Archbishop of Canterbury, Roman Catholic Saint. He served in this position beginning in 1162, and is best remembered for his conflict with King Henry II of England over the rights and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church, which ultimately resulted in his murder by Henry II's followers in Canterbury Cathedral. Born on December 21, 1118 (or in 1120, according to later tradition), at the age of 10 he was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and later attended a grammar school in London. Sometime after he began his schooling, his father fell on hard times and he was forced to earn a living as a clerk, first in the business of a relative and later he acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by now the Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome, Italy and also sent him to Bologna, Italy and Auxerre, France to study canon law. In 1154 he was named Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which he was appointed in January 1155. In 1162 he was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury following Theobald's death in April 1161, and his election was confirmed in May 1162. On June 2, 1162 he was ordained as a priest and consecrated as Archbishop the following day. In January 1164 King Henry II presided over the assemblies of most of the higher English clergy at Clarendon Palace in Wiltshire, England, where he sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He obtained consent from all except Becket, who expressed his willingness to agree to the substance of the Constitutions of Clarendon, but refused to formally sign the documents. Henry summoned him to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle in Northampton, England on 8 October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor's office. Convicted on the charges, he stormed out of the trial and fled to mainland Europe, where King Louis VII of France offered him protection. He spent nearly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, in Burgundy, France until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to return to Sens. He retaliated by threatening excommunication and interdict against Henry II and the English bishops, but Pope Alexander III, though sympathizing with him in theory, favored a more diplomatic approach. In 1170, Pope Alexander III sent delegates to impose a solution to the dispute and at that point, Henry II offered a compromise that would allow him to return to England from exile. In June of that year, Roger de Pont L'Eveque, the Archbishop of York, along with Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the Bishop of Salisbury, crowned Henry the Young, the heir apparent to Henry II, King at York. This was a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation, and in November 1170 Becket excommunicated all three and they fled to Normandy, France. He continued to excommunicate his opponents in the church, and upon hearing reports of his actions, Henry II is said to have uttered words that were interpreted by his men as a royal command to have him killed, and four of his knights travelled to Canterbury to confront him. On December 29, 1170 they arrived at Canterbury and according to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armor under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. The knights informed him that he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but he refused. The knights then retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing, catching up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, and with their swords drawn they murdered him, with the fatal blow being a sword driven through the top of his skull. He was around 50 years old at the time of his death. On February 21, 1173 he was canonized and beatified as a saint and martyr by Pope Alexander III. In 1220 his remains were relocated from his first tomb to a shrine, in the recently completed Trinity Chapel where it stood until it was destroyed in 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of English King Henry VIII, who also destroyed his bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. His feast day is December 29 and is observed in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. The 'à' which his name is frequently listed with is not contemporary, and appears to be a post-Reformation creation, possibly in imitation of Thomas à Kempis. In 1884 England's poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote "Becket," a play about Thomas Becket and Henry II. Modern works based on the story of Thomas Becket include T. S. Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral," Jean Anouilh's play "Becket," which was made into a movie with the same title, and Paul Webb's play "Four Nights in Knaresborough." The struggle between Church's and King's power is a theme of Ken Follett's novel "The Pillars of the Earth," of which one of the last scenes features the murder of Thomas Becket. There are numerous churches in England that are named after him.
Bio by: William Bjornstad