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Thomas Becket

c.1118-1170. Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162. Born of a well-to-do Norman family in London and educated in England and France, he received in 1141 a position in the court of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury and was sent to university for legal training. After serving for a time as archdeacon of Canterbury, he became chancellor to Henry II. The king and his minister became good friends and spent their time, not only in government work, but also in drinking and carousing. When Theobald died in 1162, Henry appointed Thomas archbishop of Canterbury. Since at the time Becket was still in minor orders, it was necessary to ordain him priest and consecrate him bishop on the same day. As primate of England, Becket was transformed from a stalwart supporter of royal policy to an ardent champion of the church. He resigned his position with the king's government because he considered it a conflict of interest and adopted a pious lifestyle. Henry was disgusted and angry with this turn of events and so in addition to the conflict between the ecclesiastical and royal interests there was a showdown between two forceful personalities.

Henry wished to recover the royal authority over the church which had been lost during the reign of Stephen, his predecessor. The immediate occasion for conflict was the king's efforts to prosecute in royal courts clergymen already tried and convicted in church courts, in order to sentence them to harsher penalties. Thomas refused to allow this on the grounds that it was double jeopardy. In response, Henry issued the Constitutions of Clarendon* which declared that the king, not the pope, was to have authority over the English Church and that he recognized the pope's authority only in a nominal way. Thomas agreed at first to these ideas, but then recanted and fled to the Continent. There he persuaded the pope to condemn many of the Constitutions of Clarendon as uncanonical and to excommunicate churchmen who followed them.

Becket returned to England, and in 1170 was murdered by four overzealous knights who carried out the king's wish, indiscreetly murmured, that someone would rid him of the archbishop. All Europe was outraged at Becket's martyrdom and Henry was forced to do penance at Avranches, France (1172) for the act. The king also found it necessary to allow the exercise of church powers that Thomas had insisted upon. Although canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1173, historians have debated as to whether Becket should be characterized as a saint, traitor, fanatic, or politician.

See W.H. Hutton, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1926); and M.D. Knowles, “Archbishop Thomas Becket: A Character Study,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. XXXV (1949), pp. 177-205.