An archbishop of Canterbury and the most popular saint of the High Middle Ages, Thomas Becket (1118 - 1170) is the reason for which People make pilgrimages to Canterbury—"the holy blisful martir for to seke." Without this saint, who from the tomb heals all varieties of diseases, the wonderfully earthy poetry of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales would not have been written. Thomas Becket, murdered in the cathedral, is loved and hated as both saint and traitor.
Through family wealth, good connections and street smarts, Becket easily climbs the ladder of success. He begins his career as an aide to the archbishop of Canterbury. Later appointed archdeacon of Canterbury and eventually Lord Chancellor in service of King Henry II, he helps to maximize royal power over church office and land. But his tenure is not without tension. Taxing church property is unpopular among clerics whose incomes are diminished. As the king's right-hand man, Becket is perceived as the archenemy of the church.
In 1162, to secure absolute authority over the church, Henry appoints Becket archbishop of Canterbury, a brilliant strategic stroke, he imagines. Becket is ordained a priest on Saturday and an archbishop on Sunday. However, unlike previous advancements, the promotion has a dramatic effect on Becket. Henry is no longer his superior—only God is. Suddenly, he becomes a servant leader. In championing the church rather than the state, he takes a page from desert asceticism. He sets aside his ornate clerical wardrobe, dons a hair shirt and rags, and takes on the diet of a beggar. He daily washes the feet of lepers, and to atone for his sins he lashes his back until his flesh is raw.
The king is not impressed. But there is more at stake than an archbishop flaunting his asceticism. Devoted to God and the church, Becket now opposes the king in matters of church property taxes and challenges church authority in general. He refuses to accede to the Constitutions of Clarendon that favor royal power. The tensions escalate to the point that Becket fears for his life. Though he flees to France in 1164, still his motives and activities are questioned by friend and foe alike. He is at odds with his own bishops, whom King Henry II manages to ingratiate, and his dealings with both papal and state authorities are tangled.
He attempts to convince the pope to excommunicate Henry and to place an interdict on England—suspending all worship services and sacraments. Under this threat, Henry seems to back down, promising Becket safe passage to England and restoration of his post as head of the English church.
On December 1, 1170, Becket, having spent some six years in exile, returns to a Palm-Sunday style entry: people line the roads, throwing their cloaks before him and hailing him. But Becket's enemies among clerics and court officials are numerous—and for good reason. He adamantly refuses to back down on his demand for independent power for the church. And more than that, he excommunicates all those who sided with the king. Henry is enraged. From his sickbed he moans a message, which his closest aides understood as, Who will rid me of that troublesome priest?
Before dawn on his fatal last day, Becket arises, officiates at the Mass, and confesses his sins. There is a sense of foreboding as he warns those close to him to flee. In the late, cold afternoon of December 29, 1170, four knights enter the cathedral during the vesper service and attack Becket as he is proceeding to the high altar. It is a grisly scene. According to an eyewitness, "The crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood, white with brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral."
Within minutes Becket has become the greatest martyr the English church had ever known. Nearly four hundred years after his death, during the reign of Henry VIII, Becket is charged with treason. His tomb is plundered and pilgrimages and festivals are outlawed. But not even Henry VIII could erase the devotion in the people's hearts. Even today he is revered as a martyred saint by both Catholics and Anglicans.