“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” – Henry II of England
On December 29th, we celebrate the feast of the great English saint and martyr, Thomas A Becket. 846 years ago on this very day, on the steps of the altar of the cathedral of Canterbury, Henry’s men struck down the holy man with a sword in the holiest of places. What precipitated this jarring event? For that, we must dig into the depths of history.
Thomas Becket was born the son of an English merchant in Normandy in 1118. His father was a former sheriff of London and as a result the family was quite well off. While still young, Thomas was sent to Paris for his education and returned to England to join the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobold. Recognizing his young charge’s numerous talents and skills, Theobold sent him back to Paris to study law. After his time in Paris, Theobold made Thomas Becket archdeacon of Canterbury.
Theobold introduced Thomas to the newly crowned king of England, Henry, in 1154. Immediately, the two men connected and formed a strong bond as friends, owing to their similar personalities. Eventually, Henry named Thomas Becket his chancellor and when Theobold died in 1161, Henry named Thomas Becket archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical post in England.
There was one issue, however. Thomas was not ordained yet at the time of his nomination, even though the pope confirmed Henry’s decision. This was quickly remedied as Thomas was ordained a priest and one day after that, consecrated bishop. That same afternoon of June 2, 1162, Thomas Becket was officially made Archbishop of Canterbury.
Henry thought that by having a confidant in the highest position of the Church in England, his will would be done no questions asked. He was sorely mistaken as Thomas shifted his focus and energies to the service of the Church as an archbishop. Henry wished to change some of the long standing laws and privileges the Church enjoyed. Thomas Becket was not keen on this and the king noticed. As a result, and calculating what might happen if he remained in England, Thomas fled to France until 1170.
Henry met Thomas in Normandy that year and the two seemed to resolve their differences. On November 30, Thomas returned to Canterbury. While he was in France, he had excommunicated the bishops of London and Salisbury for supporting the king and his efforts to change the law concerning the Church’s prerogatives. Thomas refused to absolve the bishops even after his return. Henry heard of this and went into a rage and purportedly uttered the quote at the top of this article, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
Some of his knights, worked into a frenzy for love of their king, set sail for England from France (remember, the king was in Normandy). Four of them entered the cathedral at Canterbury on December 29, 1170. They had followed the archbishop into the cathedral where a mass was going on. While at the altar, they drew their swords and slashed at Thomas a Becket until they split his skull, spewing his brains and blood, everywhere.
Upon finding out about the incident, Henry was greatly troubled. Those knights who perpetrated the act fell into disfavor with the king. In 1174, the king, in an act of penance and reparation, wore sack-cloth and walked barefoot through Canterbury while monks flogged him with tree branches. He then spent the night in the tomb of the martyr in one final act of reparation.
Miracles occurred at Thomas a Becket’s tomb soon after his death and he was canonized not long afterwards. Pilgrims began to transform his tomb into a pilgrimage site. Thomas a Becket’s life and death left an indelible mark on the people and his shrine continued to be a popular site for centuries (see Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.)
What does his story and his death mean for us today? His life stands as a testament that those who wish to interfere in the business and workings of the Church will always be thwarted, one way or another by God or by man. It is Christ’s Church and His alone and it always will be. His martyrdom will always serve to show that duty to God always supercedes duty to any temporal ruler or government. God became man in order for us to return to God. Thomas a Becket understood this and was martyred for it.
In those days after Christmas 1170, the Church lost a titan of a figure, but his legacy lives on.
Saint Thomas a Becket, ora pro nobis!