(1118–1170) Lord Chancellor of England in the twelfth century under Henry II, archbishop of Canterbury, an incarnation of the ascended master El Morya. He was deeply devoted to the will of God and endured years of conflict with King Henry II over the rights of Church versus State. Becket was brutally murdered in his own cathedral by four knights who acted in response to Henry's desire to be rid “of this turbulent priest.” For centuries after his death, pilgrims flocked to his tomb at Canterbury and Saint Thomas worked many miracles there.
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. Henry’s motive was simple. By placing his friend in the highest offices of both Church and State, Henry would bypass the traditional tension between the archbishop and the king. Becket, however, hesitated. He foresaw the inevitable conflict between the interests of the king and the interests of the Church.
The chancellor declined Henry’s request, 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. Becket finally accepted the office as “God’s hidden will.”
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. Next to his skin he secretly wore a hairshirt. The beloved archbishop spent his days distributing alms to the poor, studying Holy Scripture, visiting the infirmary and supervising monks in their work.
Conflict with the king
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.
Becket excommunicated the bishops who had aided Henry. He also threatened England with an interdict that would forbid the people from participating in church functions.
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. Henry invited Becket to return to England, where he was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds. As he entered Canterbury Cathedral it was said of him by a contemporary biographer, “Some saw and marveled at the face of this man, for it seemed as though his flaming heart burned in his very countenance.”
Becket was met with fierce hostility from some, however. 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 rage, Henry cried out, “What disloyal cowards do I have in my court that not one will free me of this lowborn priest?”
Four barons who overheard the king’s remarks plotted to kill Becket. When the archbishop received word of their plan, he said, “I think I know for certain that I will be slain. But they will find me ready to suffer pain and death for God’s name.”
On December 29, 1170, the barons brutally murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, four days after Christmas. His last words were, “For the name of Jesus and the defense of the Church, I embrace death.”
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 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 Becket was canonized a saint and martyr.
The motion picture Becket, based on the play Becket by Jean Anouilh, is the dramatic portrayal of the life of Thomas Becket.
Holy Days Calendar, December 1993.
Elizabeth Clare Prophet, February 17, 1991.