Becket's Early Life
Thomas Becket was born in London in around 1120. His parents, Matilda and Gilbert Becket, had moved to England from Normandy and settled in Cheapside in London, where they made a living as merchants. Though Becket was not from a noble family, his parents were part of a rapidly rising merchant class and Thomas would have had a fairly privileged upbringing. Gilbert and Matilda had at least three other children – Agnes, Roheise and Mary – but Thomas was probably their only son that survived into adulthood.
In about 1130, when Thomas was around the age of 10, he was sent to school at Merton Priory, a monastery in Surrey. He went on to study at a grammar school in London, where he would have learned Latin and possibly the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music). In his early twenties Becket also spent time as a student in Paris, but only studied in France for two years, and had returned to his family home in London by the age of 21.
On his return to England, Becket initially began work as a clerk for his relative, Osbert Huitdeniers. However, through family connections to the church, he was soon appointed as a clerk in the household of Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was described by his contemporaries as an intelligent, charming and authoritative figure, and he rose quickly through the ranks. Between 1149 and 1151, Becket was assigned several missions to Rome as the Archbishop’s representative, where he met Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153) and many distinguished cardinals and papal officials.
In 1154, Archbishop Theobald appointed Becket as Archdeacon of Canterbury. This was a prestigious and very senior role in the church. However, very soon Thomas was recommended by the Archbishop to an even higher post, as chancellor to the new King Henry II. Much like today, the Lord Chancellor was one of the most powerful figures in the country. William Fitzstephen, one of Becket’s twelfth-century biographers, described the role as ‘second to the king of the realm’.
Becket was appointed chancellor in January 1155, when Henry II was around 21 years old. Henry and Thomas became close friends, and Henry entrusted his new chancellor with more control over English royal administration than any of his predecessors. As chancellor, Becket was responsible for overseeing the administration of government, approving royal appointments and raising the crown’s revenue from landowners, which included churches and bishoprics.
Becket also benefitted financially from his connections to the royal court, and he would have been able to afford a fairly lavish lifestyle. On one diplomatic visit to King Louis of France, Thomas is said to have taken 200 horsemen, 24 changes of dress and 12 packhorses to carry his gold and silver table furnishings.