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Thomas Becket

Once they were the closest of friends, but one man's choice of duty to God over the crown will sunder their friendship and lead to a deadly decision. Peter O'Toole is England's King Henry II, and Richard Burton is Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry's ally-turned-adversary, in this acclaimed historical drama based on Jean Anouilh's play.

English King Henry II attempted to control the Church in England through the appointment of his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. This move failed as Becket resigned his secular post and devoted himself to the Church. The rift between Henry and Becket resulted in the latter's murder, making a martyr of the archbishop and Henry having to perform public penance.

For most of Thomas Becket's life, he tried to balance his pious nature and his secular interests. He began his career as a clerk and accountant. However, Becket's father arranged for him to become a member of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury's household who had Becket act as his agent. In 1154, for the services Becket had done Theobald made him archdeacon of Canterbury. Becket provided to be a talented archdeacon and only months later was recommended by Theobald as chancellor to Henry II.

As chancellor of England and still involved in the Church, Becket raised taxes for the monarch and led troops into war. He also became close friends with Henry II. It was said that "they had but one heart and one mind". Becket was also known for his rich taste in clothing and possessions. When traveling to Paris to negotiate a marriage for Henry's son, Becket's extravagant ways, according to chroniclers, caused people to remark, that "if this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?"

In 1161, Theobald died and Henry decided to appoint Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury as Henry hoped to control the Church in England through Becket's appointment. For a year, Becket tried to persuade Henry that he could not be both chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury, but Henry had his way. Upon becoming archbishop, Becket resigned the chancellorship, much to Henry's chagrin, turned away from his secular pleasures, devoted himself to his new office and caused further tensions by opposing Henry's desire to raise taxes.

In 1164, Henry called a council at Clarendon for assent on "royal customs and dignities" with regard to the Church. Henry asserted his rights to punish offending clergy, collect revenue from vacant sees and other customs and dignities collectively known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket, after first accepting the Constitutions, revoked his assent and then fled to France where he remained for six years.

While Becket was in France, Henry decided to have his eldest son crowned king to ensure the succession. The only person who could do this was Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry decided that the Archbishop of York was to act in his place, which was a breach of papal prohibition and excommunications were soon issued. Henry feared an interdict for England and decided to meet with Becket to resolve the issue. The latter agreed to return to England and the issue of the Constitutions of Clarendon was avoided.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

In about 575 a monk called Gregory saw some young men in the Rome slave-market. He spoke to them and discovered that these men were from England. After talking to these slaves he was shocked to discover that there were very few Christians living in England. Gregory was determined to change this situation and when he became Pope he sent his friend Augustine and forty monks to England to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.

Augustine arrived in England in 596. He made his way to Canterbury, the home of King Ethelbert. Within a few weeks Augustine had converted Ethelbert and most of his household to Christianity. Pleased by his success, the following year Pope Gregory appointed Augustine as Bishop of Canterbury, and Archbishop of the English people.

William the Conqueror was a devout Christian. After he conquered the country he did what he could to spread the Christian religion in England. William accepted that the Archbishop of Canterbury was the leader of the Christian Church in England, but was determined that this post should come under his control.

The senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. In his role as head of the Anglican Communion, the archbishop leads the third largest group of Christians in the world.

From the time of St Augustine until the 16th century, the Archbishops of Canterbury were in full communion with the See of Rome and thus received the pallium. During the English Reformation the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, at first temporarily under Henry VIII and Edward VI and later permanently during the reign of Elizabeth I.

In the Middle Ages there was considerable variation in the methods of nomination of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops. At various times the choice was made by the canons of Canterbury Cathedral, the King of England, or the Pope. Since the English Reformation, the Church of England has been more explicitly a state church and the choice is legally that of the British crown; today it is made in the name of the Sovereign by the Prime Minister, from a shortlist of two.

The Archbishop of York is a high-ranking cleric in the Church of England, second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of York and metropolitan of the Province of York, which covers the northern portion of England (north of the Trent) as well as the Isle of Man. The archbishop is a member ex officio of the House of Lords, and is styled Primate of England. (The Archbishop of Canterbury is "Primate of All England".)

In early December 1170, Becket returned to England. He promptly excommunicated the Archbishop of York who had crowned Henry's son and others who had opposed him. Henry heard of the excommunications and of the cheers that had greeted the returning Becket and stated "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?", (though this may be apocryphal). Four knights took the monarch literally and confronted Becket in Canterbury on 29 December 1170. Becket withdrew to the Cathedral, where the knights followed him and killed him as he prayed.

Following Becket's death, the monks prepared his body for burial.[1] According to some accounts, it was discovered that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop's garments-a sign of penance.[15] Soon after, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and on 21 February 1173 - barely three years after his death - he was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St. Peter's Church in Segni.[1] On 12 July 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173-€"1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb as well as at the church of St. Dunstan's, which became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England.

Becket's assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they remained for about a year. De Morville held property in Cumbria and this may also have provided a convenient bolt-hole, as the men prepared for a longer stay in the separate kingdom of Scotland. They were not arrested and neither did Henry confiscate their lands, but he failed to help them when they sought his advice in August 1171. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome and were ordered by the Pope to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years.[16]

The monks were afraid that Becket's body might be stolen. To prevent this Becket's remains were placed beneath the floor of the eastern crypt of the cathedral.[citation needed] A stone cover was placed over the burial place with two holes where pilgrims could insert their heads and kiss the tomb;[1] this arrangement is illustrated in the 'Miracle Windows' of the Trinity Chapel. A guard chamber (now called the Wax Chamber) had a clear view of the grave. In 1220, Becket's bones were moved to a new gold-plated and bejewelled shrine behind the high altar in the Trinity Chapel. The shrine was supported by three pairs of pillars, placed on a raised platform with three steps. This is also illustrated in one of the miracle windows. Canterbury, because of its religious history, had always seen a large number of pilgrims. However, after the death of Thomas Becket, the number of pilgrims visiting the city grew rapidly.

In 1220, Becket's remains were relocated from this first tomb to a shrine,[1] in the recently completed Trinity Chapel where it stood until[citation needed] it was destroyed in 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on orders from King Henry VIII.[1] The king also destroyed Becket's bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated.[17] The pavement where the shrine stood is today marked by a lit candle.[18]

As the scion of the leading mercantile dynasty of later centuries, Mercers, Becket was very much regarded as a Londoner by the citizens and was adopted as the London's co-patron saint with St Paul: both their images appeared on the seals of the city and of the Lord Mayor. The Bridge House Estates seal used only the image of Becket, while the reverse featured a depiction of his martyrdom.

Local legends regarding Becket arose after his canonisation. Though they are typical hagiographical stories, they also display Becket's particular gruffness. "Becket's Well", in Otford, Kent, is said to have been created after Becket had become displeased with the taste of the local water. Two springs of clear water are said to have bubbled up after he struck the ground with his crozier. The absence of nightingales in Otford is also ascribed to Becket, who is said to have been so disturbed in his devotions by the song of a nightingale that he commanded that none should sing in the town ever again. In the town of Strood, also in Kent, Becket is said to have caused the inhabitants of the town and their descendants to be born with tails. The men of Strood had sided with the king in his struggles against the archbishop, and to demonstrate their support, had cut off the tail of Becket's horse as he passed through the town.

The saint's fame quickly spread throughout the Norman world. The first holy image of Becket is thought to be a mosaic icon still visible in Monreale Cathedral, in Sicily, created shortly after his death. Becket's cousins obtained refuge at the Sicilian court during his exile, and King William II of Sicily wed a daughter of Henry II. The principal church of the Sicilian city of Marsala is dedicated to St. Thomas Becket.



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