Happy Birthday!

…to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, saint, and tragic murder victim. Becket was born around 1118 in Cheapside, London and educated at Merton Priory in England, then in Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre. He was an assistant to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and was made Archdeacon of Canterbury and Provost of Beverley. On Theobald’s recommendation, King Henry II named Becked Lord Chancellor in 1155.

Becket and Henry became fast friends but a rift developed between them after Thomas became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry wanted more power for himself, but Becket refused to cede any clerical independence to the king. After several years of fighting, during which excommunications were flung around and the Pope even got involved, Henry, in a rage, allegedly said: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” He failed to realize that, since he was king and all, someone was bound to take him seriously.

Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, went to Canterbury to ask Thomas to be a good boy and do what the king wanted. He refused, so they murdered him, horribly, as he was making his way into the cathedral for vespers.

All of Europe reacted in shock to the crime, and he was quickly canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1173, only three years after his death. The assassins holed up in Hugh de Moreville’s castle for a year and were excommunicated by the Pope. He later sent them on a crusade in the Holy Lands for 14 years as penance for their actions.

Becket was buried first at Canterbury Cathedral, then in a shrine in Trinity Chapel, before it and the saint’s bones were destroyed by that eminent lover of history, Henry VIII, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. But Henry couldn’t obliterate the memory. Becket was named one of the patron saints of London, along with St. Paul, and both their images appear on the seals of the City and of the Lord Mayor. The story has featured prominently in literature for centuries, perhaps most notably in The Canterbury Tales (the pilgrims are on their way to visit his shrine) and, recently, in The Pillars of the Earth (the novel) which takes a couple of liberties by adding Prior Philip as a witness and William Hamleigh as a fictional fifth attacker.



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