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Thomas à Becket: Martyr, Saint
.......The destination of the pilgrims is the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket (1118?-1170) in Canterbury Cathedral, in which he was entombed after he was murdered in the church on December 29, 1170.
.......Becket was born in London to well-to-do parents of Norman birth. After receiving an education in England and France, he served as a secretary to a lord and as a city clerk and an auditor for sheriffs.
.......When he was twenty-five, his father helped him gain employment in the house of the archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec. After proving himself competent, he acted on the archbishop’s behalf on missions to Rome and studied civil and church law in Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France. His talents won him an appointment as archdeacon of Canterbury. After Theobald introduced him to England’s King Henry II in 1154, Henry appointed him chancellor of England on the archbishop’s recommendation. In that position, Becket exhibited superior administrative skills in domestic and military endeavors and in the king’s effort to gain more control and authority over the activities of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.
.......After Theobald died in 1161, Henry recommended Becket as a replacement for Theobald and, in 1162, Thomas won election as Canterbury’s archbishop. Henry now had a powerful ally who could win popular support for Henry’s program to bolster his control of the church—or so he thought. But in his new position, Becket took the side of the church—in particular, in its contention that the right to try and punish priests accused of felonies should remain the sole responsibility of the church.
.......In January 1164, Henry promulgated the Constitutions of Clarendon, a document limiting church authority. In a key provision, it decreed that priests accused of serious crimes must be tried in government rather than ecclesiastical courts. Although Becket at first accepted this document, he later rejected it. In retaliation, the king charged that Becket had committed graft as chancellor, and Becket took refuge in France in November 1170.
.......In that same year, Henry ordered the crowning of his oldest son, Henry, as a co-ruler by the archbishop of York. Becket, maintaining that only the archbishop of Canterbury could preside at a coronation ceremony, excommunicated clergymen who conducted the ceremony. While Henry was in France, Becket returned to England and ordered additional excommunications. The people regarded him as a hero.
.......Upon hearing of Becket’s action, as well as his soaring popularity with citizens of the realm, Henry exploded into a tirade against Becket. Four of Henry’s knights then took it upon themselves to return to England and get rid of Becket once and for all. On December 29, 1170, they murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral. Shortly thereafter, pilgrims began visiting his tomb in the church. Reports of miracles at the site prompted the Pope to canonize Becket a saint in 1173. A repentant Henry visited the tomb in 1174, and thereafter pilgrimages to Canterbury became a European tradition.