Saint Thomas Becketadmin | 29 December 2010
The collect for today, the Feast of Saint Thomas Becket (1117-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr (source):
O Lord God,
who gavest to thy servant Thomas Becket
grace to put aside all earthly fear
and be faithful even unto death:
grant that we, caring not for worldly esteem,
may fight against evil,
uphold thy rule,
and serve thee to our life’s end;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Thomas Becket was a close personal friend of King Henry II of England and served as his chancellor from 1155. When Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, died in 1162, Henry saw an opportunity to exercise control over the church and detemined to have his chancellor elected to the post. Thomas saw the dangers of the king’s plan and warned Henry that, if he became archbishop, his first loyalty would be to God and not the king. He told Henry, “Several things you do in prejudice of the rights of the church make me fear that you would require of me what I could not agree to.” What Thomas feared soon came to pass.
After becoming archbishop, Thomas changed radically from defender of the king’s privileges and policies into an ardent champion of the church. Unexpectedly adopting an austere way of life in near-monastic simplicity, he celebrated or attended Mass daily, studied Scripture, distributed alms to the needy, and visited the sick. He became just as obstinate in asserting the church’s interests as he had formerly been in asserting the king’s.
Thomas rejected Henry’s claim of authority over the English Church. Relations with the king deteriorated so seriously that Thomas left England and spent six years in exile in France. He realised that he had return when the Archbishop of York and six other bishops crowned the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, in contravention of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rights and authority.
Returning to England with letters of papal support, Thomas immediately excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the six other bishops. On Christmas Day 1170 he publicly denounced them from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral. It was these actions that prompted Henry’s infamous angry words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Four knights took the king at his word and travelled to Canterbury where they slew the saint. According to eyewitness accounts, Thomas processed calmly into the cathedral and refused to bar the doors against his attackers. When the four rushed in yelling, “Where is Thomas the traitor?”, he replied, “Here I am. No traitor, but a priest of God.” As the first blow was struck, he said, “For the name of Jesus and in defence of the church, I am willing to die.” He was hacked to death between the altar of Our Lady and the altar of St Benedict.
All Europe was horrified and outraged by the assassination of an archbishop carrying papal authority in his own cathedral at the behest of a king. Henry was universally condemned and forced to do public penance.
Thomas Becket was canonised as a martyr by Pope Alexander III in 1173.
In modern times, T.S. Eliot has famously retold the story of the saint’s martyrdom in his play Murder in the Cathedral.
Artwork: King Henry II Speaking with Saint Thomas Becket (detail of illuminated page from The Chronicle of England by Peter Langtoft), c. 1300-25. British Library, London.