Thomas Becket was born circa 1119 the son of a middle ranking London citizen. He was educated in London and Paris. He joined young Henry II in 1154 as his chancellor after serving ten years in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald Bec. He became close friends with Henry and supported him on taxing the church to raise funds for campaigns in Toulouse in 1159.
In 1162 Henry secured Becket in the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This he thought would be advantageous having such a close ally heading up the church of England. Henry expected Becket to continue his support for the King however Becket resigned his position as chancellor and took on the church’s values and defended its position vigorously.
Becket denied demands from the king that convicted felons in the ecclesiastical courts be handed over for punishments by the lay authorities. Thomas also prohibited the marriage of Henry’s brother William to the countess of Warenne on ground of consanguinity.
The relationship between Thomas and Henry broke down with Becket forced into exile after a trial for misappropriation of funds whilst he was chancellor.
Henry confiscated Becket’s property and exiled his supporters. Thomas returned after six years abroad. He threatened England with interdict following the archbishop of York crowning Henry’s son, Henry the Young , as king of England in 1170. Becket excommunicated the bishops who had carried out the coronation.
Henry was furious when he heard the news and uttered the infamous words:
‘Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Four knights overheard and took it upon themselves to assassinate Becket.
On 29th December 1170 at Canterbury cathedral Becket was murdered by the four knights. An account of the attack by Edward Grim a monk who was visiting Canterbury at the time is as follows:
The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’
He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’
‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’
‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’
Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’
The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’
Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.
Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’
Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.
As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.’