Like many clerical politicians of the time, he lived a lavish lifestyle supported by income from a number of revenue-generating clerical benefices or posts. Nevertheless, Thomas was a man of regular prayer and penitential practices. In 1162, the king named him archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after, he received the pallium, a symbol of his authority, from Pope Alexander III.
St. Thomas’ rise to the highest ecclesiastical post in England became an occasion of conversion. He abandoned his love of luxury to lead a rigorous life of personal piety. He gave alms daily and tempered his judgments with mercy. He also proved more zealous than the king might have thought about protecting the privileges of the Church against secular intrusions. That zeal led to increasing tension between king and prelate.
In his final decade of life, Thomas fought the king on a number of issues: the right of the secular power to appoint to clerical benefices; the place and power of ecclesiastical courts; and, most notably, the crowning of the heir to the throne by the archbishop of York, who had usurped the primacy of Canterbury.
Thomas, with the pope”s backing, excommunicated the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury for their collusion. When Henry heard this news, he raged that someone needed to rid him of Thomas. Four knights obliged by hacking Thomas to death inside his church on December 29, 1170.
The king, who may well not have desired anything so drastic, did public penance for his sins in the same cathedral in July 1174, right after the canonization of Thomas as a martyr. In 1220, the saint”s body was transferred to a place under the high altar from its previous crypt to accommodate better the vast number of pilgrims coming to Canterbury.
The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to venerate St. Thomas is immortalized in Chaucer”s Canterbury Tales. As the Prologue says, “To Canterbury they come, the holy blessed martyr there to seek, who gave his help to them that were sick.”
In the 16th century, aware of the powerful symbolism of a bishop who stood up against the monarchy to ensure the Church”s independence, Henry VIII, after breaking with the papacy, had the shrine of St. Thomas razed and the pilgrimages stopped. Today”s pilgrims can see the two places where Thomas”s body was buried and view the stained-glass windows depicting his martyrdom. His feast is observed in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars.
Thomas Becket stands in the great tradition of martyrs who lost their lives by speaking truth to power. England has provided two conspicuous examples: St. Thomas Becket and St. Thomas More.
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