In June 1162 Thomas Becket, by training an accounts clerk to his cousin, a banker, was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury.
Just how did this son of a Norman merchant and an accountant come to hold such high office?
- In 1145, Thomas went to work for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Theobald.
- The offices of the Archbishop were rich and powerful and through his offices as confidant to the Archbishop, Thomas was awarded the archdeaconry of Canterbury.
- King Henry II, keen to make good the financial losses endured during King Stephen’s reign soon had his attention drawn to the financial advisor in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury and appointed Thomas Becket chancellor.
Becket’s star rose quickly, he had many skills, he was an excellent advisor and administrator and guided the King in issues of state including diplomatic and military strategies.
- He stayed close to the side of the King, living a lavish life style in which he drew the King’s confidence more and more, siding with the King in issues of church and state.
- King Henry thought Thomas to be his loyal friend and wanted him in an influential position inside the church.
- Thinking him to be the King’s man he sought to promote him to Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Opposition from the church was fierce. The Archbishop was meant to be a monk and those monks of Canterbury Cathedral Priory were extremely reluctant to have this financier appointed to this highest office but the King was insistent and they reluctantly acquiesced.
- He was ordained a priest and the next day consecrated Archbishop.
So the banker became a very powerful man indeed, quite what happened next is uncertain, the King’s friend, now turned on him and opposed him in every way, what caused this about face?
- Certainly Becket wanted to prove to those churchmen who had opposed his consecration that he was capable of being the best Archbishop of Canterbury there had ever been but was it necessary that in order to achieve that he had to oppose the King?
- Certainly Henry was bewildered by his actions, his campaign for the canonization of Anselm, a monk archbishop, who had been determined to defy Kings, was a quite outrageous action and Becket continued to seek out points of principle and actions that would fly in the face of the Kings wishes.
- It was as if Becket set out to draw out and antagonize the King.
King Henry had considered Thomas a true and trusted friend had lifted him to this high status and therefore in the first instance was hurt and puzzled by Becket’s actions. That hurt soon turned to anger and as Thomas Becket pushed so the King began to push back and the quarrels intensified.
- Henry and Thomas saw fit to use the matter of the Benefit of Clergy to bring matters to a head between them.
- Henry saw the problem of ‘criminous clerks’ as one where he could assert the King’s customary rights over the church, drawn up as the Constitutions of Clarendon. He wanted the clergy who were convicted of serious crimes to be tried in ordinary courts of law rather than ecclesiastical.
Thomas publically accepted these constitutions only to renounce them later.
- An infuriated Henry brought Becket to face trial on trumped up charges and his estates removed from him but Becket realising that his time may be up fled for the continent where he remained for six years.
- From afar he challenged the King and claimed to be working for the liberties of the Church but despite reconciliation being urged by the Pope neither side would yield.
- In his absence the crowning of the heir to the throne took place by the Archbishop This was the privilege of the Archbishop of Canterbury and when Becket heard the news he returned to England intent on punishing those who had had a hand in it.
- He excommunicated three bishops who took their complaints to the King.
King Henry was furious and uttered the immortal words:
“Who shall rid me of this troublesome priest?”
Four knights keen to find favour with the King travelled to Canterbury where, on 29th December 1170, they murdered Thomas Becket in the great cathedral of Canterbury.
The shock of such a murder reverberated throughout chistendom
- Whatever Thomas Becket had achieved in his life to oppose the authority of the monarch, was of no match compared to what he achieved with his death.
- His death was his triumph. At first opinion was deeply split on his death, he was seen as someone who wished kingship for himself but not just king, he wished to be head of the church as well.
- Public admiration however, soon silenced all opposition. Soon their were proclamations of miracles taking place at his tomb.
His claim to sainthood was established and three years later Thomas was canonized by Alexander III.
King Henry II was served with a popular excommunication, his reaction to this seems surprising. He shut himself up for three days in his chamber, rolled himself in sackcloth and ashes, and refused food and comfort and then excluded himself from any social engagement. His fear of excommunication was very great, he sought out Becket’s murderers and begged forgiveness and reconciliation with the Pope.
He pledged himself to abrogate the Statutes of Clarendon, to restore the church of Canterbury to all its rights and possessions and to undertake, if the pope should require it, a three years’ crusade to Jerusalem or Spain, and to support two hundred knights in the Holy Land with these promises supported by those of his son, Henry was reconciled.
Two years later on July 12, 1174, an incredible event occurred, the king, depressed by disasters and the rebellion of his wife and his sons, made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Becket but it was not just any pilgrimage. He dismounted from his horse as he came in sight of Canterbury, walked as a penitent pilgrim in a woollen shirt, with bare feet, through the streets, knelt in the porch of the cathedral and kissed the sacred stone on which the archbishop had been murdered. He wept before the crypt and spoke of his remorse at uttering those fateful words. threw himself prostrate before the tomb in the crypt, and confessed to the bishops with groans and tears his deep remorse for the hasty words which had led to the murder.
What followed next is surely one of the most humiliating acts ever undertaken by an English monarch. He was scourged by the monks, abbot and bishop upon the tomb of St Thomas where he implored for forgiveness.
The truth of the relationship between these two men is probably more complex than can be envisaged. Once considered close and trusted friends, quite what drove Becket on his chosen course of action is uncertain. Certainly the power of the man must have been immense, was he simply self seeking or was his political desire to reduce the power of the monarch born out of a more altruistic stance?
After the death of King Henry, the biography of Thomas Becket was written by his close colleague William Fitz Stephen, who was present at the murder of Becket but who later became a friend of the King and was made Duke of Gloucester.