Thomas Becket

Known as plain Thomas Becket during his lifetime, Thomas à 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.

A sketch of King Henry II and Thomas Becket disagreeing over the separation of church and state.

King Henry II and Thomas Becket disagreeing over the separation of church and state.

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.

Thomas Becket being murdered by four knights of Henry II, December 29, 1170.

Thomas Becket being murdered by four knights of Henry II, 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.

5 comments to Thomas Becket

  • T G.

    Why was Becket voted near the top in the category of worst Britons in a poll conducted in England within the last several years? And as depicted in the movie, his goals were the purest and noblest of anyone. And were not about the pursuit of power just for powers sake. So do the English have a love affair with their kings good or bad? And so, does any threat to the seat of power that was the monarchy not settle well? Which I guess did reach its conclusion when Henry Eighth finally separated church and state in addition to destroying almost all of remaining catholic churches as well as seizing their gold? But after all, what are kings and governments for if they can’t have absolute power? And wouldn’t this be true whether there be separation of church and state or not?

  • I can but echo the rave reviews I see above of your Literacy Capsules. Your knowing that Thomas Becket, the subject of this Literacy Capsule, was not known as Thomas à Becket in his lifetime shows that you put some effort into putting these periscopes of knowledge together for us.

  • A great summary of the Thomas Becket and Henry II relationship. Having studied Anouilh’s play and seen the cited movie multiple times, I recommend both to anyone who enjoys history, dramatically told. Love Maeve’s Literary Capsules!

  • @Denton
    You’d probably enjoy the movie with O’Toole and Burton.

    My favorite snippet about Becket is something I read in a contemporary account that described what happened when Becket was laid out after the murder. Apparently the saint hadn’t changed his hair shirt in quite some time because his clothes rippled as the fleas and things left the cooling body.

  • Interesting, Maeve. I’m really enjoying these snippets because I only memorized enough history to pass a test in high school. Should have been a better student. Anyway, THANKS!

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