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Saint Thomas à Becket

Archbishop of Canterbury

Apparently determined to be archbishop as conscientiously as he had been chancellor, Becket immediately changed his way of life. He abandoned his worldliness for a life of extreme asceticism, angered the king by resigning the chancellorship, and began to work exclusively for the interests of the church. He soon came into conflict with Henry, and as the tension between the two men mounted, the series of minor disputes developed into a major quarrel.

Matters came to a head over the question of punishing "criminous clerks." At the Council of Westminster (1163), Henry claimed that such clerics, once tried and convicted in the ecclesiastical courts, should be punished by the secular authorities. Becket rejected this claim and also persuaded the other bishops to attach the qualification "saving our order" to their assent to the king's demand that they swear obedience to the (unspecified) "ancient customs" of the realm. Under pressure from the pope, Becket subsequently withdrew this reservation. The following year Henry codified these customs (including his claim concerning the "criminous clerks") in the Constitutions of Clarendon (see Clarendon, Constitutions of) and Becket, although he refused to sign them, did give his oral assent.

The Constitutions of Clarendon were, for the most part, an accurate statement of the customs governing relations between church and state in the reign of Henry's grandfather, Henry I. Several of the practices were, however, contrary to canon law, and the pope now refused to approve them. This stiffened Becket's resolution, and he publicly indicated that he had perjured himself at Clarendon. In Oct., 1164, the archbishop was summoned to the Council of Northampton to stand trial for allegedly misappropriating funds while he was chancellor. There in a stormy meeting he openly breached two clauses of the constitutions, by denying the jurisdiction of the council over himself and by appealing to the pope. He fled the country immediately after.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: British and Irish History: Biographies


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