He was born in London between 1110 and 1120. His parents were of the middle class, and his family was from near Rouen in France. He received an excellent education, which he completed at the University of Paris.
Returning to England, he attracted the notice of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and finally made him archdeacon of Canterbury and provost of Beverley. He so distinguished himself by his zeal and efficiency that Theobald commended him to King Henry II when the important office of chancellor was vacant.
Henry, like all the Norman kings, desired to be absolute master of his dominions, in both Church and State, and could well appeal to the traditions of his house when he planned to do away with the special privileges of the English clergy, which he regarded as so many fetters on his authority. Becket struck him as an instrument well adapted for the accomplishment of his designs; the young man showed himself an accomplished courtier and cheerful companion in the king's pleasures and devoted to his master's interests with such a firm and yet diplomatic thoroughness that scarcely anyone, unless perhaps it was John of Salisbury, could have doubted that he had gone over completely to the royal side. King Henry even sent his son Henry, later the "Young King", to live in Becket's household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. Later that would be one of the reasons his son would turn against him, having formed an emotional attachment to Becket as a foster-father.
Archbishop Theobald died April 18, 1161, and the chapter learned with some indignation that the king expected them to choose Thomas his successor. That election took place in May, however, and Thomas was consecrated on June 3, 1162.
In the schism which at that time divided the Church, he declared for Pope Alexander III, a man whose devotion to the same strict hierarchical principles appealed to him, and from Alexander he received the pallium at the Council of Tours[?].
On his return to England, Becket proceeded at once to put into execution the project he had formed for the liberation of the Church of England from the very limitations which he had formerly helped to enforce. His aim was twofold: the complete exemption of the Church from all civil jurisdiction, with undivided control of the clergy, freedom of appeal, etc., and the acquisition and security of as independent fund of church property.
The king was not slow to perceive the inevitable outcome of the archbishop's attitude and called a meeting of the clergy at Westminster (October 1, 1163) at which he demanded that they renounce all claim to exemption from civil jurisdiction and acknowledge the equality of all subjects before the law. The others were inclined to yield, but the archbishop stood firm. Henry was not ready for an open breach and offered to be content with a more general acknowledgment and recognition of the "customs of his ancestors." Thomas was willing to agree to this, with the significant reservation "saving the rights of the Church." But this involved the whole question at issue, and Henry left London in anger.
Henry called another assembly at Clarendon[?] for January 30, 1164, at which he presented his demands in sixteen constitutions. What he asked involved the abandonment of the clergy's independence and of their direct connection with Rome; he employed all his arts to induce their consent and was apparently successful with all but the primate.
Finally even Becket expressed his willingness to agree to the constitutions; but when it came to the actual signature, he definitely refused. This meant war between the two powers. Henry endeavoured to rid himself of his antagonist by judicial process and summoned him to appear before a great council at Northampton on October 8, 1164, to answer charges of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the chancellor's office.
Becket denied the right of the assembly to judge him, appealed to the pope, and, feeling that his life was too valuable to the Church to be risked, went into voluntary exile on November 2, embarking in a fishing-boat which landed him in France. He went to Sens, where Pope Alexander was, while envoys from the king hastened to work against him, requesting that a legate should be sent to England with plenary authority to settle the dispute. Alexander declined, and when, the next day, Becket arrived and gave him a full account of the proceedings, he was still more confirmed in his aversion to the king.
Henry pursued the fugitive archbishop with a series of edicts, aimed at all his friends and supporters as well as Becket himself; but Louis VII of France received him with respect and offered him protection. He spent newly two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny[?], until Henry's threats against the order obliged him to move to Sens again.
Becket regarded himself as in full possession of all his prerogatives and desired to see his position enforced by the weapons of excommunication and interdict. But Alexander, though sympathizing with him in theory, was for a milder and more diplomatic way of reaching his ends. Differences thus arose between pope and archbishop, which became even more bitter when legates were sent in 1167 with authority to act as arbitrators. Disregarding this limitation on his jurisdiction, and steadfast in his principles, Thomas treated with the legates at great length, still conditioning his obedience to the king by the rights of his order.
His firmness seemed about to meet with its reward when at last (1170) the pope was on the point of fulfilling his threats and excommunicating the king, and Henry, alarmed by the prospect, held out hopes of an agreement that would allow Thomas to return to England and resume his place. But both parties were really still holding to their former ground, and the desire for a reconciliation was only apparent.
Both, however, seem for the moment to have believed in its possibility, and the contrast was all the sharper when it became evident that the old irreconcilable opposition was still there. Henry, incited by his partizans, refused to restore the ecclesiastical property that he had seized, and Thomas prepared to issue the pope's sentence against the despoilers of the Church and the bishops who had abetted them. It had been already sent to England for promulgation when he himself landed at Sandwich, on December 3, 1170, and two days later entered Canterbury.
The tension was now too great to be endured, and the catastrophe that relieved it was not long in coming. A passionate word of the angry king was taken as authority by four knights -- Reginald Fitzurse[?], Hugh de Moreville[?], William de Tracey[?], and Richard le Breton -- who immediately plotted the murder of the archbishop, and accomplished it near the altar in his own Canterbury Cathedral on December 29.
1173, while on July 12 of the following year Henry humbled himself to do public penance at the tomb of his enemy, which remained one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in England until it was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A shrine was later re-established there and remains popular with tourists today.
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is set in a company of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The word "canter" came into the English language from the pace of the horses headed there, called the "Canterbury gallop."