á Becket.