Thursday, November 09, 2006

Thomas Becket was born in 1118, most likely on 21 December, to a middle class Norman family in London. Although he was from the middle class, Thomas was able to associate with those in the upper strata of society, spending much time with his father Gilbert’s rich friend Richer de L’aigle from whom he learned to hunt, ride, and behave as a gentleman – in other words, Thomas was well educated in social matters. At the age of 10, Thomas was sent to the Merton Abbey, where he learned to read. He completed his early education at the University of Paris. After university, Thomas entered into secretarial work for Richer de L’aigle, which it is probably safe to assume was due to his earlier connections with de L’aigle. Becket also worked for Osbert Huitdeniers, who was King Stephen’s Justiciar, a term which we would associate with prime minister in modern times. Around 1141, Becket earned the attention of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, served as a clerk to the archbishop, and became Theobald’s most trusted man. Robert of Clicklade gives us a pretty good idea of Thomas at that point in his life:
“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 loveable 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.”
Theobald was very impressed with Becket, and trusted him with important work. He sent Thomas off to Bologna and Auxerre for a year to study civil and canon law. After his time on the Continent, Theobald ordained Becket a deacon in 1154 and then appointed him archdeacon of Canterbury.
Right about this time, King Stephen died, and Henry II took the throne. On Theobald’s advice, Henry appointed Thomas to be his chancellor. Thus, at the age of only 36 or 37, Thomas Becket became one of the most powerful subjects of King Henry II, falling behind only the justiciar of London. Henry was charmed by Thomas, and the two immediately became great friends, even though Thomas was 12 years older than Henry. Many history texts will cite the opinion of the time that the two men “had but one heart and one mind.” Theobald, having played a large part in Thomas’ rise to power, expected Becket to support the clerical faction whenever disputes arose between the Church and the sovereign, but more often that not Thomas sided with Henry – there is no doubt that he was fiercely loyal to his king. The two were extremely close, and Thomas was most assuredly one of, if not the, most trusted advisor of Henry. Becket is credited with reorganizing the imposition of a scuttage – a fee that could be paid in lieu of military service. He even accompanied Henry on a military expedition to Toulouse in 1159 – and Thomas certainly wasn’t known to shrink from battle.
It should be pointed out that Thomas shared another bond with King Henry – both lived in extravagance, and Thomas loved to show off his station in life. When traveling to France in 1158, Becket displayed such magnificence that it is thought the French said “"If this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?"
Worldly though his behavior seemed to be, hardly any man dared to doubt Thomas’ piety – privately, it would seem he was devoted to God and Church, and worked very hard to maintain the Church’s power in England. Although he usually agreed with Henry, Thomas was not afraid to stand up and speak for the benefit of the Church.
Thomas saw the conflict this would cause when, in 1161, Archbishop Theobald died, and the Archbishopric of Canterbury was open. Over the course of the next year, Henry saw this as a way to strengthen his own power and position when conflict would arise with the Church – if he could install Thomas as Archbishop, he would have his own man inside the Church, and therefore could push his own reforms against the Church more easily – after all, Henry saw himself as supreme master of the land, and did not want to yield any authority to the Roman Church.. Dedicated as Thomas was to the Church, he felt obligated to tell Henry “I know your plans for the Church…you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose.” Henry pressed forward anyway and convinced Thomas to take the position. Thomas Becket was ordained a priest and consecrated bishop on 3 June 1162.
Becket’s consecration marked the end of his worldly life – he immediately changed his ways, and his private piety was brought to the public forefront. In modern terms, it could be said that he performed a complete 180 degree turnaround. He rid himself of his previously lavish lifestyle (along with his chancellorship) and became devoted to the interests of the Church – which, of course, conflicted with why Henry had made him Archbishop of Canterbury in the first place. Sir Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, illustrates this change by saying “But whereas hitherto as a courtier and a prince he had rivaled all in magnificence and pomp, taking his part in the vivid pageant of the times, he now sought by extreme austerities to gather around himself the fame and honour of a saint. Becket pursued the same methods and ambitions in the ecclesiastical as previously he had done in the political sphere; and in both he excelled. He now championed the Church against the Crown in every aspect of their innumerable interleaving functions. He clothed this aggressive process with those universal ideas of the Catholic Church and the Papal authority which far transcended the bounds of our Island…”
One of the biggest issues causing distress between king and bishop was that of “criminous clerks.” At the time, men in holy orders who were accused of committing crimes would be charged in ecclesiastical, rather than secular, courts. Seeing people wriggle out from under his control, Henry strongly opposed this protection of the Church, and at the Council of Westminster in 1163 he demanded that those men tried and convicted in ecclesiastical courts also be punished by civil courts. The next year, Henry codified this demand, among other complaints against Church authority, in the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket gave his oral assent but refused to sign the Constitutions. However, when Pope Alexander III voiced his opposition to the Constitutions, Becket openly refuted them. He was summoned to the Council of Northampton and accused of misappropriating funds when he was chancellor. Becket sealed his position against the king by refuting the council’s jurisdiction over himself, and the resulting hostilities led to Thomas’ flight to and exile in France. Although the subject of criminous clerks is only one among several major injuries Thomas saw against the Church, it was quite clear that Becket and Henry would never agree on relations between Church and State, and the Archbishop fled the country for fear of what would happen to him after his latest and loudest opposition to Henry’s power. Thomas left from Sandwich on 2 November and headed for France, where he was cordially welcomed by Louis VII. Three weeks after he left England, the Archbishop of Canterbury presented himself to the pope at Sens. The pope welcomed him warmly, but refused to accept his resignation from the Archbishopric of Canterbury. At the time, Frederick Barbarossa had placed an antipope on the papal throne in Rome, and Alexander feared that supporting Thomas too strongly would cause Henry to unite against him with Frederick.
Negotiations continued between the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the King of England for four more years, never with much change being made. Finally, Henry came to France and made a tenuous peace with Thomas, under threat of a papal interdict – under which Mass could not be celebrated, sacraments could not be given unless absolutely necessary, and Christian burials would be forbidden. The threat of an interdict was issued after Henry had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York – something that, at the time, was an enormous insult to Thomas. It had long been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prerogative to perform the crowning, and having York do it was the ultimate slap in the face to Thomas.
The crowning of Henry’s son had taken place in June of 1170. In December of that year, Thomas Becket returned to England, and promptly excommunicated the bishops who had taken part in the coronation. This enraged Henry, and his response has several different variations – I have heard at least five or six myself, but we’ll turn again to Winston Churchill for his take on Henry’s statement. Flying into a fit of rage, he purportedly yelled “What a pack of fools and cowards I have nourished in my house that not one of them will avenge me of this turbulent priest!” Henry probably said this only out of anger and didn’t actually mean much by it, but four knights who heard what Henry had said - Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton – took this as their call to action, and mounted their horses for Canterbury. When they arrived at the cathedral, they tracked down the archbishop and demanded the absolution of the excommunicated bishops. When Thomas refused, the knights left, only to return a short time later with a gang of armed men. They demanded “Where is the traitor?” Thomas replied “Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.” The men tried to drag Henry from the Church to no avail, and so they murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury in his cathedral, supposedly in front of the main altar, before the eyes of astonished monks. The monk who supposedly carried the Archbishop’s cross, Edward Grim, was also wounded in the attack, and he gave one of the most detailed contemporary accounts of the assassination. Here’s an excerpt; it’s a bit long but I assure you it is an excellent account of the event:
“With rapid motion they laid sacrilegious hands on him, handling and dragging him roughly outside of the walls of the church so that there they would slay him or carry him from there as a prisoner, as they later confessed. But when it was not possible to easily move him from the column, he bravely pushed one [of the knights] who was pursuing and drawing near to him; he called him a panderer saying, "Don't touch me, Rainaldus, you who owes me faith and obedience, you who foolishly follow your accomplices." On account of the rebuff the knight was suddenly set on fire with a terrible rage and, wielding a sword against the sacred crown said, "I don't owe faith or obedience to you that is in opposition to the fealty I owe my lord king." The invincible martyr - seeing that the hour which would bring the end to his miserable mortal life was at hand and already promised by God to be the next to receive the crown of immortality - with his neck bent as if he were in prayer and with his joined hands elevated above - commended himself and the cause of the Church to God, St. Mary, and the blessed martyr St. Denis. He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight, fearing that [Thomas] would be saved by the people and escape alive, suddenly set upon him and, shaving off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God, he wounded the sacrificial lamb of God in the head; [my] lower arm was cut by the same blow. Indeed [I] stood firmly with the holy archbishop, holding him in his arms - while all the clerics and monks fled - until the one he had raised in opposition to the blow was severed…Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr. The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, ‘We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.’ But during all these incredible things the martyr displayed the virtue of perseverance. Neither his hand nor clothes indicated that he had opposed a murderer - as is often the case in human weakness; nor when stricken did he utter a word, nor did he let out a cry or a sigh, or a sign signaling any kind of pain; instead he held still the head that he had bent toward the unsheathed swords.”
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was dead, murdered by agents of the King of England.
Canterbury cathedral immediately became a place of pilgrimage, and people began praying to him and vying just to touch pieces of his clothing or bits of his bones in the hope of being healed of various ailments. Pope Alexander canonized Thomas in 1173, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury became St. Thomas of Canterbury. The following year, King Henry did public penance, walking to Canterbury barefoot and allowing the monks there to whip him as he prayed at the site of the saint’s murder. The shrine of Canterbury remained a place of prayer and veneration until Henry VIII brought it down in 1538. St. Thomas Becket’s feast day is 29 December, the day he was murdered in 1170.
Some have placed an “a” between the names Thomas and Becket, turning his name into Thomas à Becket, probably in an attempt to compare the archbishop with Thomas à Kempis, the theologian who wrote “Imitation of Christ”. Although it is a nice touch, it isn’t exactly correct, and the more accepted form of the name is simply Thomas Becket.
In an interesting side note, readers of BBC Magazine voted Thomas Becket the second worst Briton in a thousand years, ranking behind Jack the Ripper and before King John (of Magna Carta fame). Those readers apparently saw Becket’s piety as phony, and thought of him as a greedy hypocrite. Regardless of how you feel about the saint, it is unquestionable that he stuck to his principles and carried out the duties of his office with gusto – he performed extremely well as Henry’s chancellor, and the ambition seen in his secular office transferred exactly into his office as Archbishop. He refused to compromise in the face of opposition and died for what he believed in.

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