A-Z of Saints: Thomas of Canterbury

Thomas Becket (the spurious ‘à’ was added long after he died) was born in London on 21 December, probably in 1118. His parents were Normans (though one legend says his mother was a Muslim) and therefore among the upper classes of Britain at the time. His upbringing was appropriately comfortable, and he learned to ride and hunt and joust like others of his class. As a child he was educated at Merton Abbey, and later abroad in Paris and Bologna. An early account says he was “slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair… winning in his conversation… but slightly stuttering”.

In his early twenties, Becket caught the eye of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was entrusted with missions to Rome, in due course becoming an archdeacon, known as ‘Thomas of London’. When the new king Henry II took the throne in 1154, a new Lord Chancellor was required, and at Theobald’s recommendation Becket was given the role – one of the most powerful in the country.

Thus began what was initially a great and famous friendship. Becket fostered the king’s young son, who is said to have been closer to Becket than to his real father. At this time Becket and the king were said to have hunted and even done battle together and been ‘of one heart and mind’.

On the death of Theobald in 1161, however, everything changed. Henry sought more control over the Church, and wanted to appoint Thomas as successor to the archbishopric. Becket was extremely reluctant to serve two masters, but was persuaded to the role in 1162. He had warned Henry before that if he were appointed he would inevitably need to oppose the king in some matters – and this soon became true.

Becket transformed himself after the appointment, from a hedonistic courtier to a monastic prelate. He resigned the chancellorship, beginning a series of affronts to Henry. He fought for the Church’s exemption from civil authority, and won Henry’s anger. A dispute over money sent Becket into voluntary exile to France, where he then quarrelled with the Pope, though also almost persuaded him to excommunicate Henry.

In 1170, a tentative reconciliation occurred and Becket came back to England, but continued to harangue the king. In December, Henry supposedly cried his famous words – “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” or similar – and four French knights interpreted this as an order. They murdered Becket, as immortalised in T S Eliot’s play, in Canterbury Cathedral itself. Henry did great penance, and Becket was canonised only three years later.

Many miracles were said to have been worked at his shrine, though it was later destroyed by Henry VIII (who allegedly summoned Becket’s bones to trial for high treason). A skeleton was found in 1888 which is believed to be the saint’s. Becket’s memorial is 29 December and he is remembered as patron of secular clergy, Exeter College in Oxford, and Portsmouth.

Other ‘T’ saints

  • Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a Spanish mystic and major figure of the Reformation. Her feast is 15 October and she is patron of headaches, laceworkers and people ridiculed for their piety
  • Thomas the Apostle (died c72) was ‘Doubting Thomas’ and said to be a twin. He is remembered on 3 July and is patron of architects, India and people in doubt.