Thomas Becket came from a wealthy merchant family in Normandy. In the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England in the year 1066, his family moved to London, where Thomas was born. He received all the advantages of a good education in canon and civil law. At the young age of 37, he became archdeacon of Canterbury and then at the express wish of his close friend the king, Henry II, he was made Chancellor of the realm.
It was a position of power and it made Thomas uncomfortable. But more complications were to follow.
When the archbishop of Canterbury died, the king again appointed Thomas, much against his will. “I know your plans for the Church,” Thomas told Henry, “and that you will put forth claims which I as archbishop must necessarily oppose.” Thomas insisted on resigning as chancellor so as to be free of civil ties to his sovereign. This became the first serious conflict he had with the king.
Henry was keen on passing laws which would make him the final arbiter of law and not allow any appeal beyond him, to the Pope for instance. Thomas opposed his royal master on this, so the king imposed a set of heavy fines upon the See of Canterbury. The friendship was by now broken irreparably. Thomas, fearing for his life, fled the country. For four years he remained in exile, while his friends sought to bring about a reconciliation. When this seemed to have been effected, Thomas returned to England. But the peace was deceptive.
Thomas had a premonition of his death: “for the name of Jesus and in defence of the Church, I’m willing to die,” he prayed. The end, when it came, was sudden. A few days after Christmas, in order to ingratiate themselves with their monarch, four knights entered the abbey and found Thomas at prayer in the church. They slew him on the spot.
The murder of Thomas had the opposite of the intended effect: Thomas was hailed as martyr by popular acclaim and Canterbury became a pilgrimage shrine to the saint. Within two years the Pope had raised Thomas to the altars. The king became a public penitent.
Thomas Becket was a man who had everything, yet he did not hesitate to throw it all away in obedience to his conscience. No matter how high the office, God’s laws are always higher. Thomas Becket proved this with his life.
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