Canterbury had been over a year without an archbishop when Henry II of England nominated his chancellor, Thomas for the post. Thomas protested to Henry. "I am certain that if ... it were to so happen the love and favor you now bear towards me would speedily turn into bitterest hatred."
Henry did not think so. Thomas had been the bold and vigorous agent of his policy so long that the king expected he would bring the church to heel. Becket resisted accepting the promotion although Theobald, the last archbishop, had hoped and prayed for him as his successor. Through the urging of a cardinal, Thomas was finally swayed to accept the post. On June 2 he was ordained priest and on this day, June 3, 1162, the Bishop of Winchester consecrated him.
As chancellor, Becket had lived a life of great wealth. He had fought brilliantly beside the king and been a vigorous champion of his monarch's interests. Nonetheless he had remained personally devout. Whatever his faults, his noble character could not betray any trust which he undertook. Holding the former archbishop St. Anselm before him as his model, he became a devout, austere, studious, pure and energetic archbishop. The willful king and strong archbishop were sure to clash.
Of the issues at stake, none rankled the king more than clerical privileges. Monks, priests, crusaders, students, and the servants of churchmen were immune to civil trial, being tried instead under canon law. Consequently many escaped serious punishment despite serious crimes.
In 1164 Henry issued the Constitutions of Clarendon. These quite properly brought most trials under the purview of the king. Any cleric convicted of a crime in ecclesiastical court had to be handed over to the secular authority for punishment. The power of excommunication was somewhat abated. Clerics were bound to the customs of the land, the common law. No longer might they appeal to the pope for redress from the king's legal decisions.
Tricked (he claimed) into accepting these (he was told the pope had agreed to them) Becket soon recanted his acceptance and refused to sign. At stake were traditional prerogatives of the church. Forced to flee into exile, he tried to resign his see. The pope refused to accept the resignation. The king levied huge fines on Becket and forced his relatives into exile. Efforts at reconciliation failed and Becket's stubbornness was partly to blame. Not until 1170 did Becket return to England, his principles intact. In frustration Henry wished aloud to be rid of the independent archbishop.
Four knights took him at his word and chopped Becket down in front of Canterbury's altar. Becket, who could have escaped, refused to do so. He died bravely. "I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay."
Because of Becket, Canterbury became the most visited shrine in England.
- "Becket, Thomas." Anecdotes from History.
- "Becket, Thomas, St." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Carey, John, editor. Eyewitness to History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987.
- Dowley, Tim, editor.Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977.
- Hook, Walter Farquhar, 1798-1875. Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London, R. Bentley, 1865 - 1884.
- Jameson, Mrs. (Anna). Legends of the Monastic Orders as Represented in the Fine Arts. London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1872. Source of the portrait.
- McKilliam, Annie E. A Chronicle of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London: J. Clarke, 1913.
- "Thomas known as Thomas A Becket." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
- Time-Life. The Age of Faith.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated April, 2007.