29 December 2021

With the Saints through Christmas (4):
29 December 2021, Saint Thomas Becket

Two plaques on a street corner in London recall Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on 29 December 1170 (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is a season that continues for 40 days until the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas (2 February).

Before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I am continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Christmas;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

It is theologically important to remind ourselves in the days after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Thomas Becket … a 13th century window in Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket (ca 1118-1170), the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, is commemorated today [29 December] with a Lesser Festival in the Calendar of the Church of England.

Thomas Becket, also known as Thomas à Becket, was a skilled diplomat and Chancellor of England for many years before he succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161. Thomas was forced into exile when he insisted on the privileges. Although he returned in triumph to Canterbury in 1170, the king’s words of anger at court prompted four knights to go to Canterbury where they chased Thomas into the cathedral, and there murdered him on the steps of the altar on this day in 1170.

Thomas Becket was born ca 1118-1120 in Cheapside, London. Tradition says he was born on 21 December, the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle, and so received his name. He may have been related to Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury.

When he was a 10-year-old, Thomas was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and he then attended a school in London. Later, he spent about a year in Paris around the age of 20.

When his father, Gilbert Beket, suffered a financial setback, Thomas earned a living as a clerk, and then found a position in the household of Archbishop Theobald.

Archbishop Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154, although he was not yet ordained priest, Thomas was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury, and he acquired a number of other Church appointments, including becoming a prebendary of both Lincoln Cathedral and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Provost of Beverley.

In January 1155, on the recommendation of Archbishop Theobald, King Henry II appointed Thomas Lord Chancellor of England.

Several months after the death of Archbishop Theobald, Thomas was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his election was confirmed by a royal council of bishops and noblemen on 23 May 1162.

Thomas was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and a day later he was consecrated a bishop by Bishop Henry of Blois of Winchester and the other bishops of the Province of Canterbury.

The new archbishop resigned as chancellor and changed almost immediately from being a pleasure-loving courtier into a serious-minded, simply-dressed cleric. He took to wearing a hair shirt under his robes, immersed himself in penitential cold baths and washed the feet of 30 paupers each day before he dined.

When he set about trying to recover and extend his rights as archbishop, a rift grew between him and the king, leading to a series of conflicts, including one over the jurisdiction of secular courts over the English clergy.

King Henry’s efforts to win over the other bishops against Thomas began in Westminster in October 1163, when the king sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the Church. At a council in Clarendon Palace, on 30 January 1164, Henry presided over an assembly of the most senior English clergy and in 16 constitutions, sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He drew on all his skills to secure their consent but failed to convince Archbishop Thomas.

Finally, even the archbishop signalled his willingness to agree, but he refused to formally sign the documents. The king summoned the archbishop to Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164 to answer charges of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance while he was Chancellor. When Thomas was convicted of the charges, he stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.

King Louis VII of France offered Thomas protection, and he spent nearly two years in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny until Henry’s threats against the Cistercians forced Thomas to return to Sens.

Thomas fought back by threatening to excommunicate the king and to place the king, the bishops and England under an interdict. When Pope Alexander III sent Papal legates to arbitrate between the king and the archbishop, Henry offered a compromise that would allow Thomas to return to England from exile.

In June 1170, the Archbishop of York, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, along with the Bishop of London, Gilbert Foliot, and the Bishop of Salisbury, Josceline de Bohon, crowned Henry’s heir as king-in-waiting at York. This action was a direct challenge to the privileges of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in November 1170 Thomas excommunicated all three. While the three bishops fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the Church.

When the king heard the news of the archbishop’s actions, tradition says, Henry demanded to know: ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ However, his contemporary and biographer Edward Grim puts other words in Henry’s mouth: ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?’

Whatever Henry said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights – Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton – set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury.

On 29 December 1170, they arrived at Canterbury, where they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge the archbishop. They ordered Thomas to Winchester to account for his actions, but when he refused they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside.

Meanwhile, the archbishop was preparing himself for Vespers. The four knights drew their swords, caught up with Thomas near a door to the cloister, on the stairs leading to the crypt and the cathedral quire. As the third blow hit him, he fell on his knees and elbows, saying in a low voice: ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ The next blow to his head decapitated him, and his brains and blood were splattered on the paved floor.

After killing him, one of the knights said: ‘Let us away. He will rise no more.’

The murder was reported in minute detail: no fewer than five of Thomas’s companions in Canterbury Cathedral were witnesses on that fateful day. The monks who prepared his body for burial found that Thomas had worn a hair-shirt under his archbishop’s robes.

According to local lore in Wexford, Henry II did penance for the murder by spending Lent in 1172 in Selskar Abbey.

Thomas was canonised by Pope Alexander III on Ash Wednesday, 21 February 1173. In the midst of a revolt, Henry did public penance for the murder at Becket’s tomb on 12 July 1174, donning sackcloth and walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while 100 nervous monks flogged him with branches. Henry concluded his atonement by spending the night in the martyr’s crypt, which quickly became a popular place of pilgrimage.

However, the assassins were never arrested and their lands were never confiscated. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome, where the Pope ordered them to spend 14 years as knights in the Holy Land.

Thomas’s bones were moved to a shrine behind the high altar in the Trinity Chapel in 1220. The shrine was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. The king also destroyed Becket’s bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. The paved floor where the shrine stood is now marked by a lit candle.

Saint Thomas Becket was undoubtedly a proud and stubborn man, for all his gifts, and his personal austerities as archbishop were probably an attempt at self-discipline after years of ostentatious luxury. His conflict with Henry II stemmed from their conflicting ambitions, exacerbated by the claims of the papacy. His martyrdom became the emblem of spiritual resistance to secular tyranny, and no king until Henry VIII dared repeat Henry II’s assault on ecclesiastical jurisdiction in England.

The Church Historian Eamon Duffy wrote in The Guardian earlier some years ago:

‘Today’s readers, all too conscious of ecclesiastical cover-up of clerical abuse, are unlikely to warm to Becket’s cause, but more was at stake than clerical privilege. The medieval church was the sole source of moral value, and one of the few contexts within which criticism of tyrannical rule was possible. Kings such as Henry II were rarely concerned with abstract justice, and royal control of the church posed problems not unlike those posed nowadays by state censorship of the press or suppression of the right of peaceful protest. Becket saw himself as a champion of the cause of Christ and the liberties of the church.’

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is set in a company of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, the ‘holy, blissful martyr,’ in Canterbury Cathedral.

Peter Glenville’s 1964 movie Becket starred Richard Burton as Archbishop Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II.

In the interlude in TS Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Becket preaches his Christmas sermon shortly before his murder. He explains that the “peace to men of good will” that the angels announced at the first Christmas was ‘not peace as the world gives,’ but, to the disciples, ‘torture, imprisonment, disappointment … [and] death by martyrdom.’

He links the birth at Christmas with the death of martyrdom, asking: ‘Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.’

Having remembered Saint Stephen the first martyr on 26 December, Saint John, who reaches soaring heights and whose concept of love reaches the furthest breadths (27 December), and the Holy Innocents, who remind us of all children at risk (28 December), this day to continues to recall the connections between the Incarnation and witnessing to the Gospel, even at the cost of martyrdom.

Selskar Abbey, Wexford ... Henry II is said to have spent Lent 1172 here in penance after the murder of Saint Thomas Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-35 (NRSVA):

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (29 December 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean, covering Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Yesterday: The Holy Innocents

Tomorrow: Josephine Butler

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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