Sir Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

Sir Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.Holly Hayes / Public Domain

Sir Thomas Becket changed from being a 'patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds to being a shepherd of souls.'

Thomas Becket was the son of a wealthy London merchant. He was born on 21st December 1118, began his education at Merton Priory, and continued it in London, Paris, and Italy. He never achieved great academic distinction, but he was an ambitious young man, determined to rise above his simple station in life. He soon decided that the most hopeful path for his ambition lay in the Church. He, therefore, joined the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, was soon ordained a deacon and rapidly rose to the position of Archdeacon of Canterbury.

In 1154, on Theobald's recommendation, he was given the high office of Chancellor to the King, Henry II, and over the next eight years, the mercurial and intelligent Henry and the ambitious Thomas developed a close--even passionate--friendship. Becket was a skilful administrator who has absolute support to Henry II's policy of 'unifying' Church and State largely by seeking to deprive the Church of the many concessions granted to it by his predecessor, King Stephen.

When, in 1162, Henry selected his worldly and loyal Chancellor as the new Archbishop of Canterbury he thought Becket would continue to support his policy of subordinating Church to State to an extent that would allow his plan of unification to be accomplished--misreading of Becket's character that was to have dire consequences for the new Archbishop.

The See of Canterbury had been, since its establishment in 597 AD, the focal point of the Church of England and had also played a major role in the history of the country. The office of its Archbishop was second in importance only to that of the King and, as a result, if an Archbishop strong of character there was every likelihood that there would be a conflict with the monarch, resulting in exile or assassination. The Archbishop, representing Church and Pope, believed the papacy to have power over any monarch, whereas the Crown, as England began to grow into a powerful state, bitterly resented the interference of papal power in English Church affairs and the flow of English money into the coffers of Rome.

The conflict between Henry and Becket arose partly from Henry's determination to impose lay (or non-clerical) justice on errant clerics (he called them 'criminous clerks') and partly from a personal antagonism between the King and his once great friend and Chancellor, who had given, during his Chancellorship, not only a friendship the loss of which Henry deeply mourned, but also every indication that as Archbishop he would continue to support Henry's policy.

That policy was to make the law equal for all and universally applied. The main obstacle to it was the right of 'benefit of clergy', which gave any cleric, however humble, the right to be tried for any crime except treason in the ecclesiastical courts and thus escape trial in the lay courts. This benefit could probably be justified in theory, but we must remember that in the Middle Ages large numbers of alleged clerics had only the most tenuous connection with the Church, and what vexed Henry most of all was the well-known leniency of the ecclesiastical courts. These courts might occasionally unfrock a cleric and thus deprive him of the right to exercise his office in the church, or they might find him and jail him, but they refused to give the severe sentences that the King considered necessary to keep order in a turbulent age.

The King did not claim the right to try 'criminous clerks' in the first instance in the lay courts. He simply wanted a ruling that any cleric found guilty in an ecclesiastical court should be unfrocked and retired by a lay court and, if found guilty, be given the same punishment as any layman. It was this policy--one resented by many of the influential--that Becket had supported during his term as Chancellor.

On 3rd June 1162, Becket has consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. He had accepted the office with the greatest reluctance, but having accepted it, he began to demonstrate traits of character consistent with his new office and not with the high-living sophisticate Henry had once known him to be. He resigned his post as Chancellor, saying that he could not serve two masters. He then adopted the life of an ascetic and lived in monastic seclusion in Canterbury. As he himself put it, he changed from being a 'patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds to being a shepherd of souls.'

It is difficult to explain this sudden change. It may be that sobered by the importance of his new office, he experienced a spiritual conversion. Or his earlier vanity and self-importance may suddenly have been revealed to him as sins of great magnitude for which he had to atone. Whatever the reason for the change, it soon caused Becket to quarrel with the King, first on minor matters in which no principle appeared to be involved, then on the serious matter of 'criminous clerks'.

It was soon drawn to Henry's attention that clerics in minor orders who had been found guilty of quite serious crimes had been able to escape with light sentences in the ecclesiastical courts. He was furious and challenged Becket. The Archbishop received very little support from his bishops and the whole thing came to a climax at the Council of Clarendon in 1164, where Crown and Church fought a bitter battle. The decision reached there prohibited appeals to Rome without the King's approval, forbade the clergy to leave the country without the Crown's approval, and took away the power of the Church to protect any convicted cleric.

The archbishop, assailed by pleas and threats, finally gave way and assented to what came to be called the Constitutions of Clarendon; though he still refused to authenticate the Constitutions with his seal--and, indeed, continued to support the trial of clergymen, however, minor their orders, in the church courts.

The quarrel between Henry and Becket became more acrimonious and the King decided that it was in the Crown's interest to ruin the Archbishop. In October 1164 Becket was ordered to appear before the King's representative at Northampton to face trial on several points at issue--all of them trivial but used as a pretext to bring about the Archbishop's downfall. The Earl of Leicester, Henry's spokesman, dredged up incidents from the years when Becket was Chancellor and demanded a strict accounting of the finances during those years and also of the revenues of the See of Canterbury during the same time that See was vacant before Becket had accepted the appointment. Clearly this demand of the King was unfair since it would have been impossible to give a strict accounting without adequate preparation.

The quarrel continued for days and became more and more bitter. Some of the courtiers even suggested that Becket resign his office of Archbishop. However, even the bishops who opposed Becket vetoed that suggestion because it would have made it impossible in the future for any prelate to resist the Crown.

Then rumours began to circulate that the King was going to imprison Becket for life after mutilating him by having his eyes put out and his tongue cut off. These were no idle rumours, for, not long before, a bishop in Henry's domains in France (he was Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou and Maine) had displeased a feudal lord and had suffered mutilation of his private parts. It was a violent age. Becket, ill with a kidney stone, lost his courage and took to his bed.

But in a few days, his courage returned and he again faced his accusers. Barefoot in his vestments and carrying his great cross he defied the Earl of Leicester. Cutting the Earl short after he had uttered the words, 'Hear, then, your sentence...' the Archbishop thundered that a nobleman could not judge a bishop, nor the King, nor the King's spokesman. 'I will be judged by our Lord the Pope alone, for he alone is competent to judge me and to him, in your presence, I appeal.' With that Becket fled the court.

On 2nd November Becket, with his personal servant, Roger, and two companions, left England and landed in Flanders. He stayed for a while at the Abbey of St. Bertin near Clair-Marais, and there began to set in motion a chain of intense diplomatic activities to counteract the activities of King Henry, who had sent envoys to King Louis VII of France requesting that no sanctuary should be given to his 'former' Archbishop. Louis asked a simple question of the envoys: 'Who has deposed the Archbishop?' The French King then told the envoys that he was as much a king as Henry was and that he did not have the power to depose 'the least of the clerks' in his realm.

Becket sent envoys to the Pope, Alexander III, who was also in exile at Sens, having been driven out of Rome after a bitter quarrel with the German Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, over supremacy of rule in Italy. At the moment Frederick Barbarossa was supreme, so Alexander was in no position to give Becket any support except lip service. But he suggested that the exiled Archbishop might retire to a monastery for a while and there contemplate his past actions, search his conscience, and decide his future course.

So Becket and a few of his followers retired to the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, where for two years he wore the habit of a monk and adapted his life to that of his hosts--a life of extremely harsh discipline which he not only bore bravely but chose to increase its austerity. During those two years, he was supported, so far as financial contributions to the Cistercians were concerned, by King Louis, who, resentful over King Henry's rule over much of Louis's rightful kingdom, was delighted to succour any enemy of the English King.

But there were ways and means for Henry to retaliate. He sent some 400 of Becket's friends and relatives into exile and warned the Cistercian Brotherhood that if they continued to harbour Becket he would confiscate all their property in his domains. To avoid such confiscation King Louis provided Becket with another sanctuary at the Benedictine abbey of St. Columba, near Sens; and the Pope, who was temporarily back in Rome, the victor for the moment in his struggle with Barbarossa, ordered Becket not to take retaliatory action against Henry.

There were other ways, however, in which Becket could move toward revenge. In 1166 he went on a pilgrimage to Vezelay in Burgundy, and there, in the cathedral on 12th June, he excommunicated John of Oxford, Richard of Ilchester, Robert de Lacy (Henry's justiciar or regent in England), and Joceline de Balliel for their part in opposing him by supporting the Constitutions of Clarendon. Ranulf de Broc, Hugh of St. Clair, and Thomas FitzBernard were excommunicated for stealing money and other possessions of the See of Canterbury.

The Pope now tried to mediate between Henry and Becket by appointing two papal legates to bring the parties together. On 16th November 1167, the legates stopped at Sens and conferred at length with Becket, but no solution was reached. Later, Henry met the legates outside Caen and was told that they had been unable to change the Archbishop's mind; and after talking with Henry they found that the King was in no mood for compromise either. In fact, Henry was so disgusted with the Pope's ambassadors that he was reported to have said 'I hope to God I never set eyes on a Cardinal again.'

But by 1168 many of Becket's supporters in exile with him were weary of living abroad. Becket, listening to their woes, promised to try and seek an agreement with the King. It so happened that in January 1169 Henry and Louis met for a conference at Montmirail on the border of their domains, and Louis asked Becket to be present. As might have been expected, when King and Archbishop met their tempers flared, another argument developed, and they soon parted enemies, each damning the other.

By the beginning of 1170, all parties were understandably weary of the struggle, and the Pope and Henry were both impatient for a settlement. Also, it was rumoured that the Pope might put all Henry's European peoples under interdict. This was mass ex-communication, and meant that all Henry's vassals could be absolved of their allegiance to the English king and their loyalties bidden for by Louis. However, some progress toward a settlement might have been achieved if Henry hadn't committed a stupid act.

He wanted his eldest son to be crowned as the future king of England--an anticipatory coronation about which there was nothing unusual in those days. But instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry commissioned the Archbishop of York to crown young Henry on 14th July 1170. Assisting York (who was one of Becket's bitterest enemies) in the ceremony were the Bishops of Durham, London, Salisbury, and Rochester. The foolishness of the King's action was not immediately apparent, but it was soon to become so.

On 27th July 1170 Louis and Henry met for another conference at Freteval, halfway between Chartres and Tours, and Becket also was present by invitation. This time there was no flare-up of tempers; King and Archbishop were friendly and peace was made. Henry was reported as having said later: 'Since I find the Archbishop well disposed toward me, I would be the worst of men if I were not well disposed toward him, and would prove true all the evil things that are said of me.'

The matter of the crowning of young Henry was settled--or so it seemed for the moment--when the King promised that there would be a second and final coronation at the proper time. The two men met on several more occasions and apparently settled their differences. But no word was said of the main cause of the quarrel--the Constitutions of Clarendon--and no oath was demanded of either party. It was perhaps an uneasy peace; but peace it was. And before Becket departed on the journey back to his See the King sent to England the official notice of the reconciliation.

Becket arrived back in Canterbury on 1st December 1170 and was received there, and later in London, where he distributed alms among the people, as a conquering hero. But he seemed to be courting martyrdom for he remarked to Alexander Llewellyn, his crucifier: 'One martyr, Saint Alfege, you have already; another if God wilt, you will have soon.' And in his sermon on Christmas Day he told his congregation, 'I am come to die among you.' (Alfege had been Archbishop of Canterbury early in the previous century. He was stoned or clubbed to death by the Danes in the army of Thorkell the Tall on 29th April 1012, near Greenwich.)

Becket now appeared to court the death to which he had alluded. He began to excommunicate all those who had opposed him during his exile--clergy and laity alike; he furiously attacked the Archbishop of York and the bishops who had presided at the coronation of young Henry, and he renewed the bans of ex-communication on the King's advisers.

Henry was then in Normandy where the excommunicated bishops now went and laid their cases before him. Henry was understandably weary of the whole affair and asked Roger of York what he should do. The Archbishop replied: 'I assure you, my Lord, that while Thomas lives you will have no good days, nor quiet times, nor a tranquil kingdom.'

The reply drove Henry into a furious rage and he shouted his famous invitation to murder: 'The man Becket ate my bread and mocks my favours. He tramples on the whole royal family! What a parcel of fools and darstards have I nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of this upstart clerk!'

Taking him at his word, four knights now began to hatch a plot against Becket. They were Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton. They made their separate ways to England, landing at dusk on 28th December 1170, and going on to Saltwood Castle near Canterbury, where they were greeted by their friends Robert and Ranulf de Broc.

FitzUrse (Son of a Bear), typified his name; le Breton was styled Brito, meaning Brute; de Moreville, whose name meant City of Death, had reputedly boiled alive a man alleged to have made improper advances to de Moreville's wife; only de Tracy seems to have been a man of unblemished character who had won a reputation as a heroic soldier.

The knights lied to the Brocs, and to many others, about their authority, saying that the King himself had ordered them to arrest Becket. But they cannot have worked out any definite course of action, though they must certainly have known that the Archbishop would resist arrest. At all events, they arrived at Canterbury about noon on 29th December and went straight to the Abbey of St. Augustine where they were wined and dined by the Abbot, who was at odds with Becket. After dinner, the four men and their supporters sought out their quarry and found him at work in the Archbishop's palace. They remonstrated with him about the ex-communication of the bishops, and, when Becket refused their requests for restoration of the bishops' rights, left him with fury in their eyes and murder in their hearts.

Leaving the monks of St. Augustine's to manhandle Becket and drag him to the cathedral, they put on their armour and again sought out the Archbishop. They found him in a chapel in the north transept, crowded around him and attempted to take him prisoner. But, as expected, Becket not only taunted them but offered immense physical resistance. He threw Tracy to the floor and in turn was set upon by FitzUrse, at whom he shouted: 'Let go of me, you pimp!'

Tracy then delivered the first blow with his sword. Edward Grim, Becket's crosier, tried to parry the blow and was cut severely on the arm; Tracy's sword had drawn blood from the crown of Becket's head, and now he struck again. But it was a blow from Brito that split the Archbishop's skull--a blow so savage that the sword broke on the floor. A few minutes later, their murderous work done, the Archbishop dead with his blood and brains oozing out on the stone flags, the knights made their way out of the cathedral, fought their way through the horrified populace, and escaped.

'Willingly I die in the name of Jesus and in defence of the Church.' These were Becket's last words, so reported. Almost overnight he became a hero. Miracles were attributed to him, and soon there developed a Becket cult fostered by real, as well as imaginary, beliefs. The cult spread south to the Holy Land and north as far as Iceland. Becket's determination to achieve martyrdom had borne fruit; for on Ash Wednesday 1173, at a church council at Westminster, the slain Archbishop was canonised and 29th December was designed a feast day in the liturgical calendar.

Henry was never able to convince the world that he was not responsible for the murder and later made his peace with the Church. He appeared in Canterbury in the garb of a penitent, walked barefoot through the streets to the cathedral, and submitted to flogging at the hands of the monks. Yet another miracle was attributed to his penitence, for at the exact moment of the flogging, the King of Scotland, busily invading south of his border, was captured by the English.

* Originally published in Sept 1998.