December 29

This Day in History

General Interest

Dec 29, 1170:

The making of an English martyr

Archbishop Thomas Becket is brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights of King Henry II of England, apparently on orders of the king.

In 1155, Henry II appointed Becket as chancellor, a high post in the English government. Becket proved a skilled diplomat and won the trust of Henry, who nominated him as archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The king hoped his friend would help in his efforts to curb the growing power of the church. However, soon after his consecration, the new archbishop emerged a zealous defender of the jurisdiction of the church over its own affairs. In 1164, Becket was forced to flee to France under fear of retaliation by the king.

He was later reconciled with Henry and in 1170 returned to Canterbury amid great public rejoicing. Soon afterward, against the objections of the pope, Henry had his son crowned co-king by the archbishop of York, and tensions again came to a head between Becket and Henry. At this time, perhaps merely in a moment of frustration, the king issued to his court the following public plea: "What a parcel of fools and dastards have I nourished in my house, and not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk." A group of Henry's knights took the statement very seriously, and on December 29, Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Christian world was shocked by Becket's death, and in 1173 he was canonized a Catholic saint. In 1174, Henry was forced to do penance at his tomb, and his efforts to end the separation between church and state ceased. In 1220, Becket's bones were transferred to Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, which later became a popular site of English religious pilgrimage.

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