St. Thomas Becket: A Tough Saint to Love

Thomas was ordained a priest one day, and consecrated archbishop the next. And soon after that, a change came over Thomas.

Master Francke, “Saint Thomas of Canterbury”, ca. 1424
Master Francke, “Saint Thomas of Canterbury”, ca. 1424 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Thomas Becket may be the least appealing of the saints. He was arrogant, inflexible, combative, and convinced that he was always right. And that was after his conversion. Yet, throughout the Middle Ages, St. Thomas was the most popular English saint in England, and he had devoted followers across Europe. You can find evidence of the veneration of Becket from Sicily to Iceland. How did this happen? And what was he really like? I think I can answer both of those questions.

First, about his name. It is Thomas Becket. Not Thomas à Becket. That is a Victorian affectation.

His family was Norman. After William the Conqueror seized England in 1066, there was some migration from Normandy to England. Thomas’ family settled in London and he was born there in 1118. His parents were not wealthy, but they were comfortable enough to send him to a monastery school and then to the University of Paris, at the time the finest university in Europe. Thomas studied civil and canon law, and discovered that he had natural management skills. When he returned to England, he came to the attention of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, who invited the young man to join his household.

As archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald was responsible not only for his own diocese, but also, as the pre-eminent bishop in England, he supervised Church affairs throughout the country. He was getting old, and the work was more than he could handle, so Becket got the job. And he did it very well. So well that Thomas caught the attention of the king, Henry II. As a member of the royal household, Becket would have many more opportunities to advance his career, and to increase his income, and to irritate the knights and nobles who resented men from the working and middle classes who had, by their merits, had risen high in the government of the kingdom. Those positions of power and prestige, the aristocrats believed, belonged to them, to men who were well-born.

By the time he left the archbishop and went off with the king, Becket’s personality was established. He was proud. He was ambitious. He had no gift for compromise, or even any inclination to compromise. He was selfish. He could be charming if it would get him something he wanted, but he was not a loving man. Theobald looked on Thomas as a son, and Henry II thought of him as one of his closest friends. It’s unlikely that Becket reciprocated those feelings.

Becket wanted to be rich. Now that he was working for the king, he received many gifts from Henry, which increased his fortune, and he came across business opportunities that enabled him to become very wealthy. At one point he had a private fleet of three ships. Even Becket realized that was a little too ostentatious, so he gave one of the ships to Henry, who was delighted with the gift.

One day Henry and Thomas were riding through London. It was a bitterly cold day, and Becket was wearing a very fine new winter cloak. In the street stood a man dressed in rags, shivering violently, and begging. Henry reined in his horse and told Thomas to give his cloak to the poor man. Becket refused. A playful wrestling match ensued, which Becket won. He did not clothe the man who was in danger of freezing to death; he rode on.

When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry had an inspiration. He would name Thomas archbishop of Canterbury. With one of his best friends as head of the Church in England, Henry would be the lord of the state and of every diocese, monastery, and parish in the land. Becket as Henry’s servant rather than God’s and the pope’s would be an invaluable asset to his king: he could declare irksome treaties void, annul inconvenient marriages, and lend Henry money from the Church’s treasury. So Thomas was ordained a priest one day, and consecrated archbishop the next. Henry was very pleased with this situation.

But soon, a change came over Thomas. Whether it was divine grace, an awakening conscience, or something else (my hunch is it was divine grace), the new archbishop was becoming a different man. He was careful about his religious obligations. He was generous to the poor. And he became convinced that the Church must remain independent of the state, and all of her hard-acquired rights must be preserved.

At first these changes in his friend confused Henry; then they made him angry. Soon the king and the archbishop were clashing frequently. In their last confrontation, Henry called Thomas a traitor. Now the archbishop knew he was in danger—traitors were executed. That night, he and a handful of followers made their way to the coast, climbed into a small boat, and sailed across the English Channel to France, where Becket placed himself under the protection of King Louis.

Louis tried to mediate between Henry and Thomas, but without success. Thomas refused any compromise when it came to the liberty and rights of the Church. His stubbornness even frustrated the pope, who urged the archbishop to make some concession to the king. Becket refused. As a result of stubbornness, his exile dragged on for seven years.

Ultimately, Henry relented and permitted Thomas to come home. He arrived back in Canterbury in time to celebrate Christmas there. But he had barely settled in when the archbishop excommunicated several English bishops who, during his exile, had sided with the king.

This set off one Henry’s notorious tantrums, in which he shouted the fateful question, “Will no one relieve me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights rose from the table, called for their horses, and set out for Canterbury.

They arrived late in the afternoon of Dec. 29, 1170. They found the archbishop in his great hall, and demanded that he lift the excommunications. Thomas refused, then walked out to prepare for vespers.

A short time later Thomas, in his vestments, entered the cathedral, escorted by only one monk. The knights confronted him again. As he headed for the altar steps, one of the knights grabbed Becket, who shook him off and called the man a pimp. At that the knights drew their swords and hacked the archbishop to death. The horrified monks and congregation scattered, while the knights exited through a side door. They left Thomas Becket lying in a pool of blood, alone in his now-desecrated cathedral.

The upper classes in England who knew Becket (and most of them did and they didn’t like him) were not surprised that he had been killed. He had an antagonistic streak that often brought out the worst in knights and nobles, and even from some of his fellow bishops.

But the English people, who did not know Becket personally, read these events differently. They saw the murder as a martyrdom—a holy archbishop slaughtered at the foot of the altar. And then reports of miraculous healings through the prayers of Thomas Becket began to circulate. Religious fervor for the Canterbury martyr increased. After two years, the reports of miracles through Thomas’ intercession were so numerous that the pope declared Thomas Becket a saint. And Henry traveled to Thomas’ cathedral, stripped off his shirt, knelt at his friend’s tomb, and let the monks of the cathedral take turns whipping him.

The faithful, first in England and then all across Europe, had no idea how difficult, even how infuriating Becker could be. They regarded him as one those holy, loving bishops, such as St. Nicholas or St. Martin of Tours, who spent their heaven doing good on earth. It’s understandable, given all the wonders that were attributed to St. Thomas’ prayers. Nonetheless, an archbishop who could drive a pope and two kings to distraction is much more interesting, if less attractive, than the man Chaucer characterized as “the holy, blissful martyr.”