Skip to comments.St Thomas of Canterbury(1118-1170)[St Thomas a Becket]
Posted on 12/29/2002 7:09:18 PM PST by Lady In Blue
St. Thomas of Canterbury (1118-1170)
Seal of St. Thomas a Becket Archbishop of Canterbury
He was born in the city of London in 1118. His family name of Becket was rarely used by his contemporaries, to whom he was Thomas of London or Archbishop Thomas. His father was a Norman knight, Gilbert, who had become a prosperous merchant in London; his mother was also Norman, and he had at least two sisters, one of whom later became abbess of Barking. To his mother he owed his early piety, a devotion to our Lady, and generosity to the poor. From boyhood upwards he was richly endowed by nature. He was tall, handsome and vigorous, with dark hair, pale complexion and a prominent nose; his sight and hearing were unusually keen, he had a remarkably retentive memory, and he was a master of extemporary speech and debate. As a boy he was devoted to field sports and as a young man his energy, his practical ability and his initiative were more evident than his wisdom or his judgment. After a schooling at Merton priory and Paris he became, at twenty-one, financial clerk to a relative in the city, but after three years he was taken into the household of Theobald, the Norman monk-archbishop of Canterbury. The young Thomas gradually made his way upwards by his charm, his generosity and his adaptability. He was ambitious, and refused no opportunity of advancement or preferment, he enjoyed display and activity, but all are agreed that his life both then and at all times was absolutely pure. The archbishop gave him the post of archdeacon, and he seemed to be following the normal career of an able ecclesiastic when, at the age of thirty-six, he was recommended by Theabald to the young King Henry as chancellor.
Henry II was a man of very great ability and energy with a genius both for leadership and for organisation; at the same time he was self-willed, imperious, and passionate, wholly unspiritual and bent on gaining control of every power in his kingdom. Thomas the chancellor, who then and always had a personal affection for Henry, devoted all his efforts to serve and please the young king. Accepting all the wealth that came his way, he spent it lavishly on entertainments, on rich clothes and plate and on hunting, hawking, and even on martial exploits but he never failed to work hard and prudently in the king's interest, and there is evidence that he felt a secret dissatisfaction with himself and his worldly life.
In 1163 Theobald died, and the king secured the election of his friend, confident that he would serve all his interests. Thomas resisted, and warned the king that he might regret his choice. Then he accepted the office, and with what seemed a sudden change he became an austere and spiritual man, devoted to the interests of the church, the faithful servant of the pope. It was not long before the clash with the king occurred. Henry was resolved to reassert all the rights which had been claimed and exercised fifty years before by the Conqueror and his sons. Since that time, however, the papacy had established the claim of the church to control matters such as the trial of clerics and the excommunication of offenders, and had asserted its right to hear appeals and decide all cases. Again and again the archbishop and his king were in conflict, and affairs reached a crisis when the king demanded assent to the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164), which were an assertion of all the customs of the past that were now contrary to the law of the church and the practice of the papacy. Thomas hesitated, and for a moment gave way, thus breaking the solidarity of the bishops in their resistance. Then, at a council at Northampton in 1164 he reasserted his opposition and in face of threats of death or imprisonment, broke away by night and crossed to France to seek the pope.
For the next six years the archbishop was in exile in France, while he and the king and Pope Alexander III wrangled and discussed in an endeavor to settle the controversy and restore peace to the church in England. The issue was clouded for contemporaries by the mistakes and even the faults of the archbishop, by the ability and plausibility of the king, who had in some respects a strong case, and by the unwillingness of the pope to go to extremities with a powerful monarch. Meanwhile Thomas, at the abbey of Pontigny and elsewhere, gave himself to penance and devotion in what may be called a 'second conversion' from piety to sanctity. Finally, after a war of denunciations and excommunications, and a series of abortive conferences, an uneasy peace was patched up in the last months of 1169 and Thomas returned in triumph to Canterbury. Almost at once, the king in France, exasperated by the archbishop's refusal to withdraw some censures, let slip words which were taken to be a command, or a permission, to kill the archbishop as a traitor. Four knights crossed the Channel, and on the afternoon of December 29th appeared in the archbishop's hall intent on picking a quarrel. Thomas met them with dignified argument, but refused to budge from what he declared was justice and obedience to the pope. The knights retired in fury and donned their armor, while the archbishop entered the cathedral, refusing to allow the doors to be locked. The four knights rushed upon him in the north aisle and tried to drag him from the church. He resisted, and they cut him down with their swords. His last words were: 'I accept death for the name of Jesus and for the Church.'
The murder shocked the conscience of all Europe; miracles were announced immediately at the tomb; the archbishop was canonized as a martyr by Alexander III in 1173; the king did public penance at his tomb, and much of what St Thomas had striven for was secured by his death. Canterbury became a place of pilgrimage second only to Rome and perhaps Compostella, and churches were dedicated to St Thomas in all countries, even in the remote Iceland. That Thomas gave his life for the freedom of the church is certain; more than four centuries later, another Henry, another St Thomas, and another archbishop of Canterbury drew the moral in their different ways. That he was a man to whom all would apply the word 'great' is also clear. He was no doubt a son of his age--the age of crusades and of the Norman conquerers--alike in his magnificence, his carriage and his austerities, but those who have seen in him only an ambitious, violent and headstrong prelate have failed to allow for the gentleness and devotion that were always part of his character, and for the real and profound conversion of his later years. Had he died a natural death in 1170 he would not perhaps have been acclaimed as a saint, but in his last years and months he prepared himself by his fortitude and zeal for truth and justice, for the heroic assertion of the rights of the spiritual power which led to his martyrdom.
BTTT on 12-29-04, Optional Feast Day of St. Thomas Becket!
What a story is his!
St. Thomas Becket
Becket. One of my husband's favorites.
Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in the afternoon of December 29, 1170.
Thomas Becket's death shocked the whole of the Christian world, and his tomb in Canterbury became an immediate shrine. He was canonised in 1173, and in the following year Henry was forced by the weight of public revulsion to do penance at the saint's tomb. The shrine of St Thomas Becket continued to be popular throughout the Middle Ages. Canterbury's pre-eminence as a place of pilgrimage (immortalised in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) continued until the shrine was destroyed, probably along with the martyr's remains, under Henry VIII in 1538.
St Thomas Becket's feast day is celebrated on December 29 and The Becket School is named after him.
Thomas Becket was born in London on 21 December around the year 1118. He came from a middle-class Norman family who had settled in England some years before his birth. He was well educated, studying in London at Merton Abbey before completing his studies at the University of Paris. On leaving Paris he was employed as a secretary first by Sir Richer de l'Aigle and then by his kinsman, Osbert Huitdeniers, who was "Justiciar" of London. After his father's death around 1142 he entered the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in whose service he performed several delicate missions to Rome. Theobald apparently sent him to Bologna and to Auxerre and financed his education there in civil and canon law (the law of the Church). In 1154 he was ordained deacon and appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury.
In the same year the young Henry II, acting on the advice of Theobald, appointed him Chancellor of England. Thomas was 36 and the King was about twelve years younger. Apart from King Henry and possibly the Justiciar, Becket was effectively the most powerful man in England. Archbishop Theobald and the clergy expected Becket to represent their interests at court, but the Chancellor, who rapidly became an intimate friend of the King, devoted himself largely to secular affairs. He lived in luxury and had a magnificent lifestyle, took an unclerical part on the battlefield in the Toulouse campaign of 1159 and, when at this time a clash of interests arose between Church and State, he usually, but not always, supported the King. He seems at all times to have had clear principles with regard to the claims of the Church, and even during this period of his Chancellorship he more than once risked Henry's grievous displeasure. For example, he opposed the dispensation which Henry for political reasons extorted from the Pope, and strove to prevent the marriage of Mary, Abbess of Romsey, to Matthew of Boulogne. But, to the very limits of what his conscience permitted, Thomas identified himself with the King's interests. It is not surprising, therefore, that when Theobald died in 1161, Henry, who hoped to curb the growth of Church power, nominated his friend to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesistical post in the land. Becket, foreseeing the conflict that lay ahead, was reluctant to accept, but the King insisted, petitioned the Pope who agreed and, on June 1, 1162, Becket was ordained priest. He was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury the next day.
Apparently determined to be Archbishop as conscientiously as he had been Chancellor, Becket immediately changed his way of life. He abandoned his worldly ways for a life of extreme asceticism, angered the king by resigning the Chancellorship, and began to work exclusively for the interests of the Church. He soon came into conflict with Henry, and as the tension between the two men mounted, a series of minor disputes developed into a major quarrel. Becket showed open resistance to the king's proposal that a voluntary offering to the sheriffs should be paid into the royal treasury. As the first recorded instance of any determined opposition to the king's arbitrary will in a matter of taxation, the incident is of much constitutional importance. The protest seems to have been successful, but the relations with the king only grew more strained.
Matters came to a head over the question of punishing "criminous clerks." In 1163, a Canon, accused of murder, was acquitted by a Church Court. The public outcry demanded justice and the Canon was brought before a court of the King. Becket's protest halted this attempt but the action spurred King Henry to change the laws to extend his courts' jurisdiction over the clergy. At the Council of Westminster in 1163, Henry claimed that such clerics, once tried and convicted in the ecclesiastical courts, should be punished by the secular authorities. Becket rejected this claim and also persuaded the other bishops to attach the qualification "saving our order" to their assent to the king's demand that they swear obedience to the (unspecified) "ancient customs" of the realm. Under pressure from the Pope, Becket subsequently withdrew this reservation. The following year Henry codified these customs (including his claim concerning the "criminous clerks") in the Constitutions of Clarendon and Becket, although he refused to sign them, did give his oral assent.
The Constitutions of Clarendon were, for the most part, an accurate statement of the customs governing relations between Church and State in the reign of Henry's grandfather, Henry I. Several of the practices were, however, contrary to Canon Law, and the Pope now refused to approve them. This stiffened Becket's resolution, and he publicly indicated that he had perjured himself at Clarendon. His stand prompted a period of unworthy and vindictive persecution. When opposing a claim made against him by John the Marshal, Thomas, upon a frivolous pretext, was found guilty of contempt of court. For this he was sentenced to pay £500. Other demands for large sums of money followed, and in October 1164, though a complete release of all claims against him as Chancellor had been given on his becoming Archbishop, he received a royal summons to Henry's court at the Council of Northampton. A sum of nearly £30,000 was demanded and he was required to render an account of nearly all the moneys which had passed through his hands when he was Chancellor. His fellow bishops implored him to throw himself unreservedly upon the King's mercy, but Thomas, instead of yielding, solemnly warned them and threatened them. Then, after celebrating Mass, he took hold of his Archiepiscopal Cross and presented himself in the Royal Council Chamber. There in a stormy meeting he openly breached two clauses of the Constitutions; by denying the jurisdiction of the Council over himself and by appealing to the Pope. The King demanded that sentence should be passed upon him, but in the confusion and discussion which ensued Becket, with uplifted cross, made his escape through the mob of angry courtiers. He fled immediately after.
Becket landed in France on 2 November 1164 where he remained in exile for six years. He was cordially welcomed by Louis VII of France. Pope Alexander III, then at Sens, received him on 23 November. The Pope, who had given a cold reception to certain episcopal envoys sent by Henry, welcomed Becket very kindly, and refused to accept his resignation of his See. On 30 November, Thomas took up residence at the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy, though he was compelled to leave this refuge a year later, as Henry, after confiscating the Archbishop's property and banishing all the Becket kinsfolk, threatened to wreak his vengeance on the whole Cistercian Order if they continued to harbour him.
The negotiations between Henry, the Pope, and the Archbishop dragged on for the next four years without the position being sensibly changed. Although Becket remained firm in his resistance to the principle of the Constitutions of Clarendon, he was willing to make any concessions that could be reasonably asked of him, and on 6 January, 1169, when the Kings of England and France were in conference at Montmirail, he threw himself at Henry's feet but, as he still refused to agree to the Constitutions of Clarendon, this was to no avail. The two former friends appeared to resolve their dispute in 1170 when King Henry and Becket met in Normandy. In June, 1170, Henry had his eldest son crowned by the Archbishop of York, in direct violation of custom and of a papal ban. Becket reacted by threatening, with papal support, to place England under an interdict. Under this threat the king hastily made his peace with his former friend.
The peace did not last long, however. Before returning to England in December 1170, Becket released papal letters suspending the bishops who had taken part in the York coronation. After his return to England he excommunicated them. The King, who was still in France, was infuriated by these actions. In his rage he is purported to have shouted "What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"
Four knights of his household acted on his words and sailed to England. They hurried to Canterbury, arrived in the afternoon of December 29, 1170, and immediately searched for Becket. Thomas was found at the altar in the Cathedral where a service was in progress. Edward Grim, a companion of Becket and who carried his cross, was present and injured in the process, records, "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.'"
The Knights later said that they tried to drag Becket outside to kill him there or take him prisoner. Whatever the truth of the situation they drew their swords and murdered him in the Cathedral and scattered his brains on the stone floor before leaving.
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I think the movie you are referring to is "A Man for All Sesons." Excellent film.