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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Saint Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London on December 21, 1119 (or 1120 according to later tradition.) He came from relatively humble origins, his father, Gilbert Beckett, meaning "Little Beak", was part of a Norman family of knights, who originally came from Rouen in France.

Becket was educated by monks at Merton Priory, Surrey, where he learnt to read and City Grammar, London. He then studied canon law in Bologna, Italy and Auxerre, France.

Becket was six foot tall which was very tall in those days. He was strong jawed, dark-haired, slim, pale skinned, straight faced, his forehead creased with frown lines. Strangely this Little Beak actually had quite a long nose.

Before they fell out, Becket was a good friend of King Henry II, it was commented they acted like two schoolboys at play.

 14th-century depiction of Becket with King Henry II Wikipedia Commons
After being appointed chancellor by the king, Becket amassed such wealth that 52 clerks were needed to run his affairs.

At Tarring on the outskirts of Worthing in Sussex, there is a fig orchard said to be descended from a tree planted by Becket.

After being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket fell out with the king as the interests of the Roman Catholic medieval church conflicted with those of the crown and he was forced into exile in France.

Thomas Becket enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury from a Nottingham Alabaster by Saracen78 

Becket dressed in fine clothes such as scarlet furs until his appointment as Archbishop when he adopted a more austere style. In his final years he wore a lice ridden hair shirt next to his skin.

Becket introduced a two-pronged fork to England after his continental exile but when he tried to explain that one of the advantages of the fork was it could be washed Henry II replied “But, so can your hands”.

After Becket fled to France, his dispute with Henry remained unsettled, the King refusing to give the kiss of peace on which the Archbishop insisted if there was to be a reconciliation. Instead Henry conducted a campaign of attrition against his former friends' associates expelling many of them. In return Becket excommunicated his adversaries.

In 1170 Henry had his eldest Son, also named Henry, crowned by the Archbishop of York, a violation of the Archbishop of Canterbury's traditional right. The exasperated Becket returned to England, landing in Sandwich. His entry into Canterbury was triumphant, the common people flocked to show their adulation.

On hearing that Becket still refused to absolve the Archbishop of York and his associates from excommunication and indeed had excommunicated some more. Henry  roared "what miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and prompted in my household, who let their Lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low born clerk. This fellow who has eaten my bread has lifted up his heel against me."(a quote from Psalm 41 v 9). "Have I no friend who will rob me of this upstart Priest."

Four knights took their King at his word and set off  to confront then kill the Archbishop. Becket was assassinated on December 29, 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral.

Illumination from an English Book of Hours 
Becket's death caused a scandal in all of western Christendom. When the clothes were removed from his dead body, it was discovered that unbeknown to anyone, he was wearing a hairshirt riddled with lice and maggots, the skin on his chest ripped to shred. Becket was immediately a saint and martyr.

In the years following his death many miraculous cures were said to have occurred at Becket's shrine. Indeed 700 miracles were recorded in the decade after his assassination at the crypt.

Becket was canonised in 1172. His feast day is December 29th.

At one stage during the Hundred Years War, the King of France obtained a cease-fire to enable him to make a pilgrimage to see Becket's tomb at Canterbury.

Becket was the first Englishman since the Norman conquest, a hundred years before, to hold high office and the first commoner of any kind to make his mark on English history.

Pilgrim's way, a country route from London to Canterbury over the Downs, which was used for centuries by pilgrims visiting Becket's grave, still exists.

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