Thomas Becket was born in London, probably in 1118, of Norman parents and was given a good education. In 1142 he entered the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, who sent him abroad to study canon law and, in 1154, made him Archdeacon of Canterbury. A year later, in 1155, King Henry II appointed him Royal Chancellor. He was on good terms with the king and led an extravagant lifestyle as a courtier. But when Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, following Theobald’s death, he changed from being, in his own words, ‘a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls’. His new role soon brought him into violent conflict with the king. He fled to exile in France and did not dare return for six years until he was reconciled with Henry. But the quarrel soon broke out afresh. Henry, in Normandy, flew into a rage and uttered the reckless words that were to be Thomas’s death warrant: ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ Four knights hurried to England and murdered Thomas in a side chapel of Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.
Thomas was canonised (made a saint) only three years later in 1173. Canterbury, always on the pilgrim route to Rome, became a destination in its own right, immortalised in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Although Thomas’s shrine was destroyed in 1538 on the orders of King Henry VIII, Canterbury remains a pilgrimage site to this day. St Thomas Becket’s feast day is 29 December, the anniversary of his death.
This article draws on information in The Penguin Dictionary of Saints by Donald Attwater (Penguin Books 1965)
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