December 29, 1170:

“In the name of Jesus, the protector of the church, I am ready to embrace death”

December 29th is always a sad occasion for the Church of England, and by extension for all Anglicans. This was the day on which the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered. To be sure, this event took place 835 years ago. But the shock waves of this heinous crime reverberated throughout Europe for centuries, and the implications for the Church and for the English monarchy are still with us.

Thomas Becket’s violent death in the sanctuary of his own cathedral was the culmination of a long and bitter conflict. And King Henry’s celebrated outburst: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” also resulted from years of frustration and exasperation.

The quarrel was particularly poignant because years before the two men had enjoyed a very close, even loving relationship. Becket had been born in 1120, the son of a London banker, that is, not of noble birth. His career began as an assistant to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, a distant relative. In 1154 he was promoted to become Archdeacon of the diocese and made a deacon.

In the same year, the twenty-one year old Henry of Anjou succeeded to the English throne, and almost immediately appointed Becket as his Chancellor.

This position put him in charge of the court’s ecclesiastical affairs, and was usually rewarded with a bishopric. Clearly Henry and Becket developed a notable friendship, presumably based on Becket’s charm and personal ability. They shared a passion for field sports, such as hunting in the royal forests. Thomas came to enjoy the lavish life style brought by the king’s support.

But he undoubtedly also gained envious enemies, who resented the rise of this non-noble upstart. Certainly Henry recognized and made use of his abilities as a skilful administrator. For most of the 1150s Becket accompanied the king in Normandy and Anjou, where Henry was engaged in defending or extending his domains.

When Theobald died, Henry selected Thomas to be his successor, and ordered the canons of Canterbury to elect him as their archbishop. On Whit Sunday 1162, Thomas was ordained a priest and on the following day consecrated a bishop.

He then had to wait until the Pope sent him a pallium or robe of office which arrived in August. By this time, Becket had recognized that if he was to attend to his diocese, he could not continue as the royal Chancellor accompanying the king on his frequent journeys and campaigns. So he resigned this post, though not apparently some of the benefits he had gained.

Becoming an archbishop changed Thomas’ priorities. He had to be at pains to prove to the other bishops that he deserved such a rapid promotion. At the same time he was well aware that a firmer hand was needed on church affairs.

His ambitions for reform however soon led to clashes over long- established customs. Complaints were made to the king, who in turn began to resent Becket’s renewal schemes, which seemed to threaten the royal prerogatives. He had expected Becket to be a loyal and pliant servant. Instead he was faced with an assertive defender of the church’s privileges, including the so-called “benefit of clergy”.

Thomas became hurt and defiant, Henry embittered and revengeful. Neither man had enough flexibility of character to settle by compromises. By the end of 1164 matters had got so bad that Becket fled from England and took refuge in a monastery under the French king, Henry’s long-lasting rival. It was the beginning of six long years of exile.

 Carved ivory relief in the British Museum depicting the murder of Thomas Becket

Not until the late summer of 1170 was a compromise reached. Henry wanted to go on a Crusade and needed peace at home. Becket wanted to regain his privileges and property. Both the Pope and the French king were called on to mediate. But when two authoritarian personalities clashed over highly contentious issues, the resulting papering over of the cracks could be fragile and uncertain. And so it proved in this case.

Finally Becket was allowed to return to England at the end of November 1170 and was received joyfully by the villagers on his route to Canterbury. Those who had taken advantage of his absence, however, were far from enthusiastic, and his announced intention of asserting his disciplinary powers aroused enmity.

When he rode up to London with a troop of riders to protect him, reports were sent to the king that he was planning to raise an army to launch a rebellion. But it was the rumour that Becket intended to annul the installation ceremonies for the king’s young son, on the grounds that he had not conducted them himself, which sent Henry into his famous temper tantrum.

Four of his military courtiers then resolved to take matters into their own hands. They secretly stole away from the king’s court in Normandy in the midst of the Christmas festivities, and rode as fast as they could to the English Channel and crossed over to Kent. On that fateful Tuesday, they arrived in Canterbury and demanded to see the Archbishop.

The confrontation soon became heated and raged all afternoon. The knights withdrew briefly, threatening to return. This they did, once they had secured all exits from the Cathedral grounds, put on their armour and collected their weapons. The monks and Becket’s clerks begged him to hide somewhere in the remote comers of the crypt, or even to flee abroad once again.

But he would not. Instead he insisted on entering the Cathedral where Vespers was just beginning. It was four o’clock and the light was fading fast in the December gloom. But the knights found an unbarred entrance to the north transept, and burst in wearing their visors and chain mail and with their swords drawn. Becket confronted them on the steps leading up to the High Altar.

One source says that the knights wanted to get the archbishop out of the church and carry him off as a prisoner. But this plan failed. The nave was already filled with the Vespers congregation who might well rescue him.

Reginald FitzUrse struck the first blow which sliced off the top of Becket’s tonsured head. He fell to the floor, crying out: “In the name of Jesus, the protector of the church, I am ready to embrace death”. The other knights delivered more blows to his head and neck so that his blood and brains were scattered over the flagstones.

The terrified monks were too scared to know what to do. Some feared that the royal envoys would return and inflict even more shameful humiliations on the corpse. It was several hours before they plucked up courage to place the body on a bier and take it up to the High Altar.

Here they removed Thomas’ soiled outer garments and revealed him to be wearing a hair shirt - a true sign of his humility and holiness. Early the next morning they dressed him again in his full archiepiscopal regalia, together with gloves on his hands, and his signet ring, and laid him in a marble sarcophagus deep in the crypt.

They hoped he would now rest in peace. When the Bishops in France heard the news of this sacrilegious crime, they were outraged. They at once sent messengers to the Pope who placed his whole court in a week’s mourning. His supporters naturally made much of the enormity of the offence and the piety of the martyr. No one could doubt that Thomas had died defending his faith.

The cause for which he died, namely the church’s right to be free from royal tyranny, had to be upheld. Not long afterwards petitions were sent, requesting the Pope to proclaim Thomas a saint. Only two years later, in early 1173, St. Thomas’ canonization was authorized.

But even before this, his fame as a martyr had led to remarkable events. It was commonly believed that a martyr’s blood had great healing powers. And within a week of his death, a poor woman in Canterbury recovered her sight after touching one of the blood-stained rags from the Archbishop’s clothing. The following day, a visiting priest with a speech defect was also touched and later recovered entirely.

A small altar in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket was killed in 1170. The sword sculpture was added in 1986

By Easter, reports of healing due to the martyr’s intervention were coming in from all around Canterbury. The monks re-opened the Cathedral and placed the coffin in a new tomb set on pillars so that the faithful could kneel down and actually kiss the wood through an aperture on the side. Thomas’ canonization in the following year only increased the popularity of the martyr’s cult.

So much so that the king himself came to recognize the wisdom of making public penance for the crime. In July 1174, he came over from Normandy, and when he got to the outskirts of Canterbury, dismounted from his horse and walked the rest of the way. At the West Gate he removed his boots.

On reaching the tomb, he prostrated himself and publicly asked forgiveness for all his sins, including his being the unwitting cause of Thomas’ martyrdom. The bishops and monks each then gave him five strokes of a light rod on his back. The rest of the day and all night he lay on the ground by the tomb, while the common worshippers marvelled. Such a public humiliation of their monarch had never happened before, and would never happen again.

The cult of St. Thomas flourished for three and a half centuries. Canterbury became the fourth most holy place in Christendom after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella. In 1220 a new shrine in front of the High Altar was consecrated, decorated with rich flashing jewels and highly intricate carvings. It became one of Europe’s most venerated pilgrimage sites.

However, in Henry VIII’s reign the reforming and iconoclastic hand of Thomas Cromwell took particular exception to such devotion. The shrine was destroyed, the pilgrimages forbidden, the adoration of the saint abolished. No one knows for sure what happened to Becket’s bones.

From Elizabeth’s reign, royal supremacy was paramount, and loyalty to the monarchy ensured that no turbulent priests were allowed to be honoured, let alone revered as England’s most famous saint.

Not until the 1920s, under Dean, later Bishop, George Bell, was any effort made to restore Becket’s commemoration to the Anglican calendar. And it was due to Bell that T. S. Eliot was commissioned to write his well-known play, Murder in the Cathedral. Pilgrims still flock to Canterbury to show their respects, some at least to pay tribute to a man who sacrificed his life for the cause of the church.

Oppression by dictators and arbitrary rulers is as prevalent in our time as it was in the twelfth century. The witness of the church today against such tyranny still follows in the footsteps of Thomas the Martyr from those dark dramatic days in Canterbury.

May he long be remembered.