St Thomas Becket: the martyr who defended the Church against the state

Stained glass window of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (HVH/Wikipedia)

Thomas Becket (1118-70) became one of the most popular saints in Europe after his martyrdom on December 29, 1170.

After Henry II succeeded in 1154, Thomas became his best friend. Within months he had been appointed chancellor. In 1162 Henry, determined to control the Church, secured the election of Becket, hitherto not even a priest, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas’s warnings that this would mean the end of their friendship were ignored.

As archbishop, Becket immediately resigned the chancellorship, and quarrelled fiercely with the king over the jurisdiction of Church courts. With the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) Henry appeared to have secured the upper hand. Becket, bitterly reproaching himself for inadequate resistance, determined that he would recover the Church’s rights.

In October 1164, after a stormy meeting with the king at Northampton, Becket fled to France. He spent most of the next six years in spiritual retreat, refusing to give an inch in negotiations with Henry. Pope Alexander III, by contrast, was more inclined to compromise. Finally, in July 1170, Becket and the king met each other again at Fréteval in Touraine, where Henry made a number of tactical concessions.

Murder in the cathedral
Becket, however, remained incensed that the king had had his son, “Young Henry”, crowned in England by the archbishop of York. On November 30 1170 he returned to England, determined to reassert his authority over the English bishops.

On Christmas Day, in Normandy, an exasperated Henry II reprimanded his household for allowing “a low-born clerk” to treat him with such contempt.

Four knights took the hint, crossed the Channel, and spilt Becket’s brains upon the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.