Dec 29 – St Thomas a’Becket, (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr

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-miniature from an English psalter presenting a spirited account of the murder, c. 1250, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.  Three of the four knights attack the archbishop, who is kneeling in prayer before the altar. One of the knights kicks Thomas to the floor, and sends his miter flying as his sword cracks open Thomas’s head.

A St Thomas, Chancellor of the Realm, killed at the order of his former friend King Henry, where they had previously been dear friends and true confidants, separated by a matter of principle and duty to the Church and its Lord; does history repeat itself?  Perhaps.  But, this is the twelfth century, not the sixteenth.  Certainly, the ancients, and some even up to the twentieth century, believed history is cyclical, not linear, as we do.

Thomas Becket was born of parents who had emigrated from Normandy to England, some years before his birth 21 Dec 1118.  He was well educated and associated with the social elite of his day.

He was described at this early age by Robert of Cricklade, who gives a vivid portrait of him at this period:

“To look upon he was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and love-able in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.” He abhorred foul conduct and speech.  Lying and unchastity were hateful to him.

He came into the employ and favor of the then Archbishop of Canterbury for his secretarial skills.  He was subsequently sent by his employer to study civil and canon (church) law in Bologna and Auxerre, and handle several delicate negotiations of import.

It was at this time that Henry II ascended the throne.  Henry had been made aware of Thomas’ reputation and subsequently made him his chancellor.  As chancellor of England, Thomas had a large household and lived in splendor.

Current chroniclers speak with wonder of the relations which existed between the chancellor and the sovereign, who was twelve years his junior. People declared that “they had but one heart and one mind”. Often the king and his minister behaved like two schoolboys at play. But although they hunted or rode at the head of an army together it was no mere comradeship in pastime which united them. Both were hard workers, and both, we may believe, had the prosperity of the kingdom deeply at heart.

In many matters they saw eye to eye. The king’s imperial views and love of splendor were quite to the taste of his minister. When Thomas went to France in 1158 to negotiate a marriage treaty, he travelled with such pomp that the people said: “If this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?”

When the archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry wanted the pope to give Thomas this position. It would require that Thomas be ordained a priest. But Thomas told him plainly that he did not want to be the archbishop of Canterbury. He realized that being in that position would put him in direct conflict with Henry II’s plans to control and manipulate the Church towards his own ends. Thomas knew that he would have to defend the Church against Henry, and that would mean trouble. “Your affection for me would turn into hatred,” he warned Henry. The king paid no attention and Thomas was made a priest and a bishop in 1162.

Now a change occurred. Thomas lived more austerely and devoted much more time to prayer. At first, things went along as well as ever. All too soon, however, the king began to demand money, which Thomas felt he could not rightly take from the Church. The king grew more and more angry with his former friend. Finally, he began to treat Thomas harshly. For a while, Thomas was tempted to give in a bit to the “Constitutions of Clarendon”, which enumerated Henry’s proposed abuses. Then he began to realize just how much Henry hoped to control the Church. Thomas was very sorry that he had even thought of giving in to the king. He did penance for his weakness and ever after held firm.

Thomas fled to the continent in fear for his safety for four years.  After a long and protracted negotiation, including many threats upon property and well being of Thomas’ family and allies, it appeared a form of resolution emerged.  Thomas returned to England quietly possessing Henry’s documents of excommunication, After Thomas refused to lift the censures he had placed upon bishops favored by Henry, Henry was particularly annoyed with his former dear friend and said in anger out loud. “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Some of his knights took him literally. They went off to murder the archbishop. They attacked him in his own cathedral, trying to remove him from the physical church building, but Thomas resisted, struggling and dying on the steps of the altar.  A sword blow scattering his brains on the cathedral floor. He died, saying, “For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church, I am willing to die.” It was December 29, 1170.

Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from the safety of a hiding place near the altar. He wrote his account some time after the event:

“The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’

“He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’

‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’

‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’

“Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’

“The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’

“Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

“Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’

“Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

“As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.’

The entire Christian world was horrified at such a crime. Pope Alexander III held the king personally responsible for the murder. A year later, Henry II performed public penance, lest he be excommunicated and thereby removing his subjects of the obligation of fealty, and he lose his crown, and likely his life.  There can only be one king.

On 12 July, 1174, the king donned a sack-cloth walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him with branches. Henry capped his atonement by spending the night in the martyr’s crypt.

An immense number of miracles occurred at the tomb of St Thomas Becket, and for the rest of the Middle Ages the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury was one of the wealthiest and most famous in Europe. The martyr’s holy remains are believed to have been destroyed in September, 1538, when nearly all the other shrines in England were destroyed.

“For our sake Christ offered himself to the Father upon the altar for the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve. It must therefore be our endeavor to destroy the right of sin and death, and by nurturing faith and uprightness of life, to build up the Church of Christ into a holy temple of the Lord. The harvest is good and one reaper or even several would not suffice to gather all of it into the granary of the Lord. Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone know that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God. Of course many are needed to plant and many to water now that the faith has spread so far and the population become so great. Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter, and unless he himself assents to Peter’s teaching. All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgment of Peter in the person for the Roman Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility. Remember then how our fathers worked out their salvation; remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter has weathered because it has Christ on board. Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.” – from a letter by Saint Thomas Becket

“Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.” -St. Thomas Becket

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Prayer in honor of St Thomas a’Becket

Almighty God, by Whose grace and power Your holy martyr Thomas triumphed over suffering and evil, and was faithful even unto death, keep Thy household free of all evil.  Raise up for us faithful pastors and shepherds, who are wise in the ways of the Gospel.

Grant us, who now remember Your martyr Thomas with thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to You in this world, that we may be a compelling sign of faith to those who witness our lives, and hence receive with Your martyrs the crown of life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Love,
Matthew

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