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Biography of Thomas Becket

Icon of Thomas Becket

Thomas a Becket (Now known as Saint Thomas Becket) was an Archbishop of Canterbury famous for being murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

When and Where was he Born?

1118 in Cheapside, London.

Family Background:

Thomas Becket was the son of wealthy Norman Merchants.

Education:

Merton Priory near Wimbledon, south west London. Paris. Studied law at Bologna and Auxerre.

Timeline of Thomas a Becket:

1140’s: Becket is trained in knightly exercises at Pevensey Castle. (now East Sussex).

1142: Thomas Becket enters the household of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury who sends him to Italy and France to study Canon Law.

1152: At the Papal Court he prevents the recognition of King Stephen’s son Eustace as heir to the English throne.

1154: Becket is appointed Chancellor of England and becomes a close friend of King Henry the Second of England whom he served as a skillful diplomat.

1159: Becket shows off his knightly combat skills during the Toulouse campaign.

1162: He is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry but he emerges as an unlikely defender of the rights of the Church.

1163: Becket speaks up against the King at the Council of Westminster.

1164: At the Council of Clarendon Thomas Becket speaks out against the King’s wish to try in the lay courts clergy who had already been convicted in an ecclesiastical court. (The so-called “Benefit of Clergy”) and refuses to endorse other orders which further challenge the authority of the church. He finally goes into exile in France after appealing to Pope Alexander the Third about the enraged King who has sequestered all his goods and revenues.

1170: He returns to England after two years in France (Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny) and Italy (Rome, again appealing to the Pope who excommunicated a number of bishops, including the Archbishop of York who had participated in a ceremony to crown Henry’s son as joint King of England). This further infuriates the King who is heard to say, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights, Hugh de Merville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse and Richard le Breton take the king at his word and enter Canterbury Cathedral and murder him in spite of the best efforts to protect him of Robert, one of the Canons from Merton Priory. Robert is later to show people Becket’s hairshirt which was proof, in medieval eyes, of his holiness.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral where Becket was murdered. (copyright Anthony Blagg 

(1173): Becket is acclaimed a martyr and canonised and his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral becomes one of Europe’s most important centres of pilgrimage.

(1174): King Henry the Second pays public penance at his tomb.

When and Where Did he Die?

He is murdered on 29th December 1170, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent.

Age at Death:

52.

Marriage:

Never married.

Site of Grave:

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England.
In 1220 his bones were transferred to a shrine in the Trinity Chapel, which was destroyed in 1538 during the Reformation. King Henry the Eight ordered the desecration of his bones but since that time his skull, which was the only part to survive, has been preserved under the corona.

Places of Interest:

LONDON:

Merton Priory. The Chapter House and a few ruins only remain and are threatened by modern developments. Besides Becket other famous people to be schooled at Merton were Nicholas Breakspear, the only English Pope and Walter De Merton, the founder of Merton College, Oxford University.

KENT:

Canterbury Cathedral.

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