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On this day in history in 1170, died Thomas Becket.
Becket was a priest and politician who tried to resist the king in his power struggle with the church, and was accidentally murdered on account of a misunderstanding of the king's orders.
Thomas Becket, or Thomas A Becket, or Thomas Of London was born about 1118, at Cheapside, the son of Norman parents of the merchant class. He was educated at Merton priory, and later studied law at Bologna and Paris. During his childhood, he showed no outstanding piety, or any inclination to join the church.
At the age of 21, Becket became a city clerk, acting for the Sheriff of London. Here he was introduced to Theobold, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him on various missions to Rome, and entrusted him with the collection of church revenues. He so impressed his master, that in 1154, Theobald appointed him archdeacon of Canterbury, a post which involved more accountancy than archdeaconry, and more to do with gold than the golden rule. He proved so competent in organising church finances that Theobold recommended him to King Henry II, who appointed him as chancellor that same year when the post became vacant.
As chancellor, Becket built castles, repaired the Tower of London, collected Danegeld, a tax to defray the king’s military expenses, and even raised troops to fight Henry’s wars. He became the leading figure at the king’s court, leading a life of luxury, with splendid clothing and furnishings, with a troop of servants to wait on him. Aided by Becket, Henry became involved in a power struggle with the church. The king believed that only he should exert authority over the bishops, and that the pope should keep out of the management of the English church, and confine himself to religious matters. A source of great annoyance to the king was the church’s habit of encouraging landowners to leave a portion of their lands to the church. As this was practice was becoming the norm, the church was becoming ever richer and more income was accruing to it, and less to the state. Put in modern economic terms, a disproportionate amount of GDP was being spent on candles and incense!
When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry thought to have his trusted assistant, Becket, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and so control the church from within. There was no legal reason why Becket should not be so appointed. He was unmarried, although rumour abounded that he was not celibate, and the king still held control over the appointment of bishops. Becket, rather reluctantly, accepted the position.
Once consecrated, Becket inexplicably changed both his outlook and lifestyle. He became devout, sober and austere, adopting clerical life and becoming a rigid enforcer of canon law. When Henry proposed a tax on the church, Becket resolutely refused. Furthermore, he excommunicated one of Henry’s barons, who had executed a criminal priest, before a charge had been brought before an ecclesiastical court. Becket defended the right of the church to put clerics on trial, rather than submit them to the king’s authority. In 1164, Henry called a conference of the church at Clarendon, where he demanded total royal rights over the church. This was promptly refused, causing an irreparable breach between Becket and the king.
Becket was summoned to trial by the King on a minor point of feudal obligation. It became clear that Henry intended to force his resignation. Becket fled in disguise to the pope at Avignon, but Pope Alexander III was reluctant to help him, as he feared that Henry would change allegiance to the antipope, Paschal III, an alternative pope who had been appointed by the German Emperor. Becket spent 6 years in exile, while Henry seized church properties and intimidated the clergy. In 1170, the pope tried to negotiate a settlement, and when Henry refused to accept Becket back in England, threatened to excommunicate him and place England under an interdict, upon which Henry reluctantly agreed to Becket’s return to Canterbury.
Becket returned on 2nd December 1170 to be greeted with enthusiasm by the crowds, much to the chagrin of the king. In his anger, Henry bellowed out the now famous words 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?' This outburst was taken as a royal command by four prominent knights of the court, who proceeded to Canterbury and forced their way into the cathedral. There, after a brief altercation, they cut him down with their swords. His last words were an acceptance of death in defence of the church.
Within a few days of Becket’s death, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage, and he was canonized by Alexander III in 1173. In 1174, Henry did penance at Canterbury and was absolved for his importune words. Becket's shrine became one of the most famous in Europe, and a centre for pilgrimage, until Henry VIII, despoiled the memorial. The whereabouts of Becket’s body after the destruction of the tomb remain a mystery. Some commentators say that the body was burnt, and the ashes placed in a canon and fired over the city of Canterbury.
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