LSO known as St. Thomas of Cantilupe, this English Saint’s Feast is celebrated in the British Ordinariate on October 3rd. He has the unique distinction of being the last Englishman canonized prior to the Protestant Reformation two-and-a-half centuries after his death.
Thomas was born into the high society of Buckinghamshire, the son of a Baron, he was educated at first by his uncle Walter, the Bishop of Worcester. Showing promise, his family sent him to Paris and to Orléans, the academic centers of the day where he also excelled in his studies. As a noble, he could have had any kind of life he desired, but he chose to become a priest of God’s Holy Church.
St. Thomas became an expert in canon law and the Chancellor of Oxford University in 1261. Three years later he was made the Lord Chancellor of England, second in power only to the King himself. For political reasons unrelated to his service he soon lost this post and returned to academic life.
Ten years after this in 1274 he attended the 14th Ecumenical Council in Church History, the Second Council of Lyons, which considered the merits of a new Crusade against the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land, and the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches (sadly a schism still largely unhealed over seven centuries later). Soon afterwards he was appointed as the Bishop of Hereford, a post he initially refused, but accepted when the clerics of Hereford insisted.
Although a recurring theme for many of the English saints was their opposition to the English monarchs who would frequently attempt to assert themselves in ways that compromised the independence of the English Catholic Church, St. Thomas was actually a friend and trusted advisor of the relatively righteous King Edward I of England.
Instead, St. Thomas stood up for the poor of the land against evil usurpatious nobles like Earl Gilbert de Clare and Lord Clifford. The latter actually stole cattle and set fire to peasants’ houses to entertain himself. By threatening excommunication St. Thomas forced Clifford to do penance wearing sack-cloth and ashes, walking barefoot through the streets of Hereford to the cathedral’s high altar. Once there St. Thomas literally beat Lord Clifford with his staff in the presence of all the people to punish and humiliate him for his wicked deeds. So it was the Bishop became quite popular.
St. Thomas was also a friend of Robert Kilwardby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But after Kilwardby’s death a new Archbishop arose named John Peckham (who is also famous for having earlier debated St. Thomas Aquinas and getting one of his doctrines temporarily condemned) who also disputed with our St. Thomas over his right to rule the diocese of Hereford. In an attempt to reform a dysfunctional English Church plagued by absenteeism and indulgences of the flesh, he tried to clamp down on Thomas’ and many other dioceses. But the popular Thomas would have none of it, asserting his episcopal rights. In fairness to Peckham, the English Church of the time – indeed like the Catholic Church today – was very corrupt both financially and sexually, but Peckham’s reform effort was unfocused and came across as a power grab.
This dispute almost cost Thomas his Church-acknowledged sainthood, as Archbishop Peckham excommunicated him over it. Thomas appealed to Rome over the authority issue and the excommunication, travelling to Italy in person. But before the case could be decided, Thomas died. Before Thomas’ death however, the Pope did lift the excommunication, a necessary prerequisite for sainthood at the time. (St. Jeanne d’Arc, canonized in 1920, is a well-known modern exception.)
Symbolic of Thomas’ many yet unopposed loyalties and loves, his heart was removed from his body and buried in his native Buckinghamshire. Thomas’ flesh was boiled off his body and buried in Italy where he died a loyal subordinate to the Pope of Rome. And the bones of the saint were buried in Hereford Cathedral, where miracles began to occur attributed to his intercession. After many letters from King Edward, his son Edward II and numerous prelates, Pope John XXII declared Thomas a Saint on 17 April, 1320. St. Thomas of Hereford, pray for us!
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Written by Mr. John Burford, IV and Dr. Foster Lerner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida; a parish of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, (C) 2018.
John is the founder and owner of Magnolia Prep, an SAT and ACT tutoring business with branches in several major US cities. Foster holds a Doctorate in Medicine from Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in medicine.