29th December 2020, marks the 850th anniversary of the death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118 AD to a family of merchants originating from Normandy in France.
He was educated at Merton Priory and later joined the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1154, he was made Archdeacon of Canterbury and later that year, Chancellor of England, on Theobald’s recommendation.
As Chancellor, Thomas worked very closely with Henry 11 and supported the views of the king as a loyal friend. They could be seen hunting together and playing chess. Thomas was certainly the King’s confidante. He backed the king in all affairs of State rather than the church and was certainly the perfect choice for Archbishop of Canterbury when Theobald died in 1161.
Once consecrated as Archbishop, Thomas changed his outlook. He had made a vow to God and his loyalty was transferred to the church. This must have come as a great shock to Henry and complicated the constant battle between church and state. Thomas changed his lifestyle, wearing sackcloth under his robes and eating a frugal diet.
Henry II (Character)
Henry II, the first Plantaganet king of England, came to the throne after an unsettled time of civil war between his mother Matilda and Stephen. When he took control, it was if he was carrying on from his grandfather, Henry I, ignoring Stephen’s changes.
Henry was one of the most powerful rulers of his time. He was tall and strong with a great deal of energy. Although he was a good military leader, he was not obsessed by war for its own sake.
He was a charming man with a sense of humour but also a violent temper. Intelligent and with an excellent memory, he spoke a number of languages, using French and Latin often.
Henry was well read and enjoyed academic conversation. He gave thought to the laws that were to be enacted to run the country.
Henry gave to the poor, often secretly. He would appear to have been religious and gave support to the church, even though he was suspicious of some aspects of its organisation and finances.
As an absolute monarch, Henry ruled through the power of God but the balance of power between church and state was always difficult with the influence of the Pope in Rome.
The Constitutions of Westminster 1163 and Clarendon 1164 issued by Henry demanded that the clergy should be handed over for punishment by the state, rather than continue to be subject to ecclesiastical law only. The power of the church courts would be limited and the crown would be stronger.
Thomas Becket would not agree to this and a fierce quarrel with Henry led to the exile of Thomas in France.
Henry’s heir to the throne was crowned in York by Roger, Archbishop of York and two bishops. Becket excommunicated them when he returned to England in 1170. Thomas provoked the crown because despite the thaw in his relationship with Henry, he had not changed his belief that there was no room in the church for those who put the state before God.
Henry II was in France and was furious when he heard of the events surrounding the coronation. His anger exploded into a rage at the excommunication by Becket. Four knights who heard his outburst decided that they could impress the king if they were able to rid him of Thomas, the low-born clerk who was shamefully mocking his master.
The knights rode to Canterbury, staying at Randolph de Broc’s Saltwood Castle near Hythe in Kent on the way.
On 29th December at Canterbury, vespers was being sung in the cathedral.
The four knights entered the cathedral, clad in armour, swords drawn.
The monks stopped their worship and tried to force the door closed but Thomas rebuked them,
‘ It is not proper that a house of prayer, a church of Christ, be made a fortress.’
He told the monks to continue with the service,
‘ We will triumph over the enemy through suffering rather than fighting – and we come to suffer, not to resist.’
He approached the High Altar, his lips moving in prayer, surrounded by monks and unseen.
Voices came from the shadows,
‘ Where is Thomas Becket, traitor of the king and kingdom?’
The words hung in the silence for a moment and a blade flashed in the light of candles. The knights turned, brandishing their swords in anger, so out of place there.
Again, they shouted, ‘Where is the archbishop?’
This time, Thomas answered,
‘ The righteous will be like a bold lion, free from fear.’
He turned from the altar and met their eyes.
‘Here I am, not a traitor of the king, but a priest; why do you see me? Here I am, ready to suffer in the name of He who redeemed me with his blood; God forbid that I should flee on account of your swords or that I should depart from righteousness.’
The knights demanded that Thomas restore communion and office to the excommunicated men but he refused to give in.
In a voice of calm, the archbishop said, ‘ No penance has been made, so I will not absolve them.’
The knights had come to solve the problem one way or another.
They would show no mercy to Thomas, ‘ You will now die and will suffer what you have earned.’
Moving closer to Thomas, they tried to drag him outside to carry out their deed, but he could not be moved from the pillar near the altar.
‘I am prepared to die for my Lord, so that in my blood, the church will attain liberty and peace, but in the name of Almighty God, I forbid that you hurt my men; either cleric or layman in any way.’
He did not utter a cry as he sank to his knees under the blows. His final words were said in a low voice.
‘ For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church, I am ready to embrace death.’
(Words from Edward Grim’s report.)
The knights rode away into the cold December night, returning to Saltwood Castle. They had created a martyr, whose death would be mourned by Henry II himself, wearing sackcloth and ashes. He was whipped by the cathedral monks, receiving 300 lashes in front of Becket’s tomb, spilling his own blood to restore his name with his subjects and with God.
The four knights: Reginald FitzUrse, Richard Brito, William de Traci and Hugh de Moreville, were shunned by the king, bringing disgrace and not the glory they had planned. They were excommunicated by the Pope and made to fight in the crusades to earn forgiveness.
Thomas Becket was canonised by the Pope Alexander III in 1173.
His tomb had become a place of pilgrimage and 703 miracles were claimed over ten years. He is the patron saint of the clergy.
Becket’s tomb was destroyed in the reformation but its site is still marked in Canterbury Cathedral.
In 1392, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, famous stories as told by pilgrims on the way to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury.
The play, Murder in the Cathedral, was written by T.S. Eliot and first performed in 1935. Eliot used the eyewitness account of Edward Grim.
A special evensong is usually held to mark the anniversary of Thomas Becket’s death. With the pandemic this will be difficult, but certainly the occasion will be remembered, especially in the 850th year.