St Thomas Becket

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Martyr and archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas a Becket was born in Cheapside, London, on 21st December (which was the feast of St Thomas the Apostle) around 1120, the son of a prosperous London merchant, Gilbert Beket and his wife Matilda. The young Thomas was sent as a student to Merton Priory and later attended a grammar school in London, possibly St Paul's Cathedral school. After his father suffered some business problems Thomas had to leave school and begin to earn a living as a clerk. He first worked in the business of a relative, then later acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. His work took him on several missions to Rome and he became a deacon.

Thomas's talents were noticed by King Henry II, who made him his chancellor. The two soon became close friends. When Theobald died in 1161, Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas took this new role very seriously and changed from being a pleasure-loving courtier into a serious, simply-dressed cleric.

The king and the archbishop's friendship came under strain when it became clear that Thomas would now defend the church in its disagreements with the king. In 1164, realising the extent of Henry's displeasure, Thomas fled into exile in France, and remained there in a monastery until 1170. In June that year he returned to Canterbury.

On this day in 1170, four of the king's knights rode to Canterbury, entered the Cathedral and killed Thomas as he knelt in front of the altar. Thomas was venerated as a martyr immediately after his death and was canonized in 1173. In that year the king made a public penance at the shrine of the saint. The four knights who had fled to the north of England after killing Thomas, went to Rome to ask forgiveness from the Pope.

The shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral became one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England for the next 360 years, until it was destroyed during the Reformation - in the time of another King Henry and another St Thomas.

Many churches and schools around the world have been named after St Thomas. His life story has been the subject of several novels, poems and dramas - most recently TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh's play Becket, which was made into a film starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole.

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