Thomas Becket (?1120 - 70)

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BECKET, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury; b. in London, Dec. 21, 1118; d. in Canterbury, Dec. 29, 1170. The writing of his name À Becket, as if he were of noble birth, is inaccurate, and now discarded.

Life - His father, Gilbert Becket, was from Rouen; his mother, Roesa or Matilda, from Caen. But, though thus Norman in parentage, he was a thorough Englishman, full of national and local patriotism. His father, a baron of the city of London, gave his son an excellent education, with the canons of Merton Abbey, in London schools, and afterwards in Paris. There is no proof that he ever went to Oxford. His father’s friend, Richer of Laigle, - one of the great barons of England, —took an interest in the boy; and, in his castle of Pevensey, Becket was introduced to the sports of hunting and hawking, in which he became such a proficient. On his return from Paris, he was employed under the sheriffs of London, and so made acquainted with political business. But preferment was to be expected in the case of so brilliant a scholar; and when common friends from the other side of the Channel had recommended him to the notice of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, however, was probably already acquainted with Becket’s father, he was immediately taken into his service (1142), sent to Bologna and Auxerre to study civil and canon law, and quickly made archdeacon of the see, and Provost of Beverley. While in this double capacity, Becket showed his loyalty to the Church, and his political tact, by cleverly solving the difficulty connected with the succession to the crown of England. Securing it to Henry, while not sacrificing papal interests, he made two secret journeys to Rome, and thwarted an effort to win over the Pope to the side of Eustace, the son of Stephen. When Henry II. came to the throne, he made Becket his chancellor (1155), on the recommendation of Theobald; and the ecclesiastic was immediately forgotten in the statesman. The key to the mystery of Becket’s character, his apparent fickleness, is his complete devotion to the office he held, involving a constant study how best to magnify it. Accordingly, when a chancellor, he served his king with the utmost fidelity. He surrounded himself with the outward state befitting so exalted a station, because he had the wit to see that it would give him the more power. While chancellor, he headed the chivalry of England in the war of Toulouse, and there certainly acted little like an ecclesiastic; for he joined in their bloody work. But to him belongs the chief credit of bringing England back from utter lawlessness to as strict an administration of the law as the state of England in the twelfth century allowed. Sufficient emphasis has not been laid upon this fact. He was one of the greatest chancellors England ever had. It was an evil day for him and for his fame when he accepted the Arch-bishopric of Canterbury. He left an office he was fitted for, for one he was not; and he was, alas! one of those men who show their strong side in prosperity, and their weak in adversity. But being elected in 1162, by the Chapter of Canterbury, on the King’s command, archbishop, he gave up his pomp and worldliness, and began at once a life of austerities, and at the same time appeared as the champion of the Church against the State; so that he contended with Henry, his patron and friend. Yet this was not fickleness, but principle: he was loyal to his master. Once it was the King, now it was the Pope: once it was the State, now it was the Church. But because Becket was really an arrogant churchman, and opposed to popular progress, his career from our standpoint is discreditable. He fought against the Constitutions of Clarendon, Jan. 25, 1164, which subjected clerks (clergy) guilty of crime to the ordinary civil tribunals, put ecclesiastical dignities at the royal disposal, prevented all appeals to Rome, and made Henry the virtual head of the Church. To these, however, under pressure, he set his seal; but as he had been led to suppose the King would have been satisfied with a merely verbal assent, - a very different thing in the morality of his age, - when compelled to affix his seal, he felt himself entrapped, and guilty of a great sin. The Pope absolved him, and he proceeded to anathematize the Constitutions with energy. In so doing he had great popular sympathy. To be sure, the Constitutions were not novelties; yet they appeared so in the novel form of statutes. They were really most beneficent, helpful in raising England out of barbarism into civilization; and Henry was right in urging them. But, as they undoubtedly detracted from the papal and ecclesiastical power, Becket from his stand-point was also right. The battle thereafter waged incessantly between king and prelate, disastrously for the latter. An assembly of the people was held at Northampton. Becket was cited to appeal before it to answer the suit of John the Marshal, who had charged him with injustice, and had the case removed from the archbishop’s to the king’s court. Thus to himself the Clarendon Constitutions, which sanctioned such proceedings, were applied; but it surely was unworthy of the king, after having gotten him in his power on one pretext, to raise a charge of malfeasance in office so long a time after his connection with the chancellorship had ceased. This was a mean trick. Becket denied the authority of the council over him, appealed to the Pope, refused to make any explanation, fled in disguise, and after hiding in England, at last, with two companions, crossed the Channel from Sandwich to Graveliries, Nov. 2, 1164. He hastened to Sens, where the Pope (Alexander III.) then was, whither, also, the King’s legates were bending their steps. The Pope favored, Louis VII. of France kindly received him, and he retired to the Cistercian monastery of Contiguy, where he passed the next two years. The Pope acted cautiously in the matter, because Henry had shown a disposition to favor the anti-pope, Pascal III. But, when the Archbishop of York officiated at the coronation of Henry’s son without the Pope’s permission, the latter took decided measures, and threatened excommunication if the King did not make peace with Becket. This he did July 22, 1170, at Freteval in Vendome. The first act of the reinstated archbishop was to excommunicate all his enemies, - the Archbishop of York, and the bishops who had taken part in the coronation, or who favored the Clarendon Constitutions. Becket returned to England, and was warmly received. His friends were many. The excommunicated prelates fled to Normandy, where Henry was: their arrival created a great sensation. The King is said to have exclaimed, "By God’s eyes! if all are excommunicated who were concerned in the coronation, I am excommunicated also. Is this varlet that I loaded with kindness, that came first to court to me on a lame mule, to insult me and my children, and to take my crown from me? What cowards have I about me, that no one will deliver me from this low-born priest!" Four of Henry’s knights - Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard de Breton - really or affectedly understood the King’s words literally; and, making a hasty journey to Canterbury, they murdered him coolly, brutally, in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket made no attempt at resistance: indeed, he courted martyrdom.

Death and Consequences. - The murder of Becket has been considered merely a deserved fate, a piece of rude yet even-handed justice; and by others a veritable martyrdom. But Becket was far from being a saint. He was abusive in his speech, haughty in his manner, arrogant in his claims: yet, however deeply he had insulted his sovereign, he was no traitor; and, because this was the ostensible ground for the murder, the act was foul, cowardly, only excusable from the turbulence of the time. - On the very night of the murder, the miracles which made the shrine of Thomas Becket so famous began. People from all parts of England made pilgrimages to his tomb: one such is immortalized in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He was called "saint" long before he was formally canonized, which was two years afterwards. The news of the murder greatly affected Henry, and he took rigorous and indeed humiliating measures to remove the popular impression that he was directly responsible for it. One of the most remarkable scenes in history was enacted in Canterbury Cathedral when Henry II. of England, dressed in a hair shirt, laid his head upon Thomas’s tomb, and was whipped by the monks and clergy present. But he stooped to conquer. He was a more powerful king after this penance.

Character. - Thomas Becket is a fine study. He came at a time when the country was ripe for progress; and, while chancellor, he hastened the good work; but in his later years he tried to stem the tide. The interest of his life for most persons begins when he leaves the pomp of the chancellor for the asceticism of the archbishop. It was of deliberate purpose that he entered into opposition to the King. lie dreamed of showing a devotion to the Catholic Church equal to that of his great predecessor Anselm; but alas! he had not the same genius, self-control, and tact. Anselm and Henry I. contended for supremacy, but the friendship between them was not broken. Becket contended so hotly, that he was in open feud with his sovereign. Becket was the first Ultramontane of his day, bent upon the upholding of papal privileges, more eager than the Pope about them. Curiously enough, he disappointed his two patrons, Theobald (because as chancellor he seemed to forget the Church), and Henry (because as archbishop he seemed to forget the State). Yet, in serving these two causes so faithfully, he was not inconsistent with that guiding principle already mentioned, - to be faithful to his master. But this principle surely led to great changes of outward conduct, and hence to insinuations of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, the archiepiscopal throne was not fitted to him; and hence he discharged its duties in a strained fashion, like a man who conscientiously is acting consciously a part. It is also important, in weighing his character as archbishop, to bear in mind that Thomas died for the rights of his own church, - for the right of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and none other, to crown the King of England, but that the struggle began upon quite a different point, viz., the question of the exemption of the clergy from temporal jurisdiction.

Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn, Vol. 1. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.230-231.

Primary Sources

Book or monograph Anne Duggan, ed. Correspondence of Thomas Becket. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hbk. ISBN: 0198208928. pp.1490.
Book or monograph Duggan: Thomas Becket: A Textual History of his LettersAnne Duggan, Thomas Becket: A Textual History of his Letters. Arnold, 2002. Pbk. ISBN: 0340741384.
Book or monograph The Life and Death of Thomas Becket... based on the account of William FitzStephen his clerk, with additions from other contemporary sources, tr. & edited G. Greenaway. Folio Society, 1961. pp.172.
Book or monograph James Craigie Robertson & J.B. Sheppard, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket. Rolls Series, 7 Vols. London: Longman, 1875-85.

Secondary Sources

Book or monograph Anouilh: Becket or the Honor of GodJean Anouilh, Becket or the Honor of God. Berkley Publishing Group, 1995. Pbk. ISBN: 1573225088. pp.118.
Book or monograph Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket. Phoenix Press, 2000. Pbk. ISBN: 1842124277. pp.352.
Book or monograph Butler: The Quest for Becket's BonesJohn Butler, The Quest for Becket's Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury. Yale University Press, 1996. Pbk. ISBN: 0300068956. pp.192.
Article in Journal or Book Anne Duggan, "'Ne in dubium': The Offical Record of Henry II's Reconciliation at Avranches, 21 May 1172," English Historical Review 115 (2000): 643-58.
Article in Journal or Book R.M. Franklin, "Thomas Becket and the Canon Law," Theology 73(600) (1970): 243-249.
Book or monograph William Holden Hutton, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, revised. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926. pp.vii + 315.
Book or monograph David Knowles, Thomas Becket. Stanford University Press, 1971. Hbk. ISBN: 0804707669. pp.183.
Article in Journal or Book Candace Lines, "'Secret Violence': Becket, More, and the Scripting of Martyrdom," Religion and Literature 32.2 (2000): 11-28.
Book or monograph Logan: A History of the Church in the Middle AgesF. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. London & New York: Routledge, 2002. Pbk. ISBN: 0415132894. pp.162-173.
Article in Journal or Book Robert E. Scully, "The Unmaking of a Saint: Thomas Becket and the English Reformation," Catholic Historical Review 86.4 (2000): 579-602.
Book or monograph Staunton, ed: The Lives of Thomas BecketMichael Stauton, ed. The Lives of Thomas Becket. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pbk. ISBN: 0719054559. pp.265.
Book or monograph Urry: Thomas Becket: His Last DaysWilliam Urry, Thomas Becket: His Last Days. Sutton Publishing, 1999. Hbk. ISBN: 075092179X, pp.208.
Book or monograph Richard Winston, Thomas a Becket. Constable, 1967. Hbk. ISBN: 0094523304.

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Peter Abelard | Aelfric | Alcuin |Anselm | Augustine of Canterbury | Thomas Becket | Bede | Benedict | Bernard of Clairvaux | Boniface | Thomas Bradwardine | Bruno | Catherine of Siena | Charlemagne | Charles Martel | Clare | Clovis | Columba | Dominic | Duns Scotus | Dunstan | Meister Eckhart | Desiderius Erasmus | Francis of Assisi | Gottschalk | Gregory I | Gregory of Rimini | Gregory of Tours | Hildegard of Bingen | Hugo of St Victor | Ignatius Loyola | Innocent III | Isidore | Joachim of Fiore | John Huss | John of Damascus | John of Wesel | Jerome of Prague | Julian of Norwich | Marjory Kempe | Ramon Llull | Nicholas of Cusa | Nicholas of Lyre | Patrick | Pepin (Pippin III) | Peter Damian | Peter Lombard | Peter the Venerable | Photius | Richard Rolle | Scholastica | Thomas Aquinas | Wilfred | William of Ockham | William of St-Theirry | John Wycliffe

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