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Thomas Becket, Saint

canterbury king henry martyrdom

The rich iconography of Thomas Becket (1118–1170) developed immediately after his *martyrdom in the cathedral of Canterbury in 1170 and his canonization in 1173. A clerk, deacon, and archdeacon of Canterbury, he was appointed Chancellor of England by King Henry II in 1155 and in 1162 was (unwillingly) appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II. Although a former loyal courtier with a taste for luxury and a close friend of the king, he unexpectedly became a loyal ecclesiastic after his priestly ordination the day before his episcopal consecration. Defender of ecclesiastical independence, the new archbishop repeatedly came into conflict with the king, especially over the question of royal versus ecclesiastical law. He went into exile in France (1164–1170), was protected by the French king, Louis VII, sought support from Pope Alexander III, and eventually was allowed to return to England, where his actions again angered the king. Enraged, Henry exclaimed his desire to be rid of the “turbulent priest.” Three or four of his courtiers interpreted his words literally, traveled to Canterbury, and attacked and murdered Becket as he was kneeling before the altar in his own cathedral. Becket’s martyrdom shocked the Christian world and forced Henry to perform public penance in 1174. Becket’s fame spread rapidly; numerous *miracles were immediately reported at his tomb (over 700 in the first ten years). Becket’s *relics were enshrined in a prominent chapel in the cathedral in 1220, and Canterbury became an immensely popular *pilgrimage site from the late twelfth century onward


Becket appears in art throughout Europe from the late twelfth century, and in a vast variety of media. As a single figure, he may be dressed in episcopal robes, wearing a mitre, and holding a *cross staff and book. Pilgrimage badges and ampullae from his shrine may also show him on horseback. The image of simply his mitred head was also popular. Some examples also show Becket with a cleft or sword in his head. Literary compositions detailing the life, deeds, martyrdom, and posthumous miracles of Becket also inspired abundant artistic production especially from the thirteenth century onward. Cycles appear in manuscripts, frescoes, stained glass, sculpture, and metalwork. The illustration of his martyrdom was overwhelmingly popular, although extended narratives include events from his birth, court life, consecration, travels, conflicts and conversations with kings and the pope, and numerous miracles (including many episodes of healing, visions, and *exorcisms reported at his tomb).

Thomas, Dave - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Dave Thomas, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Thomas Aquinas, Saint

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