The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Becket, Thomas à

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660603The Encyclopedia Americana — Becket, Thomas à

BECKET, Thomas à, archbishop of Canterbury, the Saxon hero, priest and martyr of England in the reign of Henry II: b. London 1119, or, according to some writers, 21 Dec. 1117; d. Canterbury, 29 Dec. 1170. He was the son of Gilbert Becket, a merchant of London. He was first educated by the canons of Merton, and continued his studies in the schools of Oxford, London and Paris. On the death of his father he was admitted into the family of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, and, with his permission, went to the Continent for the purpose of studying the civil and canon law. He attended the lectures of Gratian at Bologna, and of another celebrated professor at Auxerre. He won high favor with the King through having obtained from the Pope, while acting as agent for Theobald, letters prohibitory of the crowning of Eustace, the son of Stephen, by which that design was defeated (1152). This service not only raised Becket in the esteem of the archbishop, but in that of King Henry II, and was the foundation of his high fortune. In 1155 he was appointed high-chancellor and preceptor to Prince Henry, and at this time was a complete courtier, conforming in every respect to the humor of the King. He was, in fact, his prime companion, had the same hours of eating and going to bed, held splendid levees, and courted popular applause. In 1159 he made a campaign with the King in Toulouse, having in his own pay 700 knights and 1,200 horsemen; and it is said he advised Henry to seize the person of Louis, King of France, shut up in Toulouse without an army. This counsel, however, so indicative of à Becket's energy, being too bold for the lay counsellors of one of the boldest monarchs of the age, was declined. In the next year he visited Paris to treat of an alliance between the eldest daughter of the King of France and Prince Henry, and returned with the young princess to England. He had not enjoyed the chancellorship more than four years when his patron Theobald died, and King Henry, was so far mistaken as to raise his favorite to the primacy, on the presumption that he would aid him in those political views, in respect to Church power, which all the sovereigns of the Norman line embraced, and which, in fact, caused a continual struggle in England till its termination by Henry VIII. It is narrated that when Henry announced his intention of having Becket promoted to the primacy left vacant by the death of Theobald, Becket prophetically remarked: “I am certain that if, by God's disposal, it were to so happen, the love and favor you now bear towards me, would speedily turn into bitterest hatred.”

Becket was consecrated archbishop in 1162, and immediately assumed an austerity of conduct which formed a very natural prelude to the course which he was to follow. Pope Alexander III held a general council at Tours in 1163, at which Becket attended and made a formal complaint of the infringements by the laity on the rights and immunities of the Church. On his return to England he began to act in the spirit of this representation, and to prosecute several of the nobility and others holding Church possessions, whom he also proceeded to excommunicate. At a council at Woodstock (1163) he successfully opposed the King on a point regarding taxation — the first case of this kind recorded in England. Henry, an able and politic monarch, was anxious to recall certain privileges of the clergy which withdrew them from the jurisdiction of the civil courts; and it was not without a violent struggle, and in the interests of peace, that Becket finally acquiesced. The King soon after summoned a convocation or parliament at Clarendon (1164), to the celebrated “constitutions” of which, although the archbishop swore that he would never assent, he at length yielded, but afterward refused to affix his signature, and by way of penance suspended himself from his archiepiscopal functions till the Pope's absolution could arrive. Finding himself the object of the King's displeasure, he soon after attempted to escape to France; but being intercepted, Henry, in a parliament at Northampton, charged him with a violation of his allegiance, and all his goods were confiscated. A suit was also commenced against him for money lent him during his chancellorship and for the proceeds of the benefices which he had held vacant while in that capacity. In this desperate situation he with great difficulty and danger made his escape to Flanders, and, proceeding to the Pope at Sens, humbly resigned his archbishopric, which was however restored. He then took up his abode at the abbey of Pontigny, in Normandy, whence he issued expostulatory letters to the King and bishops of England, in which he excommunicated all violators of the prerogatives of the Church, and included in the censure the principal officers of the Crown. Henry was so exasperated that he banished all his relations and obliged the Cistercians to send him away from the abbey of Pontigny; from which he removed, on the recommendation of the King of France, to the abbey of Columbe, and spent four years there in exile.

After much negotiation a sort of reconciliation was patched up in 1170, which on the whole was to the advantage of Becket, who, being now restored to his see with all its former privileges, forthwith prepared to return. After a triumphant entry into Canterbury the young Prince Henry, crowned during the lifetime of his father, transmitted him an order to restore the suspended and excommunicated prelates, which he refused to do, for the reason that the Pope alone could grant the request, though the latter had authorized him to inflict the censure on them. The prelates immediately appealed to Henry in Normandy, who in a state of extreme exasperation exclaimed, “What an unhappy prince am I, who have not about me one man of spirit enough to rid me of a single insolent prelate, the perpetual trouble of my life!” These rash and too significant words induced four of the attendant barons, Reginald Fitz-Urse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard Breto, to resolve to wipe out the King's reproach. Having laid their plans, they forthwith proceeded to Canterbury, and having formally required the archbishop to restore the suspended prelates, they returned in the evening of the same day (29 Dec. 1170), and, placing soldiers in the courtyard, rushed with their swords drawn into the cathedral, where the archbishop was at vespers, and, advancing toward him, threatened him with death if he still disobeyed the orders of Henry. Becket, without the least token of fear, replied that he was ready to die for the rights of the Church; and magnanimously added, “I charge you in the name of the Almighty not to hurt any other person here, for none of them have been concerned in the late transactions.” The confederates then strove to drag him out of the church, but not being able to do so on account of his resolute deportment, they killed him on the spot with repeated wounds, all which he endured without a groan.

The perpetrators of the deed repented and made pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Henry II did penance at the saint's tomb.

Thus perished Thomas à Becket in his 52d year, a martyr to the cause which he espoused, and a man of unquestionable vigor of intellect. He was canonized two years after his death, and miracles abounded at his tomb. In the reign of Henry III his body was taken up and placed in a magnificent shrine erected by Archbishop Stephen Langton; and of the popularity of the pilgrimages to his tomb the ‘Canterbury Tales’ of Chaucer will prove an enduring testimony. In September 1538, Henry VIII, who held the veneration with which à Becket was regarded in especial detestation, destroyed the shrine and, on what appears to be good evidence, had the martyr's bones burned. The names of many churches and hospitals, in order to conform to the royal commands, were changed from Saint Thomas the Martyr to Saint Thomas the Apostle. Consult for the sources of the life ‘Materials for the History of Archbishop Becket,’ edited for the Rolls Series by Robertson and Sheppard (London 1875-85); also ‘Lives’ by A. E. Abbott (London 1898), W. H. Hutton (ib. 1889), John Morris (2d ed., ib. 1885) and R. A. Thompson (ib. 1889). Tennyson's drama of ‘Becket’ has the martyr for its hero; Ward, ‘Canterbury Pilgrimages’ (London 1904).