Thomas Beckett was a notable Church figure of England in the High Middle Ages. He famously came into conflict with King Henry II of England while being the Archbishop of Canterbury, a conflict which eventually culminated in his assassination at the hands of the king’s knights. His death over the cause of the rights of the church against royal rights earned him great esteem within the Catholic Church, making him one of the most famous saints of England soon after his death.
Unlike many ecclesiastical figures of authority in the medieval period, Thomas Beckett did not begin his life with aspirations of serving the church. Born in 1119, he attended a grammar school at an early age and served in many secular professions, including a position as a clerk.
However, during this period, his education was rudimentary and his family’s position was financially weak. It was only after joining the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that Beckett became more involved in ecclesiastical affairs.
As part of Theobald’s household, Beckett was able to attain the education he lacked in his early life. Theobald sent him to frequent missions to Rome and had him study canon law at notable ecclesiastical establishments.
The Archbishop trusted Beckett deeply and it was for this reason that in 1154, he appointed Beckett the Archdeacon of Canterbury. In subsequent years, Beckett would hold many ecclesiastical offices of great importance and serve each post with great success and efficiency.
It was largely due to his success in managing various important ecclesiastical offices that Theobald eventually recommended Beckett to be appointed as Lord Chancellor. Henry II consequently appointed Beckett to the position in 1155.
Beckett as Archbishop of Canterbury
In 1162, Beckett became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after his appointment to the position, Beckett gave up his worldly ambitions, including his post as the Lord Chancellor. At the same time, he began attempts to extend the rights and jurisdiction of the archbishopric, a position which put him at odds with Henry II.
Henry II asserted his rights by calling together clerical assemblies in 1164 and securing greater royal influence and a weaker independence of ecclesiastical offices. All ecclesiastical figures of authority in England, save Beckett, agreed to this. Beckett was consequently convicted of contempt of royal authority and fled England. He was given protection by Louis VII of France. After a long exile until 1170, Henry II finally agreed to a compromise and allowed Beckett to return.
Very soon after Beckett’s return, he was once again at odds with Henry II over the matter of royal coronation. The privilege of coronation was traditionally reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury but Henry had the archbishop of York and two other bishops crown the heir apparent in 1170.
Beckett excommunicated all three upon which Henry II expressed rage. Four of Henry’s knights took it upon themselves to assassinate Beckett, although it is historically uncertain whether Henry directly ordered it. They murdered Beckett at Canterbury in December, 1170. Soon after his death, his shrine in Canterbury became an immensely popular site for pilgrimage and he was canonised by the Pope.