Known as plain Thomas Becket during his lifetime, Thomas Ã Becket (1118-1170) was a 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury whose conflict with King Henry II (1133-6 July 1189) led to his assassination.
Learned in the law, Becket went to work for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1154, Theobald introduced him to the newly crowned Henry II. The two became great friends.
In 1155, Henry appointed Becket to the secular office of Chancellor of England. His duties included enforcing the collection of land taxes on church property. For seven years Becket served as Chancellor, partying with the king and earning the dislike of various churchmen.
When Archbishop Theobald died in 1162, Henry decided that Becket would be a perfect replacement: a worldly man and a friend who would enable the king to reduce the power of the English church. Becket was quickly ordained as a priest and promoted to the rank of bishop so that he could be eligible for the office of Archbishop.
And then Beckett spoiled the King’s expectations by getting religion.
Beckett took to praying and wearing a hair shirt under his clothing. In 1163 he opposed Henry in the matter of the jurisdiction of church courts. In retaliation Henry accused him of malfeasance while Chancellor and Becket fled to France where he stayed for six years.
In November 1170, Henry and Becket reconciled, chiefly because the Pope had threatened to excommunicate everyone in England if Becket weren’t restored to the see of Canterbury. Shortly after his return, Becket again annoyed the king. The exasperated Henry threw up his hands and expressed his frustration aloud.
The words traditionally attributed to the exasperated Henry are, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?!” Four of Henry’s men-at-arms took these words as a command and rode to Canterbury where they murdered Becket in the cathedral on December 29, 1170.
Three years after his death, Becket was canonized and his former friend Henry was forced to do penance at his tomb. Canterbury became an important religious shrine. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are on their way to visit the tomb of St. Thomas.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote a verse play called Murder in the Cathedral that was performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral in 1935.
French author Jean Anouilh wrote a play called Becket in 1958. In 1964, it was made into an excellent movie starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II, and Richard Burton as Becket.