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Before the Protestant Reformation and the rise of secularism cut down its power, the Catholic Church was a mighty institution, controlling the hearts, minds and souls of most of Western Europe. William the Conqueror had recognised this power and, by securing the Pope’s blessing for his invasion of England, he had allied military strength with the spiritual authority of the Church. However, his descendants grew increasingly wary of their priests, going to extraordinary lengths to wrest back control. The climax of this struggle was fought between a king and a clerk he had raised from obscurity, Thomas Becket.

According to the latest accounts, Becket was born in 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda Becket. The Beckets were a Norman merchant family specialising in the cloth trade. Although their exact origins are unknown, one tantalising (if most definitely apocryphal) legend claims that Thomas’ mother was a Middle Eastern princess who fled to England with Thomas’ father, who had been held captive by the desert tribes while on a business trip. The family lived in London, and Gilbert eventually became one of the four sheriffs of the city, helping to collect taxes and administer the region. 

Thomas was educated at the Merton priory, chosen possibly by Matilda due to her devotion to the Virgin Mary. Reticent due to a stammer, he was more comfortable outside of the classroom and was acknowledged as neither studious nor lazy in his reports. Contemporary chroniclers describe him as tall and handsome, and he would eventually become a gifted horseman and wrestler. It was around this time that he encountered Richer de l’Aigle, a 30-year-old aristocrat, who introduced him to the elite social circles of nobility. The two grew close (Robert of Cricklade, a biographer, speculates they grew intimately close), but their friendship was interrupted when Matilda sent Thomas abroad to study in Paris, perhaps to distance her son from Richer’s subversive influence. Two years later, however, he was called back home to attend his mother’s funeral and he pulled out of school shortly after. 

When the family fell into financial difficulties, Thomas was forced to take up a secretarial position with his banker relatives. After a short stint keeping accounts, Thomas was introduced to Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop was impressed with the young man and offered him a post as clerk. In this position, the young Becket won over his employer by compensating for the older cleric’s social gaucheness with his eloquence and style, playing an invaluable role in communications. Machiavellian office politicking led him into intense rivalries with his fellow clerks, particularly Roger de Pont, who tried twice to suspend him from his duties. Regardless, by manipulating his way back into the role through Theobald’s brother Walter, Thomas made himself the Archbishop’s clear favourite. Starting as a novice administrator, he was assigned a tutor by the Archbishop and was then sent to study law at the famed university at Bologna. 

Meanwhile, the succession crisis which had followed the death of Henry I had been uneasily resolved: Henry I’s daughter Matilda and her husband Geoffrey fled to Normandy, while Stephen, Henry I’s nephew, took the throne. Having secured his kingship, Stephen proceeded to clamp down on domestic affairs. Yet Matilda still had designs on power and so pushed a campaign to give her son Henry the crown instead. Unimpressed, Theobald, a strident supporter of Matilda, had persuaded a reluctant Pope Eugenius III to endorse her, in response to which Stephen had barred all but three handpicked bishops from attending a papal conference in 1148. Theobald, accompanied by Thomas Becket, Becket’s rival Roger de Pont and another clerk, managed to sneak out in a barely sea-worthy dinghy and attend the Papal Conference. Eugenius applauded the archbishop for his bravery and resourcefulness, and was irate at Stephen’s insolence, almost excommunicating him. Theobald, however, intervened and begged for leniency; the Pope, touched by this act of Christian kindness, reconsidered. Yet Theobald was motivated less by brotherly love than by political calculations – a premature punitive act would only alienate the English people, who now sought internal peace after the last civil war.

When Theobald (and Thomas) returned to England, Stephen, in an act of considerable ingratitude, seized his lands and exiled him to France. An incandescent Pontifex Maximus immediately placed England under indictment, barring priests from carrying out their regular duties until Stephen paid penance. Although most priests did not oblige, vindicating Theobald’s previous fears, the King did eventually relent and admitted his error.

This display of the noble resistance of the Church against the crown struck a chord with Becket. By this time, the young clerk was being sent on diplomatic missions to the Pope. He parlayed on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, securing Theobald a position as papal legate, as well as persuading Eugenius to forbid the crowning of Eustace, Stephen’s son. Here, de Pont did his best to overturn Becket’s work, further sparking enmity between the two men. Stephen was not only apoplectic, but also powerless to prevent this ecclesiastical interference in his affairs. 

Meanwhile, Henry of Anjou (Matilda’s son) had married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the former wife of King Louis of France. When he prepared for an invasion of England, Eustace and Louis, both feeling aggrieved, invaded Normandy first. Theobald played mediator, but was now increasingly reliant on Becket for emotional and political support. Using his powerful rhetoric, Becket eventually managed to broker an agreement, where Stephen formally acknowledged Henry as his one and only heir. Just a year later, in 1154, Stephen died and Henry rushed back to England to be crowned as Henry II of England.

Within a matter of weeks of his accession, Henry appointed Thomas Becket as Lord Chancellor. Henry’s exact reasoning is not immediately clear, but we can posit that Becket’s role in securing his succession and thwarting Stephen’s plans played a great part. Moreover, Theobald lobbied heavily for his protégé, making his appointment more palatable. 

The King and his Chancellor enjoyed a good relationship. Thomas Becket possessed a sharp memory and shared Henry’s love for hunting and falconry. Henry’s favour helped fuel a lavish lifestyle for Becket; he possessed the second-largest estate in the country, a private zoo, six ships and countless expensive accessories. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Becket was often criticised for this way of living, especially since he neglected his duties as an archdeacon. In his capacity as Chancellor, Becket spent eight years managing the King’s household, trying to wrest power away from the barons and centralise authority under the Crown. He levelled castles, repaired the Tower of London and carried out numerous successful diplomatic missions. Meanwhile, the King’s chief ambition was to reduce the power of the Church, and he thought he found the perfect vehicle for his plans. His close friend Becket was affable, showed a penchant for expensive tastes that were not particularly becoming of a clergyman and was ultimately loyal to him. So, when Theobald passed away in 1162, Henry did not hesitate to champion his Chancellor for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. He would soon come to rue that decision.

Thomas became increasingly ascetic, renouncing his extravagant tastes and soon resigning the Chancellorship. Henry felt betrayed: his closest companion was now returning favour with frost, lobbying extensively for an increase in the Archbishop’s powers and prerogatives. Disputes over matters such as the special privileges of Canterbury and the Church’s jurisdiction to try priests in its own courts swiftly led to a significant estrangement between the King and his former Chancellor. Tensions came to a head in 1164, when Henry II passed the Constitutions of Clarendon, a set of laws that drastically reduced the Church’s powers. Henry, using a combination of persuasion and the threat of severe punishment, argued so emphatically for the case that the bishops were unanimous in their acceptance of the Constitutions. Yet when Pope Alexander III dissented, Becket immediately reneged on his prior agreement. 

Henry, out of patience with the obstinate Archbishop, put Becket on trial at Northampton Castle and had him found guilty of contempt of royal authority. Thomas left the trial in the middle of the proceedings and fled to France, where King Louis offered him refuge. The best of friends had turned into worst of enemies and were attempting to leverage their power over each other. Henry drafted many edicts that effectively licensed the persecution of Becket and any of his followers. In response, Becket threatened to excommunicate the King and his knights. Growing increasingly frustrated with the deadlock, the Pope began urging both parties to seek a compromise. 

When Papal diplomacy finally allowed Thomas to return to England in 1170, he found that, in his absence, Henry’s son, also named Henry, had been crowned at York Cathedral by the hated Roger de Pont (now Archbishop of York) despite this practice being the reserved right of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket excommunicated the three men who had carried out the coronation in an act of pettiness. Henry II had long been noted for his violent outbursts. Now this action, compounded with excommunications of other royal servants and the flamboyant hero’s return with which Becket had been welcomed, led the King to fall into a fit. Four knights – Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton – heard the words of the wrathful King and acted on them. The exact phrase Henry used is unknown, but chronicler Edward Grim cites it as being: “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?”

The four knights swiftly travelled to Canterbury Cathedral, where they angrily confronted Becket, who refused to acknowledge them or accompany them back to answer for his actions. Provoked, the knights rushed to grab the weapons they had left outside and charged back into the cathedral. Becket forbade his priests from barricading the building and went about his business as usual. Answering their calls for Becket the traitor with “Here I am, no traitor but a priest”, he was brutally assassinated by longsword in December 1170. 

Becket’s power did not end with his death. His murder was met with uproar, not least from the clergy. The Pope excommunicated the four assailants and canonised Becket, now known St. Thomas Becket. Even King Henry, whether out of genuine repent or political acumen, paid penance at the archbishop’s tomb in 1174. A cult of St. Thomas sprung up rapidly, and today Canterbury is one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations. Stories abound of the miracles which have occurred there, such as the tale of Eilward of Westoning, who was unjustly blinded and castrated for stealing. After speaking to the saint in a dream, his organs allegedly grew back. Such legends immortalised Becket’s fame through journeys depicted by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. However, it was not to last; during Henry VIII’s Reformation, the cult of St. Thomas was banned and his tomb destroyed. Even after his death, Becket was at odds with the crown.

Guy, J., 2012. Thomas Becket. Random House

Jones, D., 2012. The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England. Harper Collins