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Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in 1118. He was of Norman descent on both sides and was proud of his heritage. He was educated at Mortar Priory, various other schools, and finally, in the School of Theology at Paris. He also learned law and practiced the use of sword and lance, traditional knightly exercises. His study of law helped him in his quarrels with the king. His expertise in the use of the sword and the lance helped him in the campaign of 1159-1160, when he defeated a French knight in a single combat.
In 1141, Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, took Becket into his household. From then on, his rise was rapid. In 1154, he was ordained and appointed the Archdeacon of Canterbury. Henry II gained the throne in the same year, making Becket's future even brighter. Becket became Henry's favorite religious leader. Henry would often entertain Becket, as well as seek his advice. The King also increased Becket's importance. He first appointed Becket to the position of Chancellor. When Theobald died in 1162, Becket was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II.
After 1162, the relationship between Henry and Thomas Becket, both proud and men of strong character, became more and more bitter. Henry wanted to reduce the power of the clergy, and Becket fought fiercely against it. Henry wanted criminal priests to be tried in the civil courts while Becket wanted them to be tried in the ecclesiastical courts. The quarrel went on. In 1164, Henry, in the Constitution of Clarendon, tried to define the relationship between the Church and the State. Becket quibbled, quarreled, made promises he did not intend to keep, and sacrificed his principles to retain his power. To protect himself, Becket fled to France, forfeiting his worldly goods to the Crown.
Becket returned from his exile after seven years. Both the King and Becket tried to enlist the support of the Pope against each other. The turmoil and bitterness between them ended with the murder of Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170. Becket was canonized in 1184.
In his play, T. S. Eliot portrays the struggle between the church and the state, depicted in the struggle between Becket and Henry II. In truth, King Henry's reign was a reign of terror, causing misery and ruin to the common citizens. This is depicted in the words of the chorus at the beginning of the play. The people found in Becket hope and sustenance. The king found this undesirable and got his supporters to tempt Becket with various baits. In fact, the knights come in and tempt Becket during the course of the play. When Becket refuses to be tempted, Henry II has him murdered in the cathedral.