[#17 in the series This Week in English Catholic History: Week of December 23 – 29]
HIS week in English Catholic History, we celebrate St. Thomas Becket on December 29, the day of his martyrdom.
He was born in Pettyside, London. Due to his father’s financial setbacks, he had to leave school to support himself, and eventually started working as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. There, his talent won his master’s favor and Thomas became the Archbishop’s most trusted clerk.
Theobald used Thomas in several delicate negotiations, sent him to study canon law for a year, and eventually ordained him a deacon in 1154 and bestowed upon him the Archdeaconry of Canterbury.
Around this time, King Stephen died and the young Henry II became king. In 1155, on the Archbishop’s recommendation, King Henry II made Thomas the Chancellor of the Realm, the king’s right-hand man.
Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and King Henry II used the opportunity to appoint Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry thought that having his lackey as Archbishop of Canterbury would help him take away Church power, but he was wrong.
Upon his consecration as archbishop, a great change came over Thomas. He undertook severe fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, long vigils (staying awake during the night), and constant prayers. He quit wearing his lavish clothes, and met the papal envoy barefoot.
A power struggle between King Henry II and Thomas soon ensued. Eventually, Thomas fled England by ship during the night for Rome, where Pope Alexander III kindly received him and refused to accept his resignation. After several years, a tentative agreement was reached, and Thomas returned to England, where he was received by crowds. However, tensions during negotiations soon broke out again, especially after Thomas excommunicated several bishops.
In the midst of all this trouble, Henry II said in a moment of frustration, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” This was misinterpreted by as a command by four knights, who traveled to Canterbury. Here is an account of what happened next from Edward Grim, an eyewitness. He tried to defend Thomas and almost got his own arm chopped off:
The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.’
There was a huge public outcry over St. Thomas’s martyrdom, and King Henry II was forced to do public penance. All four assassins were excommunicated, traveled to Rome for forgiveness, and were ordered by the pope to serve as knights in the Holy Land for 14 years. Canterbury became a famous pilgrimage site.
St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!
For a weekly dose of English Catholic Patrimony, if your Ordinariate parish or parochial community would like to receive This Week in English Catholic History in advance in single page black-and-white pdf form (perhaps inserted in the bulletin), please contact us at <firstname.lastname@example.org>, and we will be happy to oblige, gratis.
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 © 2018.
John (wearing purple tie, above) is the founder and owner of Magnolia Prep, an SAT and ACT tutoring business with branches in several major US cities. Foster (wearing golden tie, above) 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.