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Saint Thomas à Becket

Exile and Death

In exile for the next six years, Becket did not receive the active support from Pope Alexander III for which he had hoped; the pope was too enmeshed in difficulties of his own to alienate the English king further. The quarrel dragged on, and both sides took extreme stands. Finally in 1170 a sort of reconciliation was arranged, but under circumstances that boded ill. In June, 1170, Henry had his eldest son crowned by the archbishop of York, in direct violation of custom and of a papal ban. Becket reacted by threatening, with papal support, to place England under an interdict. Under this threat the king hastily made his peace with his erstwhile friend.

The peace did not last long, however. Before returning to England in Dec., 1170, Becket released papal letters suspending the bishops who had taken part in the coronation. He followed this, after his arrival, by excommunicating them. These actions infuriated the king, who, in his rage, uttered his fateful plea to be rid of the archbishop. Four knights of his household acted on his words. They hurried to Canterbury, where, on Dec. 29, 1170, they murdered Becket in the cathedral itself. Thomas à Becket's death shocked the whole of the Christian world, and his tomb in Canterbury became an immediate shrine. He was canonized in 1173, and in the following year Henry was forced by the weight of public revulsion to do penance at the saint's tomb.

The popularity of the cult of St. Thomas continued through the Middle Ages; Canterbury's preeminence as a place of pilgrimage (immortalized in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales ) continued until the shrine was destroyed, probably along with the martyr's remains, under Henry VIII in 1538. Feast: Dec. 29.

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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