(1118-1870, Feast day: 29 December)
Thomas Becket was born in London in 1119 to Gilbert and Mitilda Becket. The family came to live in England from Normandy in today’s France and they were textile merchants. They also owned several properties in London and had wealthy friends. From his young age Thomas was exposed to luxurious and adventurous life. All accounts describe him as a strongly built, spirited youth, a lover of field sports, who seems to have spent his leisure time in hawking and hunting.
One day when he was out hunting with his falcon, the bird swooped down at a duck, and as the duck dived, plunged after it into the river. Thomas himself leapt in to save the valuable hawk, and the rapid stream swept him along to a mill, where only the accidental stopping of the wheel saved his life. Thus Thomas was an impetuous young man daring and ruthlessly determined in all that he did throughout his life. This speaks of his determination in facing every danger even to the point of martyrdom.
At the age of twenty-four Thomas was given a post in the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, and while there he apparently resolved on a career in the Church and desired for church ministry. To prepare himself further, he obtained the archbishop’s permission to study canon law at the University of Bologna in Italy and later continued his studies at Auxerre, France.
On coming back to England, he became provost of Beverley, and canon at Lincoln and St. Paul’s cathedrals. After his ordination as deacon in 1154, Archbishop Theobald appointed him archdeacon of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical office in England next only to the bishop. In his ecclesiastical and political office he dealt with the most intricate affairs and several times he was sent on important missions to Rome. As he got deeper into church’s mission he began to love the church more than anything else. Thomas discharged his duties as chancellor conscientiously and well.
Thomas Becket was the close personal friend as well as the loyal servant of his young sovereign Henry II. Through his friendship Thomas was able bring about much needed reforms in the kingdom that ultimately favoured the church in its spiritual and pastoral work.
Although he was proud, strong-willed, and irascible, and remained so all his life, he did not neglect to make seasonal retreats at Merton and took the discipline imposed on him there. His confessor during this time testified later to the blamelessness of his private life, under conditions of extreme temptation. If he sometimes went too far in those schemes of the King which tended to infringe on the ancient prerogatives and rights of the Church, at other times he also opposed Henry with vigour.
In 1161 Archbishop Theobald died. King Henry was then in Normandy with Thomas, whom he resolved to make the next primate of England. When Henry announced his intention, Thomas, in protest, told him: “Should God permit me to be the archbishop of Canterbury, I would soon lose your Majesty’s favour, and the affection with which you honour me would be changed into hatred. For there are several things you do now in prejudice of the rights of the Church which make me fear you would require of me what I could not agree to; and envious persons would not fail to make it the occasion of endless strife between us.”
This was the turning point in the life of Thomas Becket and the friendship that was between him and the king. Soon he was ordained priest and bishop and recognized as the archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Alexander III. From the moment of his Episcopal ordination, Thomas Becket gave up all this pomp and glamour of the political sphere and took up a life of prayer and penance. Indeed the sacramental grace was strongly active in him.
Soon his relationship with the king became sour and king was too disappointed in not getting the favour of the archbishop to approve all his whimsy ideas. Thomas protected the rights and privileges of the church at all cost. He soon became an arch enemy of the state and the Lords of the land. The made several trumpeted charges against him and used all his powers to control the archbishop all in vain. The king even used other bishops to rise against the archbishop to which Thomas Becket did not succumb to. He categorically stated that he would obey none but the Pope in Rome. Meanwhile he suspended and excommunicated bishops who took side with the king rather than the Pope.
For a moment Archbishop Becket took refuge in France under the protection of King Louis. After three years he returned to his see to the thunderous welcome of the people. The Archbishop knew very well that his day of martyrdom is close and was determined to stand for the Church and the protection of his people. On December 29, 1170 the martyrdom took place at the cathedral.
The murderers followed him, “absolve” they cried, “and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.” When he denied, they cried, “Then you shall die and receive what you deserve.” And just before the swords pierced him he replied, “I am ready, to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether cleric or lay.”
Let the holy martyr Thomas Becket continue to intercede especially for those in civil and political authority that they may keep rule of law and the commandments of God and serve God’s people in righteousness.