Thomas A Becket, an English prelate and statesman, born in London about 1117, assassinated in Canterbury, Dec. 29, 1170 His father, Gilbert Becket, a native of Rouen, was of Norman and not of Saxon blood, and his mother, generally represented as a Saracen convert to Christianity, was probably actually born at Caen. Thierry and other writers who picture Becket as a champion of the Saxons against the Normans, are not sustained by later critics, who find no mention of him in that character by contemporary authorities; and the contest had moreover then become one of class and not of race. At the time of his birth his father was established in London as a merchant, and Becket grew up with the feelings of an Englishman of the respectable middle class. He was educated at Merton abbey, Surrey, and at Oxford, London, and Paris. "While employed in the office of his father, who was sheriff'of London and acquainted with Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, the latter enabled him to study law in Bologna and in Auxerre, and presented him on his return to England, after he had taken deacon's orders, with the livings of St. Mary le Strand and Otterford, Kent. He next employed him in missions to Rome, in one of which he successfully negotiated for the restoration of the legatine power of the see of Canterbury. The archbishop now appointed him archdeacon of Canterbury, provost of Beverley, and prebendary of Lincoln and St. Paul's. In 1158 Henry II. made him lord chancellor of England, in which capacity he had to discharge all the functions which now devolve upon the different members of the cabinet, besides officiating judicially.
He was fond of the chase, and as conspicuous on the battlefield as he was at the head of the state. The valor which he displayed as a commander by the side of the king in France led to his being made tutor of his young son Henry, whose marriage with Margaret of France he negotiated. Intimately associated with the king, he yet refrained from joining in his excesses; and though as chancellor and as a soldier he threw off his clerical character and was addicted to stateliness and display, his morals were exemplary and he was by no means irreligious. So powerful became his influence over Henry that in 1162, on the death of Theobald, the king pressed his election to the see of Canterbury; and some authorities ascribe to Henry the intention of making Becket ruler in England as viceroy, while he was himself to rule as king in France. He was the first native Englishman who held the archbishopric of Canterbury, and having been ordained as priest, he was consecrated with.great pomp as primate of all England. He incurred the displeasure of his royal master by relinquishing the chancellor's office, which the king wanted him to retain; and he was deprived of the archdeaconry, which Becket wished to keep along with the archbishopric.
Becket now became as austere and sturdy as a prelate as he had been brilliant and courtier-like as a statesman; and he acquired great renown and popularity as a fearless champion of the prerogatives of the church, and incidentally of the people, against the encroachments of the crown and the nobility. It has been alleged that his qualities fitted him better for the court and the camp than for the church; but it was only through the latter that one of his origin could in his day have risen so high. He began to make his influence felt in 1163 at the council of Rheims, where he lodged complaints against English laymen for tampering with ecclesiastical rights and property. He claimed from the crown Rochester castle as belonging to the church, and this and other bold steps broke off his friendly relations with the government and the nobility. His opposition to the famous constitutions presented at Clarendon in 1164 became the signal of bitter feuds between him and the king. The privilege for which he contended related to the delivery of the most helpless masses of the people from the grasp of the royal courts, and to the trial of their cases by the milder ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
One of the Clarendon constitutions, forbidding the ordination of villeins without the consent of their masters, was particularly obnoxious to the people, with whom he rose in favor in the same degree that he lost ground with the court. Henry II. withdrew his son from his tutorship, and Becket took a solemn vow to resist the Clarendon constitutions, but at length was compelled to recognize them at the request of the pope, who absolved him from the violation of his pledge. Henry nevertheless continued hostile to him; and to escape from his persecutions, he fled from England, but was driven back by stress of weather. Charging him with a breach of allegiance on account of this attempt to desert his post, the king had him tried by a parliament at Northampton; and Becket, overwhelmed with penalties, despoiled of his property, and deserted by all but the common people, fled in disguise, embarking from Sandwich for Gravelines. Henry confiscated the revenues of his see and made unavailing efforts to have him expelled from Flanders and France. Becket spent nearly two years unmolested in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy; and although the king sent an embassy to Rome for the vindication of his course, Becket, after resigning his see into the hands of the pope, was immediately reinstated by his holiness, and his cause was also taken up by the king of France. Becket's boldness increasing with his success, the king struck his name from the liturgy, expelled 400 of his relatives from England, and made it a criminal offence to correspond with him or to hold intercourse with him in any way.
The pope having confirmed Becket's legatine power or primacy of all England except the see of York, the archbishop attempted to awe the church and state into submission to his and the pope's will, and is said to have been restrained only by the illness of the king from having him excommunicated. The efforts of the pope and the French monarch, and several personal interviews between the king and the archbishop, all proved unavailing to effect a reconciliation; and the strife increased in bitterness when Henry II. had the coronation of his son Henry, a prerogative of the primate, performed by the archbishop of York. The latter and his assistant bishops were consequently suspended by the pope at Becket's request. In 1170, however, a reconciliation took place at Freitville, a border town in Touraine, and the king restored to him his see and all its privileges. On his return to England, the people gave him an enthusiastic reception; but he speedily revived the old feud by publishing the suspension of the archbishop of York. The king, who was in Normandy, taunted his attendants for their remissness in revenging him on the overbearing prelate. This incited Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Moreville, and Richard Brito, four barons of the court, to undertake the task.
They met Dec. 28,1170, at the castle of Ranulph de Broc, near Canterbury, accompanied by a body of armed men. The next day they had a stormy interview with the archbishop in his palace, and on the same evening invaded the cathedral during the vesper service. Becket prevented all opposition to their ingress by declining, as he said, "to convert a church into a castle," and implored his assailants to spare everybody except himself. They attempted to drag him out of the church so as not to desecrate it by bloodshed; but while manfully wrestling with De Tracy, Becket received a blow which inflicted a slight wound upon him, and which shattered the arm of his faithful crossbearer, Edward Grimes. The archbishop then kneeled at the altar, when the other three barons gave him the deathblow and his brains were scattered on the floor. The murderers fled from the wrath of the people to Knaresborough and then to Rome, whence the pope sent them as penitents to the Holy Land. The king of England barely escaped from being excommunicated by the pope, who ordered the cathedral to be closed for one year.
In 1172 Alexander III. canonized Becket as Saint Thomas of Canterbury. His remains were deposited in 1221 by Henry III. in a rich shrine, which became a resort of pilgrims (described in Chaucer's " Canterbury Tales "), the scene of alleged miracles, and of periodical festivals. Henry VIII. after the reformation despoiled the shrine of its precious treasures, and had the saint's name struck out of the calendar and his bones burnt and scattered. Not a vestige remains of tho magnificent shrine, and the cathedral itself was partly destroyed by fire in 1872, the interior Of the eastern part of it, known as Becket's crown or corona, having been only recently finished. - The most important contemporary Latin biographers of Becket were Edward Grim, Roger of Pontigny, William Fitz-Stephen, Alan of Tewkesbury, Herbert of Bosham, and an anonymous writer whose MS. was found in the library of Lambeth palace and reproduced by Dr. Giles. Gamier de Pont Sainte Max-ence, who was acquainted with Becket's sister Mary, abbess of Barking, published a French biography in verse at the close of the 12th century. Lord George Lyttelton (1704-'7) and Joseph Berington (1790), in their historical works on Henry II., were the most important English writers on the subject in the 18th century.
Southey's "Book of the Church" (1824; new ed., 1809) contains an attractive biography of Becket. Leu deux clianceliers d' Angleterre, by Ozanam, appeared in Paris in 1830. The "Remains" of R. II. Froude (4 vols., 1838-'9) was followed by two editions of Dr. Giles from the Latin (8 vols., Oxford, 1845; 5 vols., 1848), and by his better known English "Life and Letters of Thomas a Becket" (2 vols., 1846). Dean Stanley's "Historical Memorials of Canterbury" (1855; 5th ed., 1809) gives a minute narrative of the martyrdom and the posthumous history of Thomas in the chapter on the shrine. Dean Milman's " History of Latin Christianity " contains in the 3d and last volume (London, 1854) a full account of the Becket or Thomasian controversy, and this is regarded as one of the best authorities. The German work, Der Heilige Thomas und, sein Kampf fur die Frei-heit der Kirche, by Buss (Mentz, 1850), was followed in London in 1859 by "The Life and Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket," etc, by tiohn Morris, canon of Northampton, and by "Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, a Biography," by James Oraigie Robertson, canon of Canterbury. Edward A. Freeman's essay on " St. Thomas of Canterbury and his Biographers," in his " Historical Essays" (London, 1871), throws new light on Becket's life, refutes the fallacies of Thierry and of other writers, and reveals the religious bias of the different biographers.
A "Life of Thomas a Becket," translated from an Icelandic saga, is in course of publication under the auspices of the master of the rolls (London, 1872).