The New International Encyclopædia/Becket, Thomas à
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Becket, Thomas à
|Edition of 1905. See also Thomas Becket on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.|
BECK'ET, Thomas à (c.1118-70). Archbishop of Canterbury, born in London. He was the son of a merchant and was educated at Merton Priory (Surrey), London, and Paris, and later studied canon law at Bologna and Auxerre. After earning his living for a time as a notary and clerk, he became connected with Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, receiving two church livings and various offices. In 1155 Henry II. made Becket Chancellor of England. His duties were numerous and burdensome and were vigorously discharged. His style of living was ostentatious, and when necessary he equipped troops at his own expense and commanded them in person. On May 23, 1162, he was elected Archldshop of Canterbury, through the King's influence. His private life in the past had been above reproach, and as archbishop he was noted for his zeal, devotion, and piety. He soon came into conflict with the King. In 1163 he opposed the King in a matter of taxation, acting as the champion of the people. He also maintained vigorously all the prerogatives of the Church, in spite of the King's anger and hostility. Henry (1164) caused the Constitutions of Clarendon (q.v.) to be drawn up, embodying the ancient customs and laws of the country, but Becket refused to seal them, declaring them contrary to canon law. A contest followed, in which the archbishop firmly resisted the King's authority, whenever it conflicted with what he held to be the rights of the Church. Henry was determined to humble the archbishop, and under various pretexts mulcted him in large sums of money. Finally, when Beeket, driven to desperation, appealed to the Pope, he was declared a traitor and compelled to flee secretly from England, November 2, 1164. For the next six years he remained in France. Henry confiscated Becket's property, and was threatened by him with exconnnunication and interdict. Various attempts at reconciliation were made in vain. Finally, in 1170, after the King's son had been crowned by the Archbishop of York, in direct opposition not only to custom and law, but also to the express commands of Becket and the Pope, Henry felt obliged to make terms. Becket, anxious to return to England, was promised the restoration of all his confiscated property. He landed in England on December 1, 1170. and innnediately the struggle between King and prelate broke out anew. Becket refused to absolve the bishops who had taken part in the coronation, because, after having disobeyed the Pope, they were unwilling to swear to obey in the future. On December 20. 1170, four knights went to Canterbury to demand, in the name of the King, the absolution of the bishops. Becket refused, alleging the necessity of obedience to the Pope. The knights withdrew from the cathedral transept where they were, only to return with an armed following. Becket forbade his attendants to lock the doors, saying, “God's house must be closed against no man.” There, by the altar, he was murdered, declaring, “For the name of Jesus and for the defense of the Church I am ready to embrace death.” Henry was compelled to make heavy concessions and to do public penance at the martyr's tomb, to avoid the ban of excommunication. The murderers, having repaired to Rome as penitents, were sent on a pilgrimage to Palestine. February 21, 1173, Beeket was canonized by Pope Alexander III., and the anniversary of his death was set apart as the yearly festival of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. In 1220 his bones were raised from the grave in the crypt, where they had been hastily buried the day after his murder, and by order of King Henry III. were deposited in a splendid shrine, which for three centuries continued to be the object of one of the great pilgrimages of Christendom, and still lives in English literature in connection with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. At the Reformation Henry VIII. despoiled the shrine, erased Becket's name from the calendar, and, according to a doubtful account, caused his bones to be burned and scattered to the winds.
Bibliography. The best collection of sources for the life of Becket is contained in Robertson and Shepard's (ed.) Materials for the History of Archbishop Becket, Rolls Series, 7 volumes (London, 1875-85). These include a number of biographies by contemporaries and a very large number of letters. The best modern work is Canon Morris, Life and Mnrtyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket (London, 1885). In addition, see Hook, Archbishops of Canterbury, Vol. V. (London, 1860-67); Thompson, Thomas Becket (London, 1889); Freeman, Historical Essays (London, 1872-79); Stubbs, Constitutional History (Oxford, 1891); Hutton, Saint Thomas of Canterbury (London, 1889).