Saint Thomas Becket

Saint Thomas Becket was the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury from AD 1162 until his martyrdom in 1170. He is venerated as a Saint in both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

As an archdeacon and servant of the king, he was nominated to become the Archbishop of Canterbury on May 23, 1162. He was not even a priest at this time. Some have speculated that King Henry II favoured the nomination after the death of Archbishop Theobald, hoping that Becket would continue to put the royal government before the Catholic Church. Becket was ordained a priest on June 2 of that year, and the following day was consecrated archbishop. (Talk about a rapid career rise!) King Henry II, however, failed to realise that such a radical chain of events in Becket's life would have a profound spiritual influence on him. Becket's transformation into an ascetic began at this time. A power struggle quickly ensued between the new archbishop and the king, and their friendship became a rivalry. Becket resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover the rights of the archbishopric. In response, Henry began turning the other bishops at Westminster against him. King Henry II was working to weaken ties with Rome at the time, and he had made great strides with all the bishops of England -- except Becket. Eventually, King Henry II brought Archbishop Thomas Becket up on phony charges of contempt and malfeasance. In a kangaroo court, he had him convicted of these charges, and in response Becket stormed out of the courtroom, fled Britain, went to Europe, where he received protection from the King of France.

At this point I cannot fail to mention the 20th century retelling of the Saint's life in this 1964 Hollywood film 'Becket' starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. The entire movie can be viewed online here, but as we reach this point in Becket's life, it is fitting to embed a clip from the film that depicts Saint Thomas Becket's trial in King Henry II's mock court. Becket has been summonsed to answer the erroneous charges and the king watches his friend-rival defend himself overhead...

Archbishop Thomas Becket spent two years in France, until Henry's threats against his friends forced him to seek return to England and contend with the wayward king. The pope, coming to Becket's defence, sent papal legates with the authority to act as arbitrators. In 1170 King Henry II allowed Becket to return to England from exile.

The actual place of Becket's martyrdom
Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury England
Later that year, King Henry II was formerly crowned by three bishops in violation of English protocol and of Canterbury's privileged to crown English kings. Seeing this as a political ploy and an act of treachery toward the Catholic Church, Archbishop Thomas Becket excommunicated the three bishops, and then began systematically excommunicating all those who opposed Rome's prerogative over the Church of England. Word of this reached King Henry II, and what happened next is disputed. Henry reportedly spoke ill of his rival-friend Becket in such a way that some who heard it mistakenly believed he wanted him dead. The fact that there are many versions of his exact words only seems to verify the confusion that resulted from whatever he said. In response, four of the king's knights; Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, took it upon themselves to set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury. Initially they ordered Becket to report to the king at once. Seeing that these men held no note of authority from the king, Becket rightfully refused. The knights then went back outside, retrieved their armour and swords, and proceeded back into Canterbury Cathedral to kill the Archbishop. They met the archbishop inside the cathedral where he was leading the Divine Office. One account of the murder/martyrdom comes to us from Edward Grim, who was himself wounded in the attack...
The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.'
History tells of a great storm and some miracles that followed Becket's murder. It wasn't long after that the faithful throughout England and all of Europe began honouring Thomas Becket as a martyr, and in 1173 he was canonised as a Saint by Pope Alexander III. King Henry II later humbled himself at Becket's tomb and submitted to public penance for his crimes. The knights who murdered Saint Thomas Becket were excommunicated by the pope. They eventually grovelled to Rome and begged for forgiveness. The pope granted them absolution, but for penance, they must serve as knights in the Holy Land for fourteen years. Today, Saint Thomas Becket is honoured as the patron saint of secular clergy for England and Wales. He is also seen as a hero who stood up to the corruption of government and its attempted influence over the Church.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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