Thomas Becket

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Saint
Thomas Becket
Archbishop of Canterbury
English - Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket - Walters W3415V - Open Reverse.jpg
Miniature from an English psalter presenting a spirited account of the murder, c. 1250, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
Province Canterbury
Diocese Canterbury
See Canterbury
Appointed 24 May 1162
Installed 3 June 1162
Term ended 29 December 1170
Predecessor Theobald of Bec
Successor Roger de Bailleul
Orders
Ordination 2 June 1162
Consecration 3 June 1162
by Henry of Blois
Personal details
Birth name Thomas Becket
Born 21 December c. 1118 (or 1120)
Cheapside, London
Died 29 December 1170(1170-12-29)
Canterbury
Buried Canterbury Cathedral
Nationality English
Denomination Roman Catholic
Parents
  • Gilbert Beket
  • Matilda
Previous post Archdeacon of Canterbury
Sainthood
Feast day 29 December
Venerated in
Title as Saint Bishop and Martyr
Beatified 21 February 1173
by Pope Alexander III
Canonized 21 February 1173
St Peter's Church in Segni
by Pope Alexander III
Attributes Sword, Martyrdom, dressed in chancellor's robe and neck chain
Patronage Exeter College, Oxford; Portsmouth; Arbroath Abbey; secular clergy
Shrines Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket (/ˈbɛkɪt/; also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London,[1] and later Thomas à Becket;[note 1] 21 December c. 1118 (or 1120) – 29 December 1170) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. He engaged in conflict with Henry II of England over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III.

Sources[edit]

The main sources for the life of Becket are a number of biographies that were written by contemporaries. A few of these documents are by unknown writers, although traditional historiography has given them names. The known biographers are John of Salisbury, Edward Grim, Benedict of Peterborough, William of Canterbury, William fitz Stephen, Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, Robert of Cricklade, Alan of Tewkesbury, Benet of St Albans, and Herbert of Bosham. The other biographers, who remain anonymous, are generally given the pseudonyms of Anonymous I, Anonymous II (or Anonymous of Lambeth), and Anonymous III (or Lansdowne Anonymous). Besides these accounts, there are also two other accounts that are likely contemporary that appear in the Quadrilogus II and the Thómas saga Erkibyskups. Besides these biographies, there is also the mention of the events of Becket's life in the chroniclers of the time. These include Robert of Torigni's work, Roger of Howden's Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi and Chronica, Ralph Diceto's works, William of Newburgh's Historia Rerum, and Gervase of Canterbury's works.[3]

Early life[edit]

Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

Becket was born about 1118,[4] or in 1120 according to later tradition.[1] He was born in Cheapside, London, on 21 December, which was the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. He was the son of Gilbert Beket and Gilbert's wife Matilda.[note 2] Gilbert's father was from Thierville in the lordship of Brionne in Normandy, and was either a small landowner or a petty knight.[1] Matilda was also of Norman ancestry,[2] and her family may have originated near Caen. Gilbert was perhaps related to Theobald of Bec, whose family also was from Thierville. Gilbert began his life as a merchant, perhaps as a textile merchant, but by the 1120s he was living in London and was a property owner, living on the rental income from his properties. He also served as the sheriff of the city at some point.[1] They were buried in Old St Paul's Cathedral.

One of Becket's father's rich friends, Richer de L'Aigle, often invited Thomas to his estates in Sussex where Becket was exposed to hunting and hawking. According to Grim, Becket learned much from Richer. Richer was later a signatory at the Constitutions of Clarendon against Thomas.[1]

Beginning when he was 10, Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul's Cathedral. He did not study any subjects beyond the trivium and quadrivium at these schools. Later, he spent about a year in Paris around age 20. He did not, however, study canon or civil law at this time and his Latin skill always remained somewhat rudimentary. Sometime after Becket began his schooling, Gilbert Beket suffered financial reverses, and the younger Becket was forced to earn a living as a clerk. Gilbert first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative – Osbert Huitdeniers – and then later Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by now the Archbishop of Canterbury.[1]

Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. Theobald in 1154 named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor,[1] to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.[7]

As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king's traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics.[1] King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses.[citation needed] The younger Henry was reported[where?] to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life.[citation needed]

Primacy[edit]

Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of Theobald. His election was confirmed on 23 May 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen.[1] Henry may have hoped that Becket would continue to put the royal government first, rather than that of the church. The famous transformation of Becket into an ascetic occurred at this time.

Becket was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and on 3 June 1162 was consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and the other suffragan bishops of Canterbury.[1]

A rift grew between Henry and Becket as the new archbishop resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover and extend the rights of the archbishopric. This led to a series of conflicts with the king, including that over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen, which accelerated antipathy between Becket and the king. Attempts by King Henry to influence the other bishops against Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, where the King sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the church.[1] This led to Clarendon, where Becket was officially asked to sign off on the King's rights or face political repercussions.

The Constitutions of Clarendon[edit]

Main article: Becket controversy
For more details on this topic, see Constitutions of Clarendon.
Manuscript illustration. The central man is wearing robes and a mitre and is facing the seated figure on the left. The seated man is wearing a crown and robes and is gesturing at the mitred man. Behind the mitred figure are a number of standing men wearing armor and carrying weapons.
14th-century depiction of Becket with King Henry II

King Henry II presided over the assemblies of most of the higher English clergy at Clarendon Palace on 30 January 1164. In sixteen constitutions, he sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He employed all his skills to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but Becket. Finally, even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but he still refused to formally sign the documents. Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor's office. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.[1]

Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, aimed at all his friends and supporters as well as Becket himself; but King Louis VII of France offered Becket protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to return to Sens. Becket fought back by threatening excommunication and interdict against the king and bishops and the kingdom, but Pope Alexander III, though sympathising with him in theory, favoured a more diplomatic approach. Papal legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators.[1]

In 1170, Alexander sent delegates to impose a solution to the dispute. At that point, Henry offered a compromise that would allow Thomas to return to England from exile.[1]

Assassination[edit]

Becket's assassination and funeral, from a French enamelled chasse made about 1190–1200, one of about 45 surviving examples

In June 1170, Roger de Pont L'Évêque, the archbishop of York, along with Gilbert Foliot, the bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the bishop of Salisbury, crowned the heir apparent, Henry the Young King, at York. This was a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation, and in November 1170 Becket excommunicated all three. While the three clergymen fled to the king in Normandy,[8] Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church, the news of which also reached Henry.

A Seal of the Abbot of Arbroath, showing the murder of Becket. Arbroath Abbey was founded 8 years after the death of St Thomas and dedicated to him; it became the wealthiest abbey in Scotland.

Upon hearing reports of Becket's actions, Henry is said to have uttered words that were interpreted by his men as wishing Becket killed.[9] The king's exact words are in doubt and several versions have been reported.[10] The most commonly quoted, as handed down by oral tradition, is "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?",[11] but according to historian Simon Schama this is incorrect: he accepts the account of the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, who gives us "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"[12] Many variations have found their way into popular culture.

Wall painting of Thomas Becket's martyrdom painted in the 1330s in the parish church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire

Whatever Henry said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights,[9] Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton,[1] set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury.

On 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury. According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king's will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing.[13] Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The four knights, wielding drawn swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers.[1]

Altar marking the spot of Thomas Becket's martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral. Installed in 1986, the dramatic new sculpture of the sword's point – with its representation of four swords for the four knights (two metal swords with reddened tips and their two shadows). The design is the work of Giles Blomfield of Truro.

Several contemporary accounts of what happened next exist; of particular note is that of Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the attack. This is part of the account from Edward Grim:

...The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.[14]

Another account can be found in Expugnatio Hibernica ("Conquest of Ireland", 1189) written by Gerald of Wales

Aftermath[edit]

St Thomas Becket consagrations, death and burial, at wall paintings in Santa Maria de Terrassa (Terrassa, Catalonia, Spain), romanesque frescoes, ca. 1200

Following Becket's death, the monks prepared his body for burial.[1] According to some accounts, it was discovered that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop's garments—a sign of penance.[15] Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and on 21 February 1173—little more than two years after his death—he was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St Peter's Church in Segni.[1] On 12 July 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb as well as at the church of St. Dunstan's, which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England.

In 1173, Becket's sister Mary was appointed as abbess of Barking Abbey as reparation for the murder of her brother.[16]

Becket's assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they remained for about a year. De Morville held property in Cumbria and this may also have provided a convenient bolt-hole, as the men prepared for a longer stay in the separate kingdom of Scotland. They were not arrested and neither did Henry confiscate their lands, but he failed to help them when they sought his advice in August 1171. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome and were ordered by the Pope to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years.[17]

This last also inspired Knights of Saint Thomas, incorporated in 1191 at Acre, and which was to be modelled on the Teutonic Knights. It is the only military order native to England (with chapters in not only Acre, but London, Kilkenny, and Nicosia), like the Gilbertine Order being the only monastic order native to England as well. Nevertheless, Henry VIII dissolved both of these English institutions upon passing the Reformation, rather than merging foreign orders with them and nationalising them as elements of the Protestant Church of England.

The monks were afraid that Becket's body might be stolen. To prevent this Becket's remains were placed beneath the floor of the eastern crypt of the cathedral.[17] A stone cover was placed over the burial place with two holes where pilgrims could insert their heads and kiss the tomb;[1] this arrangement is illustrated in the 'Miracle Windows' of the Trinity Chapel. A guard chamber (now called the Wax Chamber) had a clear view of the grave. In 1220, Becket's bones were moved to a new gold-plated and bejewelled shrine behind the high altar in the Trinity Chapel. The shrine was supported by three pairs of pillars, placed on a raised platform with three steps. This is also illustrated in one of the miracle windows. Canterbury, because of its religious history, had always seen a large number of pilgrims. However, after the death of Thomas Becket, the number of pilgrims visiting the city rose rapidly.

Cult in the Middle Ages[edit]

Candle marking the former spot of the shrine of Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral

On 7 July 1220, in the 50th jubilee year of his death, Becket's remains were relocated from this first tomb to a shrine,[1] in the recently completed Trinity Chapel. This act of translation was 'one of the great symbolic events in the life of the medieval English Church' and was attended by King Henry III of England, the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton and large numbers of dignitaries and magnates secular and ecclesiastical. Thus a 'major new feast day was instituted, commemorating the translation, that was celebrated each July almost everywhere in England and also in many French churches.'[18] This feast was suppressed in 1536 at the Reformation.[19]

The shrine stood until it was destroyed in 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on orders from King Henry VIII.[1][20] The king also destroyed Becket's bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated.[21] The pavement where the shrine stood is today marked by a lit candle.[22]

As the scion of the leading mercantile dynasty of later centuries, Mercers, Becket was very much regarded as a Londoner by the citizens and was adopted as London's co-patron saint with St Paul: both their images appeared on the seals of the city and of the Lord Mayor. The Bridge House Estates seal used only the image of Becket, while the reverse featured a depiction of his martyrdom.

Local legends regarding Becket arose after his canonisation. Though they are typical hagiographical stories, they also display Becket's particular gruffness. "Becket's Well", in Otford, Kent, is said to have been created after Becket had become displeased with the taste of the local water. Two springs of clear water are said to have bubbled up after he struck the ground with his crozier. The absence of nightingales in Otford is also ascribed to Becket, who is said to have been so disturbed in his devotions by the song of a nightingale that he commanded that none should sing in the town ever again. In the town of Strood, also in Kent, Becket is said to have caused the inhabitants of the town and their descendants to be born with tails. The men of Strood had sided with the king in his struggles against the archbishop, and to demonstrate their support, had cut off the tail of Becket's horse as he passed through the town.

The saint's fame quickly spread throughout the Norman world. The first holy image of Becket is thought to be a mosaic icon still visible in Monreale Cathedral, in Sicily, created shortly after his death. Becket's cousins obtained refuge at the Sicilian court during his exile, and King William II of Sicily wed a daughter of Henry II. The principal church of the Sicilian city of Marsala is dedicated to St Thomas Becket. Over forty-five medieval chasse reliquaries decorated in champlevé enamel showing similar scenes from Becket's life survive, including the Becket Casket in London (V&A Museum).

Legacy[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The name "Thomas à Becket" is not contemporary, and appears to be a post-Reformation creation, possibly in imitation of Thomas à Kempis.[2]
  2. ^ There is a story that Thomas's mother was a Saracen princess who met and fell in love with his English father while he was on Crusade or pilgrimage in the Holy Land, followed him home, was baptised and married him. This story has no truth to it, being a fabrication from three centuries after the saint's martyrdom and inserted as a forgery into Edward Grim's contemporary (12th century) Life of St Thomas.[5][6] Matilda occasionally is known as Rohise.[1]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Barlow "Becket, Thomas (1120?–1170)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  2. ^ a b Barlow Thomas Becket pp. 11–12
  3. ^ Barlow Thomas Becket pp. 3–9
  4. ^ Butler and Walsh Butler's Lives of the Saints p. 430
  5. ^ Staunton Lives of Thomas Becket p. 29
  6. ^ Hutton Thomas Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury p. 4
  7. ^ Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 84
  8. ^ Warren Henry II pp. 500–508
  9. ^ a b Huscroft Ruling England p. 194
  10. ^ Warren Henry II p. 508
  11. ^ Knowles Oxford Dictionary of Quotations p. 370
  12. ^ Schama History of Britain p. 142
  13. ^ Stanley p. 53-55
  14. ^ Lee This Sceptred Isle p. 71
  15. ^ Grim, Benedict of Peterborough and William fitzStephen are quoted in Douglas, et al. English Historical Documents 1042–1182 Volume 2 p. 821
  16. ^ William Page & J. Horace Round, ed. (1907). 'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Barking', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2. pp. 115–122. 
  17. ^ a b Barlow Thomas Becket pp. 257–258
  18. ^ Sherry L. Reames, 'Reconstructing and Interpreting a Thirteenth-Century Office for the Translation of Thomas Becket', Speculum, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan., 2005), pp. 118-170, quoting p.118, 119.
  19. ^ 'The Unmaking of a Saint: Thomas Becket and the English Reformation', The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Oct., 2000), pp. 579-602, esp. p. 592.
  20. ^ "Canterbury Cathedral – History". Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. Retrieved 10 November 2011. 
  21. ^ The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, Getty Museum
  22. ^ "History". Canterbury Cathedral. Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. 2011. Retrieved 17 April 2011. 
  23. ^ Malvern, Jack (10 June 2006). "Hollywood shines a light on geezers who killed à Becket". The Times (London). Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  24. ^ "Becket Fund". Becket Fund. Retrieved 17 January 2010. 
  25. ^ a b c d Coughlan, Sean (31 January 2006). "UK | Saint or sinner?". BBC News. Retrieved 17 January 2010. 
  26. ^ Weaver, Matthew (31 January 2006). "Asking silly questions". The Guardian (London). News Blog. Retrieved 2 May 2008. 
  27. ^ Welcome to Monmouth, St Thomas Church Monmouth. Accessed 13 December 2011
  28. ^ "South West England". Heritage at Risk. English Heritage. p. 243. 
  29. ^ "Church of St Thomas a Becket". Heritage Gateway. English Heritage. Retrieved 13 December 2011. 
  30. ^ a b "Church of St Thomas a Becket, Capel, Kent". Churches Conservation Trust. Retrieved 13 December 2011. 
  31. ^ "St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford". A Church Near You. Retrieved 13 December 2011. 
  32. ^ "Saint-Thomas de Cantorbéry". Mondes-normands.caen.fr. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 
  33. ^ "Saint-Thomas Becket (Bénodet)". Linternaute.com. 18 March 2008. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 

References[edit]

  • Barlow, Frank (1986). Thomas Becket. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07175-1. 
  • Barlow, Frank (2004). "Becket, Thomas (1120?–1170)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27201. Retrieved 17 April 2011.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • Butler, Alban (1991). Walsh, Michael, ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 
  • Douglas, David C.; Greenway, George W. (1953). English Historical Documents 1042–1189 2 (Second, 1981 ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-14367-5. 
  • Fryde, E. B.; Greenway, D. E.; Porter, S.; Roy, I. (1996). Handbook of British Chronology (Third revised ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56350-X. 
  • Hutton, William Holden (1910). Thomas Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury. London: Pitman and Sons Ltd. ISBN 1-4097-8808-3. 
  • Knowles, Elizabeth M. (1999). Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Fifth ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860173-9. 
  • Lee, Christopher M. (1997). This Sceptred Isle. London: BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-38384-4. 
  • Robertson, James Craigie (1876). Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury ii. London: Longman. 
  • Schama, Simon (2002). A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? : 3000 BC-AD 1603. London: BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-38497-2. 
  • Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn (1855). Historical Memorials of Canterbury. London: John Murray. 
  • Staunton, Michael (2006). Thomas Becket and His Biographers. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-271-2. 
  • Warren, W. L. (1973). Henry II. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03494-5. 

Further reading[edit]

Biographies
  • Duggan, Anne (2005), Thomas Becket, London: Hodder Arnold.
  • Guy, John. Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (Random House; 2012) 424 pages
  • Knowles, David (1970), Thomas Becket, London: Adam & Charles Black.
Historiography
  • Duggan, Anne (1980), Thomas Becket: A Textual History of his Letters, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Duggan, Anne (Hrsg.) (2000), The Correspondence of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1162–1170). 2 Bände, lat./engl., Oxford: Clarendon Press.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Robert of Ghent
Lord Chancellor
1155–1162
Succeeded by
Geoffrey Ridel
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Theobald of Bec
Archbishop of Canterbury
1162–1170
Succeeded by
Roger de Bailleul