Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket

NAME Thomas Becket

BIRTH b 1118 London.

FAMILY BACKGROUND Thomas Becket came from relatively humble origins, his father, Gilbert Beckett, meaning "Little Beak", was part of a Norman family of knights, who originally came from Rouen in France. Mr Little Beak was a merchant of wealth and position who later suffered financial reverses.
His mother, Mathilda, was a burgher woman of Caan. No, she didn't work for a medieval fast food chain - A 'burgher' is a citizen of a borough or town, especially one belonging to middle class .

EDUCATION Becket was educated by Monks at Merton Priory, Surrey, where he learnt to read and City Grammar, London. He then studied canon law in Bologna, Italy and Auxerre, France.

CAREER RECORD A gifted Administrator, Becket was not a natural for the position of Archbishop as he knew little Latin, theology, and was lacking in knowledge of liturgy
Late 1130s Secretary to Lord of Pevensey
1140-43 Worked as Clerk & Auditor in the city.
1143-54 Entered the household of a distant relative, Theobold of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury. 1154 Archdeacon of Canterbury
1155 Chancellor of England
1159-60 Governed Cahors in France
1162 Archbishop of Canterbury (I know, I know.. I said he wasn't cut out for it but he got the job as he was the king's mate).
1164 Fled to France
1170 Returned to England

APPEARANCE Becket was six foot tall which was very tall in those days. He was strong jawed, slim, pale skinned, dark hair, and a straightly featured face, his forehead creased with frown lines. Strangely this Little Beak actually had quite a long nose.

FASHION Becket dressed in fine clothes such as scarlet furs until his appointment as Archbishop when he adopted a more austere style. In his final years he wore a lice ridden hair shirt next to his skin. Suits you, sir.

CHARACTER The bad news was that he was imperious, stubborn and at times violent. The good news was that the Archbishop was conscientious, disciplined, principled, energetic, and intelligent. He suffered from a slight stutter but was winning and lovable.

SENSE OF HUMOUR Becket had a ready wit, which helped to endure him to the King.

RELATIONSHIPS As I previously mentioned, Becket was a good friend of King Henry II, it was commented they acted like two schoolboys at play.

MONEY and FAME Originally a clerk of humble origins, as a friend of Henry II, Becket was rewarded with great wealth which he flaunted at ceremonies. As chancellor he amassed such wealth that 52 clerks were needed to run his affairs. Subsequently he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury to enable Henry to have more power over the Church. Once Becket was appointed to the see of Canterbury he became profuse in alms giving and lived a simple existence. By 1164 their relationship was faltering, and Henry accused him of making £30,000.

FOOD As Chancellor Thomas ate little despite all the lavish hospitality on offer. An exception was a meal in Paris where he paid 100 shillings (around $7) for a plate of eels.

Becket introduced a two-pronged fork to England after his continental exile but when he tried to explain that one of the advantages of the fork was it could be washed Henry II replied ?But, so can your hands?.

MUSIC and ARTS Until his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury Becket was a patron of plays and anything that involved singing and dancing. After his appointment there was more likelihood of getting J Arthur Rank to play the gong as getting Becket to join in a jolly sing song.

SPORTING Until they started arguing Becket and Henry II often went hunting with hounds and hawking together.

NATURE At Tarring on the outskirts of Worthing in Sussex, there is a fig orchard said to be descended from a tree planted by Becket.

PHILOSOPHY and RELIGION After being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket in an attempt to atone for his pre-Chancellor life and make a new beginning followed a life of austerity and asceticism. He preserved his chastity when all around him weren't, drank sparingly, prayed often at night, attended masses at dawn and employed clerks to flog him as penance for his wrongdoings. Basically he was committed to his new job.
A believer in church privileges, unlike the King, who was interfering in church affairs. Becket argued that a cleric accused of an ordinary crime should be tried in the King's court like any layman. The final rift occurred in 1170 when the Archbishop of York and six Bishops crowned Henry?s son as heir. Becket, not being behind this move excommunicated the Bishops as he felt his loyalty was to God and his representative on Earth, the Pope.

SCANDAL Right are you sitting comfortably? I will tell you the story of Becket's martyrdom. Soon after Becket was appointed Archbishop he realized that King Henry II was looking for a puppet, answerable to him whilst his loyalty was primarily to God and his church. The Archbishop and Henry had several disputes over ecclesiastical and royal matters and Becket constantly protested about the king interfering in church affairs. Henry got fed up with an Archbishop unwilling to be manipulated and feeling betrayed by a friend, cited him to appear before the king's court. Becket failed to respond so was found guilty of contempt of royal court. He was summoned to the Council of Northampton and seeing the king coaxing the bishops and barons for a guilty verdict, stormed out. In 1164 Becket fled to France disguised and the dispute remained unsettled.
In 1170 the final rift between Henry II and Becket occurs when the king's eldest son, who was also called Henry, was crowned as his heir by the Archbishop of York and six bishops, a violation of the Archbishop of Canterbury's traditional right. The angry exiled Becket proceeded to excommunicate the bishops and triumphantly returned to Canterbury, where the common people flocked to show their adulation. Meanwhile the king was spending Christmas near Bayeux in Normandy when a deputation of bishops came to tell him of Archbishop Becket's continuing refusal to release control of the church to the king. He was also informed that Becket still refused to absolve the Archbishop of York and his associates from excommunication for participating in the coronation and indeed had excommunicated some more. Exasperated by his archbishop's refusal to tow the line, Henry shouted in fury " Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four knights, members of his household, took their king at his word, crossed the Channel, rode post-haste to Canterbury and attacked him at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral whilst he was taking Evensong in front of a shocked congregation, in the north transept of the Cathedral. Becket struggled on in front of the Evensong congregation, before burying his head in prayer and dying. There was a great storm within an hour of the death of the Archbishop and when his clothes were removed from his dead body, it was discovered that, unbeknown to anyone, he was wearing a hairshirt riddled with lice and maggots, the skin on his chest ripped to shreds. Becket was immediately recognized as a saint and a martyr, and people flocked to the Cathedral to mourn him. The king was suitably shocked by the scandalous action his temper had provoked, as was Western Christendom who looked upon Henry as a blasphemous murderer.

MILITARY RECORD At one stage during the Hundred Years War, the King of France obtained a cease-fire to enable him to make a pilgrimage to see Becket's tomb at Canterbury.

HEALTH andPHYSICAL FITNESS On one occasion Archbishop Becket made himself dangerously ill, through excessive fasting, whilst staying at Pontigny.
In the the years following his death many miraculous cures were recorded at Becket's shrine. indeed 700 miracles were recorded in the decade after his assassination at his crypt.

HOMES In 1164, after fleeing to France, Becket stayed at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny and then at the Abbey of Saint Jeans des Vignes, Soissons, Sens.

TRAVEL Becket accompanied Archbishop Theobold to the Papal Council in Rheims in 1148. After that he made several trips to Rome and studied in Paris, Auxerre and Rome. As Chancellor he took 250 servants with him on a visit to Paris in 1158.
Pilgrim's way, a country route from London to Canterbury over the Downs, which was used for centuries by pilgrims visiting Becket's grave, still exists.

DEATH Becket's four murderers stayed at Saltwood Castle the night before the crime. He was stuck down on 29/12/1170 in the north transept of the Cathedral. Becket struggled on in front of the Evensong congregation, before burying his head in prayer and dying. It is said there was a great storm within an hour of the death of the Archbishop and people flocked to the Cathedral to mourn him. His shrine became a major attraction for English and European pilgrims until the reformation. Pilgrims would bring offerings and returned with flasks of holy water. By 1200, small glasses containing the martyr's diluted blood were being distributed throughout western Europe.
Becket's shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII, however a chapel stands there today. His bones are still in the Cathedral.
The You Tube clip (below) is an excerpt from the 1968 movie Becket.

APPEARANCES IN MEDIA 1. Becket (1964) Peter O'Toole (Henry II) tries to rid himself of that turbulent Richard Burton (Becket)
2. Pizzeti wrote an opera "Murder in the Cathedral" about Becket kicking the bucket.
3. TS Eliot's verse drama Murder In The Cathedral (1935)
4. Becket (1959) a play by Jean Anouilh on which the 1964 Becket film was based on.

5. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is concerned with a group of pilgrims on their way to see Becket's shrine at Canterbury.

ACHIEVEMENTS 1. Becket was canonised in 1172. His fast day is 29/12.
2. Becket's shrine was the most hallowed spot for English pilgrims until the Reformation, his death having made him a model of ecclesiastical resistance to government tyranny.
3. Becket was the first Englishman since the Norman conquest, a hundred years before, to hold high office and the first commoner of any kind to make his mark on English history.

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