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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Becket, Thomas A.

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(properly THOMAS BECKET as he was not of noble birth), was the son of a London tradesman, and was born in London about 1118. He received a collegiate education at Oxford, completed by the study of the civil and canon law at Bologna, under the patronage of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, and was early carried to preferment by his undoubted abilities, aided by a handsome person and refined manners, but still more by the jealousy which divided the civil and ecclesiastical powers at that time. On his return from Italy, Becket was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury by his patron, and soon after the accession of Henry II in 1154, was raised to the dignity of high chancellor, doubtless by the influence of the prelacy favoring his own ambition. At this time, it should be remarked, the power of the popes had risen to an arrogant height, and the dispute about investitures, the subjection of the clergy to lay jurisdiction; in criminal matters, and various alleged abuses on either side, were subjects of continual and bitter strife between the Church and the crowned heads of Europe. It is not likely that Becket was ever undecided in his own views on any of these subjects, or on the part he was destined to play in the politics of the period; but it is easy to imagine that each party would see the means of advancing its own pretensions in the splendid abilities, the acknowledged purity of life, and the courtly manners of the young churchman. As chancellor he served the king so faithfully, and was so pleasant a companion to him, both in his business and in his pleasures, that he had his thorough confidence and affection. On the death of Theobald in 1162, the king was urgent for his elevation to the see of Canterbury; but many of the bishops opposed it, on account of Becket's devotion to the king. But, once consecrated, it devolved upon him to decide whether he would serve the Church or the state, and he declared for the former without hesitation. The king and his late minister were equally matched for their inflexibility, quickness of resolution, undaunted courage, and statesmanlike abilities; and both were influenced, farther than their own consciences extended, by the spirit of the age. Three years of strife led to the council of Clarendon, convoked by Henry in 1164, when Becket yielded to the entreaties or menaces of the barons, and signed the famous "Constitutions of Clarendon", (See CLARENDON), by which the differences between the Church and state were regulated. These articles, which were, in reality, nothing but a formal statement of the ancient usages of England, not only rendered the state supreme in all that concerned the general government of the nation, but virtually separated England from Rome, so far as the temporal authority of the pope was concerned. The pope, therefore, refused to ratify them, and Becket, seeing his opportunity, and really repenting of the compliance that had been wrung from him, refused to perform his office in the Church, and endeavored to leave the kingdom, in which, at last, he succeeded, only to draw down the vengeance of Henry upon his connections.

The progress of the quarrel belongs rather to the history of the times than a single life. Becket remained in exile six years, and, matters being in some measure accommodated, returned to England in 1170, shortly after the coronation of the king's son, which had been designed by Henry as a means of securing the succession. Becket's refusal to remove the censures with which the agents in this transaction had been visited, his haughty contempt of the crown, and the sentences of excommunication which he continued to fulminate from the altar of Canterbury cathedral, provoked anew the indignation of the king. It is idle to judge the actions of men in those iron times by the formulas of the present day. The question, stripped of all disguise, was simply this: whether the pope or Henry Plantagenet was henceforth to be king in England; whether the canon law or the ancient usages should govern the realm. The Norman lords resolved the matter in their own rude way, when at length four of them left the royal presence in hot anger, after hearing of some fresh indignity, and determined on bringing the controversy to a bloody close. Becket was murdered during the celebration of the vesper service on the 29th of December, 1170. He was canonized by Alexander III in 1174. The pope excommunicated the murderers and their accomplices, and the king, who was generally looked upon as implicated, purchased absolution by conceding to Rome the freedom of its judicial proceedings, and by doing penance at the grave of Becket. Becket soon became one of the most popular English saints, and his shrine the richest in England. Four centuries later Henry VIII, 1538, had proceedings instituted against him for treason, his bones burned, and the gold and jewels which adorned his shrine carried to the royal treasury. His life may be found in all the English histories, which give various views of his character, according to the ecclesiastical views of the writers. In 1859 Prof. Hippeau, of Caen, published La Vie de Saint Thomas le Martyr, par Garnier de Pont Saint Mayence, a poem of the 12th century, now issued for the first time. The introduction by the editor is full of interest. Rich, s.v.; Giles, Life and Letters of Th. a Becket (Lond. 1846, 2 vols. 8vo); Opera, ed. Giles (Lond. 1846-48, 5 vols. 8vo); Southey, Book of the Church; Gieseler, Ch. Hist. per. 3, div. 3, § 52; Hase, Ch. Hist. § 189; Rule, Studies from History, 1, 4-78; Buss, Der H. Thomas (Mentz, 1856, 8vo); Bataille, Vie de St. Th. Becket (Paris, 1843); English Cyclop. s.v.; N. Am. Rev. 64, 118.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Becket, Thomas A.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/b/becket-thomas-a.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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