Saint Thomas Becket

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There is a romantic legend that the mother of Thomas Becket was a Saracen princess who followed his father, a pilgrim or crusader, back from the Holy Land, and wandered about Europe repeating the only English words she knew, “London” and “Becket,” until she found him. According to a contemporary writer, Thomas Becket was the son of Gilbert Becket, sheriff of London. Whatever his parentage, we know with certainty that the future chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury was born on St. Thomas day, 1118, of a good family, and that he was educated at a school of canons regular at Merton Priory in Sussex, and later at the University of Paris.

Early in 1155 Becket became chancellor to the young king Henry II and was soon his trusted adviser; as well as controlling the King’s secretariat, he raised money for the King’s wars, accompanied the King’s armies, conducted diplomatic negotiations, and had charge of the King’s eldest son. In May 1162 Henry recommended Becket to the monks of Canterbury as successor to Theobald; he was consecrated archbishop on June 3 by the bishop of Winchester.

Becket surprised and angered the King by resigning the chancery and showing that he intended to support the large claims to independence and special privilege which had been developed by the clergy in the preceding 50 years. Henry was determined to restore all royal powers as they had been in the time of his grandfather King Henry I; inevitably he and Becket were soon in bitter conflict. The first serious cause of friction was the problem of “criminous clerks” – clergy accused of serious crimes. The question was whether these clerks should be judged and punished in the King’s courts or in those of the Church, where they would escape capital punishment.

In October 1163 the King required the bishops to confirm unconditionally the “customs of his grandfather, ” and he renewed the demand at Clarendon in January 1164. The bishops again refused, but Becket was persuaded to give a verbal promise. The customs, defining the rights of the King over the Church, were then written down for the first time, in 16 clauses later known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket refused to seal them, and the King then promoted legal proceedings against him on unrelated, trumped-up charges. At Northampton (October 1164), Henry ordered the bishops and barons to judge Becket, who, however, forbade them and appealed to the Pope. He then fled secretly to France and submitted the customs to the Pope, offering to resign, but Pope Alexander III ordered him to retain his office and condemned 10 of the customs. Alexander could not, however, give effective support to Becket, since he was himself a refugee, driven from Italy by the Emperor and the antipope.

For nearly six years Becket lived in exile, first in Pontigny, later in Sens, with a few followers. He attempted to negotiate with the King, the bishops of England, and the Pope. The bishop of London, the archbishop of York, and the bishop of Salisbury all actively supported the King; others who may have been more sympathetic to Becket were isolated by Henry’s control of the ports and cowed by his ruthless methods.

Becket’s only weapon was his power to excommunicate offenders and to lay an interdict on their lands. Even this weapon was blunted by the difficulty of finding anyone to convey and publish the sentences in England and by carefully devised judicial appeals to the Pope. Moreover, on two occasions the Pope, in response to threats and promises from Henry, forbade Becket to use his powers. Negotiations continued but came to nothing, as the King insisted on unconditional acceptance of the customs, while Becket insisted on inserting the words “saving the honour of God and my order.”

In June 1170 Henry infringed the rights of Canterbury by having his son crowned by the archbishop of York; this offense forced the Pope more definitely to Becket’s side. Henry feared excommunication and an interdict not only on England but on his less loyal and more vulnerable Continental lands. He therefore allowed peace to be made with the archbishop, not mentioning the customs, and avoided giving Becket the kiss of peace. Becket, well aware of his danger, returned to England on December 1; on December 29 he was brutally murdered by four knights from the King’s court. Henry denied that he had ordered or desired the archbishop’s death; his guilt must remain an open question.

Becket was immediately regarded as a martyr, and miracles were reported. He was canonized on Feb. 21, 1173. His tomb attracted innumerable pilgrims to Canterbury and brought great wealth to the monks, who had done little for him in his lifetime. It was destroyed in 1538, and almost all representations of him were obliterated by royal order, for his memory was particularly offensive to King Henry VIII, bent on establishing supremacy over the Church.

Becket’s struggle achieved very little. Most of the disputed customs passed into law, and the bishoprics of England were filled with men who had helped the King to oppose him. But on two important points the King had to give way. In 1172, in Avranches, when he was reconciled to the Church, he agreed to allow appeals from Church courts in England to the court of the Pope, without reference to the King’s court, thus abrogating one of the customs. And in 1176 he agreed that “criminous clerks” should be tried and punished in the Church courts, excepting only those charged with first offenses. In both these matters Becket’s opposition and death affected the law of England for nearly 4 centuries.

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