What was the controversy with Thomas Becket?

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket (c. 1118–1170) was killed by knights in the service of England’s King Henry II (1133–1189); he had refused to be subservient to the monarch. In the long struggle between church and state, the story of St. Thomas Becket is a dramatic chapter. Born in London in about 1118, when he was in his twenties Becket entered into service for the archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England. He subsequently held various church offices, including archdeacon. When Henry II was coronated in 1154, becoming the worldly leader of the Church of England, he found in Becket one of his most vigorous champions. In 1162 Henry made him archbishop of Canterbury. But a transformation soon occurred in Thomas Becket, who put his spiritual duties first and began defending the church against the king’s power. Henry, eager to increase royal authority, was determined to regain control over the church. A bitter struggle ensued between the two former friends. At one point, Becket fled the country because he was in fear for his life. When he returned to England six years later (in 1170), he renewed his opposition to the king, but nevertheless forced a reconciliation with him. Henry was still irked by Becket’s open defiance to his authority, and he suggested to his knights that one among them might be brave enough to do away with him, ending the king’s troubles. Four knights took the king at his word, and on December 29, 1170, they found Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and killed him as he made his evening prayers. Henry later did penance for the crime; Becket was canonized three years later.


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