Because of the Prayer Book’s rules of precedence governing the Calendar of the Church Year, the commemoration of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, is superseded by the transference of Holy Innocents to December 29 (cf. 1979 BCP, p. 16). Nevertheless, in keeping with the stated purpose of this weblog, I am posting this “day of optional observance” (1979 BCP, p. 17) as well.
Born in London of a wealthy Norman family, Thomas was educated at Merton Abbey and at Paris. He was a financial clerk for a while and then joined the curia of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, notable for the quality of its personnel and the skill of their legal expertise. He was sent to study law at Bologna and Auxerre; after being ordained deacon, he became archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In this position he was notably successful and was used by Theobald as a negotiator with the Crown. When Henry II succeeded to the throne of England in 1154, he chose Thomas, at Theobald’s suggestion, as Chancellor of England in 1155. Thomas’ close friendship with the young king, his employment on embassies and on military expeditions in which he actually led his troops in battle, apparently presaged a brilliant future in the political sphere. His personal efficiency, lavish entertainment and support for the king’s interests – even, on occasion, against those of the Church – made him a quite outstanding royal official.
In 1162, Henry, expecting the same relationship to continue, obtained his election as Archbishop of Canterbury. But from this time Thomas deliberately adopted an austere way of life and immediately, to the king’s annoyance, resigned the chancellorship. However, the hairshirt, discipline, vigils, and maundies which he adopted did not end his previous determination. In character he was sensitive and intransigent, ready in speech and thorough in action.
Now that he was archbishop, through no choice of his own, Thomas was determined to carry through, at whatever cost, what he saw as the proper duties of his state. These included the paternal care of the soul of the king, tactlessly presented by his friend of yesterday in a way which caused considerable annoyance. Thomas also opposed Henry in matters of taxation, on the claims of secular courts to punish ecclesiastics for offences already dealt with by church courts, and most important, on freedom to appeal to Rome. A long and bitter struggle ensued, and neither king nor archbishop would give way. At a council in Northampton Thomas, nearly alone, withstood royal claims of money owing the king from the days of Becket’s chancellorship and appealed to the pope. He then escaped to France.
His exile lasted over six years, during which time he lived first in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny and later at Sens. Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, who tried hard to find an acceptable solution. But the dispute grew in bitterness. Henry was bent on Becket’s ruin, while the archbishop used ecclesiastical censures against the king’s supporters among the higher clergy and even attempted to obtain an interdict of England. Thomas came to believe that deeper issues of principle were at stake in the dispute: the claims of Church and State, ultimately of God and Caesar.
Although peace was eventually patched up in 1170 and Thomas returned to his diocese, the reconciliation was superficial. In defiance of the rights of Canterbury, Prince Henry had been crowned, and Becket answered by excommunicating the bishops most closely concerned. In a rage Henry asked his courtiers who would rid him of “this turbulent priest”. Four barons took the king at his word. After an altercation with Becket, they murdered him in his own cathedral. Although he had not always lived like a saint, he died like one, commending his cause to God and his saints, accepting death “for the name of Jesus and for the Church”.
The news of his death shocked Christendom. Miracles were soon reported at his tomb, his faults were forgotten, and he was hailed as a martyr for the cause of Christ and the liberty of the Church. He was canonized in 1173, and his relics were translated in 1220. Representations of his martyrdom rapidly appeared all over Europe: early examples survive not only from France and Germany, but also from Iceland, Sicily, and even Armenia. At Canterbury Thomas more or less replaced the following of earlier local saints by the popularity of the pilgrimage, which soon became one of the most important in Europe. The Pilgrims’ Way, from London or Winchester to Canterbury, can still be traced. The stained glass windows that depict it at Canterbury are a rich source for many details of medieval life, and Chaucer immortalized its practice and its personnel in the Canterbury Tales. The great 16th century Catholic humanist Erasmus later attacked several elements of the cult and Henry VIII destroyed the shrine, ordering all mention of his name in liturgical books to be erased.
In recent years his commemoration has been restored to the sanctoral calendars of Anglican Churches.
adapted from The Oxford Book of Saints
O God, our strength and our salvation, you called your servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of your people and a defender of your Church: Keep your household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Esdras 2:42-48
I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude, which I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and they have confessed the name of God; now they are being crowned and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who places crowns on them and puts palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. Then the angel said to me, “Go, tell my people how great and many are the wonders of the Lord God that you have seen.”
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations, *
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Pray today especially for
- all bishops and clergy confronted by hostile governments
- Christians living in unjust and totalitarian societies
- the see of Canterbury and its cathedral, the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ, mother church of the Anglican Communion and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England
- the Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury; and His Eminence, Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and titular Archbishop of Canterbury (Roman Catholic)
- all pilgrims and visitors to Canterbury Cathedral
O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other of your righteous servants, known to us and unknown; remembering especially this day Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr; and we beseech you that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The scripture texts for the Lesson and Gospel are taken from the English Standard Version Bible. The Collect and Psalm are taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1979).
The icon supra is taken from the Sacra Domus Nazarena weblog.
The Becket Panel of Wymondham Abbey “depicts Saint Thomas Becket and eight scenes from his life [from his archiepiscopal consecration to his martyrdom]. It was painted by Father David Hunter, a former chaplain at Wymondham Abbey, and was given by him to the parishioners of Wymondham Abbey in thanksgiving for 900 years of Christian witness here in this place”. The panel and its individual scenes, with descriptions, may be viewed at the Wymondham Abbey website.