Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket - 29 December
From the Medieval Saints Yahoo Group:
St. Thomas Beckett
Also known as Thomas a Beckett; Thomas of Canterbury
Murdered in 1170 in the Cathedral at Canterbury, England
Canonized: 1173 by Pope Alexander III
Commemorated: December 29
Patronage: clergy, Exeter College Oxford, Portsmouth England, secular clergy
In art, he is shown as an archbishop with a wounded head; archbishop holding an inverted sword; archbishop kneeling before his murderers; archbishop being murdered in church; crosier with a battle-axe head at the top
St. Thomas of Canterbury (1118-1170)
"The Murder of Becket" by Alfred Duggan
"St. Thomas Becket" by Todd Drain
He was born in the city of London in 1118. His family name of Becket was rarely used by his contemporaries, to whom he was Thomas of London or Archbishop Thomas. His father was a Norman knight, Gilbert, who had become a prosperous merchant in London; his mother was also Norman, and he had at least two sisters, one of whom later became abbess of Barking. To his mother he owed his early piety, a devotion to our Lady, and generosity to the poor. From boyhood upwards he was richly endowed by nature. He was tall, handsome and vigorous, with dark hair, pale complexion and a prominent nose; his sight and hearing were unusually keen, he had a remarkably retentive memory, and he was a master of extemporary speech and debate. As a boy he was devoted to field sports and as a young man his energy, his practical ability and his initiative were more evident than his wisdom or his judgment. After a schooling at Merton priory and Paris he became, at twenty-one, financial clerk to a relative in the city, but after three years he was taken into the household of Theobald, the Norman monk-archbishop of Canterbury. The young Thomas gradually made his way upwards by his charm, his generosity and his adaptability. He was ambitious, and refused no opportunity of advancement or preferment, he enjoyed display and activity, but all are agreed that his life both then and at all times was absolutely pure. The archbishop gave him the post of archdeacon, and he seemed to be following the normal career of an able ecclesiastic when, at the age of thirty-six, he was recommended by Theabald to the young King Henry as chancellor.
Henry II was a man of very great ability and energy with a genius both for leadership and for organisation; at the same time he was self-willed, imperious, and passionate, wholly unspiritual and bent on gaining control of every power in his kingdom. Thomas the chancellor, who then and always had a personal affection for Henry, devoted all his efforts to serve and please the young king. Accepting all the wealth that came his way, he spent it lavishly on entertainments, on rich clothes and plate and on hunting, hawking, and even on martial exploits but he never failed to work hard and prudently in the king's interest, and there is evidence that he felt a secret dissatisfaction with himself and his worldly life.
In 1163 Theobald died, and the king secured the election of his friend, confident that he would serve all his interests. Thomas resisted, and warned the king that he might regret his choice. Then he accepted the office, and with what seemed a sudden change he became an austere and spiritual man, devoted to the interests of the church, the faithful servant of the pope. It was not long before the clash with the king occurred. Henry was resolved to reassert all the rights which had been claimed and exercised fifty years before by the Conqueror and his sons. Since that time, however, the papacy had established the claim of the church to control matters such as the trial of clerics and the excommunication of offenders, and had asserted its right to hear appeals and decide all cases. Again and again the archbishop and his king were in conflict, and affairs reached a crisis when the king demanded assent to the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164), which were an assertion of all the customs of the past that were now contrary to the law of the church and the practice of the papacy. Thomas hesitated, and for a moment gave way, thus breaking the solidarity of the bishops in their resistance. Then, at a council at Northampton in 1164 he reasserted his opposition and in face of threats of death or imprisonment, broke away by night and crossed to France to seek the pope.
For the next six years the archbishop was in exile in France, while he and the king and Pope Alexander III wrangled and discussed in an endeavor to settle the controversy and restore peace to the church in England. The issue was clouded for contemporaries by the mistakes and even the faults of the archbishop, by the ability and plausibility of the king, who had in some respects a strong case, and by the unwillingness of the pope to go to extremities with a powerful monarch. Meanwhile Thomas, at the abbey of Pontigny and elsewhere, gave himself to penance and devotion in what may be called a 'second conversion' from piety to sanctity. Finally, after a war of denunciations and excommunications, and a series of abortive conferences, an uneasy peace was patched up in the last months of 1169 and Thomas returned in triumph to Canterbury. Almost at once, the king in France, exasperated by the archbishop's refusal to withdraw some censures, let slip words which were taken to be a command, or a permission, to kill the archbishop as a traitor. Four knights crossed the Channel, and on the afternoon of December 29th appeared in the archbishop's hall intent on picking a quarrel. Thomas met them with dignified argument, but refused to budge from what he declared was justice and obedience to the pope. The knights retired in fury and donned their armor, while the archbishop entered the cathedral, refusing to allow the doors to be locked. The four knights rushed upon him in the north aisle and tried to drag him from the church. He resisted, and they cut him down with their swords. His last words were: 'I accept death for the name of Jesus and for the Church.'
The murder shocked the conscience of all Europe; miracles were announced immediately at the tomb; the archbishop was canonized as a martyr by Alexander III in 1173; the king did public penance at his tomb, and much of what St Thomas had striven for was secured by his death. Canterbury became a place of pilgrimage second only to Rome and perhaps Compostella, and churches were dedicated to St Thomas in all countries, even in the remote Iceland. That Thomas gave his life for the freedom of the church is certain; more than four centuries later, another Henry, another St Thomas, and another archbishop of Canterbury drew the moral in their different ways. That he was a man to whom all would apply the word 'great' is also clear. He was no doubt a son of his age--the age of crusades and of the Norman conquerers--alike in his magnificence, his carriage and his austerities, but those who have seen in him only an ambitious, violent and headstrong prelate have failed to allow for the gentleness and devotion that were always part of his character, and for the real and profound conversion of his later years. Had he died a natural death in 1170 he would not perhaps have been acclaimed as a saint, but in his last years and months he prepared himself by his fortitude and zeal for truth and justice, for the heroic assertion of the rights of the spiritual power which led to his martyrdom.
Courtesy of Catholic Information Network (CIN)
More on St. Thomas Beckett at:
Becket Resource Site
Patron Saints Index
Medieval Sourcebook: Edward Grim's "The Murder of Thomas Becket"
"Becket" Is Back on the Big Screen (and Coming Soon to DVD)