Thomas of Canterbury, possibly better known as Thomas Becket, is probably the most famous of the medieval archbishops of Canterbury. He came from a Norman family that had settled in London after the Norman Conquest. Thomas Becket was educated at Merton Abbey and Paris. He was sent to Bologna and Auxerre to study law, was ordained deacon, and in 1154 was made archdeacon of Canterbury, a post that gave him scope to use his administrative skills to the full. In 1154 Henry II became King of England and the two men had frequent contact.
In 1155 Henry appointed Thomas as chancellor of England, and Thomas served his king loy-ally and competently in the administration of state affairs, in embassies, and even on military expeditions. He was all that Henry could have wished for in his chancellor. He even supported the king’s interests against those of the church on occasion. Thomas’s lifestyle was consistent with his position; he enjoyed lavish entertainments and wealth.
The Middle Ages had seen a considerable power struggle between church and state in Europe. This came to involve the papacy in the wake of the reforms of the 11th Century. King Henry wanted to control both church and state so he appointed Thomas archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.
Thomas, who had warned the king of what would happen, now gave the church the same intense loyalty he had given the king. He resigned the chancellorship and adopted a more austere life-style. To Henry’s chagrin and annoyance, Thomas then opposed the king’s attempts to control the church. Thomas also opposed the king over taxation affecting the church, and supported the idea of appeals to Rome on matters affecting the church in England.
A long and bitter struggle between the two men followed. When Henry attempted to try Thomas over financial dealings during his chancellorship, Thomas went into exile and spent the next 6 years in France.
The rift between Henry and Thomas was patched up in 1169, and Thomas returned home to a hero’s welcome. In the interval the king had ignored the claims of Canterbury and the archbishop of York had officiated at the coronation of Prince Henry. Thomas retaliated by ex-communicating the bishops concerned. Henry in a rage called for Thomas’s removal. Four leading knights promptly rode to Canterbury and murdered Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral.
A popular cult of St Thomas grew up almost immediately. He was canonised in 1173, and his shortcomings were almost completely forgotten. His tomb in Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage until his shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538.
BORN: 21 December 1118, Cheapside, City of London, England
DIED: 29 December 1170, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England