Born to a merchant father in London, England, in 1117, Thomas Becket, also called Thomas A. Becket or Thomas of London, was educated at Merton Abbey in Surrey and later at Oxford and still later in Paris.
His first position was in the sheriff’s office in London and there he was noticed by Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, a friend of Becket’s wealthy father. Becket was assigned to manage various church properties as well as represent the See of Canterbury in the Vatican.
Henry II befriended the witty and intellectual Becket, and first appointed him chancellor in 1158, and, in 1162, despite opposition, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Then King Henry attempted to prevail upon Becket to cooperate with him in bringing the clergy under his direct supervision and make church members subject to the laws of the land.
Becket saw Henry’s move as one that would put the king above the Church, even though the Vatican had warned that no secular prince had authority over any Church prelate. Becket would not yield to Henry’s commands.
Zeal of a monk
Becket embraced his position with religious fervor. He dedicated his life to the preservation of the Catholic Church in England and approached his chores with the zeal of a monk.
Rather than obey Henry’s orders, Becket fled to France and remained in exile for seven years. Henry restored Becket to his See in 1170, after they reconciled.
When Becket returned to England, he assumed his old office as Archbishop of Canterbury but his relationship with Henry was strained. When the king fell ill, Becket excommunicated the Archbishop of York and other bishops who had agreed to Henry’s suppression of the Church and its prelates.
He went on to excommunicate various nobles who had forsaken their vows to the Church and had sworn allegiance to Henry’s edicts concerning the Church. Then Becket himself issued decrees which, in effect, countermanded Henry’s religious edicts.
Henry, recovering from his illness in Normandy, remarked that he was disappointed that his closest nobles had not avenged him on the insolent Becket. Four knights, Reginald Fitzurse, William Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Briton, visited Canterbury on December 29, 1170, seeking an audience with the Archbishop.
Out for revenge
These knights were out for revenge against Becket for going against their monarch. They arrived at Canterbury with a large troop of soldiers and were themselves heavily armed.
The four armored men clanked across the floor of the cathedral to the altar where they found Becket. They demanded that he step from the church, but he refused. Tracy tried to drag him from the cathedral but Becket clung to a pillar, then turned and threw his assailant from him.
Tracy crashed in heavy metal to the floor, and Fitzurse drew his huge broadsword and swung mightily at Becket but he hit him only a glancing blow, breaking the arm of his cross-bearer, Edward Grim. Then Becket knelt before the altar, his back to his assassins who, wielding their giant swords, crushed his head, spilling his brains upon the cathedral floor.
Becket was canonized as a saint in 1172. The spot where Becket was assassinated was later marked as a shrine, although Henry VIII, in his complete break with Rome, plundered the place in 1538, expunging Becket’s name from Church records.