Thomas Becket, bishop, and martyr: a story of his faith above King Henry II’s power

In my reading of the “Liturgy of the hours” this morning, I learned about the commemoration of the life and death of Thomas Becket (1118-1170,) a bishop who was assassinated by the agents of King Henry II of England, his friend, for his willingness to defend what he believed above the king’s interests.

Born in 1118 from a well off family, Thomas Beckett became a cleric of the diocese of Canterbury, chancellor to the king, his friend, who petitioned the pope who agreed to name Becket to the highest ecclesiastical post in Canterbury.

st-thomas-becket-9204211-2-402In one day Becket was invested as a priest in the morning, bishop in the afternoon, and Archbishop of Canterbury, the very next day.

It was June 2, 1162, a day of growing the ecclesiastical ladder at the speed of light in Medieval Europe.

At the beginning, Becket did a good job enforcing the king’s traditional sources of revenue that were extracted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics.

I mentioned two times Becket’s friendship with King Henry II who believed, then, by having “his man” in the top post of the Church, he could easily impose his will upon this powerful religious institution.

Becket’s allegiance shifted and took a stand against his king who wanted to change the canon law to extend his courts’ jurisdiction over the clergy.

A rift grew between Henry and Becket led to a series of conflicts. Becket fled to France where he remained in exile. There, he had excommunicated some bishops for their support of the king. He refused to absolve the bishops even though he resumed his friendship with King Henry II who was in anger against his friend’s steadfast refusal.

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

henry-ii-9335107-1-402History reported these words from King Henry II whose outrage inspired four of his knights to kill the prelate on December 29, 1770.

The death of Becket unnerved the king. The knights who did the deed to curry the king’s favor, fell into disgrace. Several miracles were said to occur at the tomb of the martyr and he was soon canonized. Hordes of pilgrims transformed Canterbury Cathedral into a shrine.

Four years later, in an act of penance, 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. St. Thomas continued as a popular cultist figure for the remainder of the middle Ages.

I am sharing with you a narrative from a contemporary manuscript of Edward Grim, a monk, who observed the attack after the knights have stormed into the cathedral.

 

“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 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.’

 

 

 

 

 

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