Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury, martyr to the freedom of the Church, is venerated on December 29. His feast is within the Octave of Christmas because that was the date of his death. But it is also appropriate to commemorate him soon after the birth of Christ the King, for he died in defense of the Kingdom that is not of this world.
Becket was a Londoner of upper middle-class stock, the son of the sheriff of London. He started to work as a merchant’s clerk, but then, with a view to a clergy career, he joined the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, England’s primatial see. He may also have studied at Bologna, Italy. Prizing Thomas’ talents, Archbishop Theobald subsequently chose him as his chief counselor and representative. With good reason: this tall, handsome, vigorous, extroverted young man was highly intelligent and competent.
On Theobald’s recommendation, the young king Henry II appointed Becket, then thirty-six, as his chancellor. Thomas proved more than equal to the task. Henry not only appreciated his talent but also his company, and the two became closely attached socially. This was all the easier in the sumptuous royal court because Thomas, though a cleric, shared the King’s devotion to banqueting and hunting. He lived magnificently, even on a regal scale. In 1159, clad in armor, he led 700 of his own knights in combat in the siege of Toulouse. Wearing secular garb troubled him little. The prior of Leicester, meeting him at Rouen, properly exclaimed, “What do you mean by dressing like that? You look more like a falconer than a cleric.” Becket was certainly worldly and ambitious, impetuous and harsh. Yet there was in him an idealistic and devout and pure side that would show itself more and more as he matured.
King Henry was meanwhile laying plans to gain complete control over church as well as state in his kingdom. When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry foisted Thomas on the see of Canterbury, thinking that his boon companion would assist him in subjugating the Church. Thomas declined the position. He knew only too well the King’s motives, and he was cleric enough to realize that what he had done as chancellor he could not in conscience do as archbishop. He warned the King about this, but Henry did not believe him. On being consecrated a bishop, Thomas resigned the chancellorship.
After his installation, Thomas changed his life style to one of order, prayer and penance. The break in the royal friendship came only gradually. Conflict peaked in 1164, when Henry declared his intention to revive certain unspecified “royal customs”.
Thomas was at first willing to go along. Then, when the King presented a list of three “customs”, he saw that he could not support them. Among them were the demand that clergy be subject to trial in civil courts as well as church courts; that the king had a right to the income from empty clerical benefices; that no prelate could appeal from the king to the pope, or even travel to Rome, without royal consent.
Thomas refused to accept. Henry stormed. Trial for treason being in the offing, the Archbishop fled to France, seeking shelter in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny. Even from afar, Henry lashed out at Thomas by persecuting his relatives and the local Cistercian monks. But Becket did not hesitate to excommunicate the bishops who sided with the crown against the Church.
In July 1170, monarch and archbishop met in France and patched up an agreement, but without discussing the principal issues. When Thomas returned to England on December 1, the people greeted him triumphantly. Three bishops whom he had suspended for breaking church law, now appealed their cases to the King, still in France. In one of his famous rages, Henry cried out, “Will nobody rid me of this pestilent cleric?” Four knights who took the King at his word, left at once for England, rode to Canterbury, and murdered Thomas in his cathedral.
All Europe was shocked at this sacrilegious assassination. Miracles were soon reported at Becket’s tomb. The pope excommunicated King Henry, who retracted his anti-church legislation and did public penance.
Thomas was canonized in 1173. Ever since then the Church has celebrated his feastday as a martyr on December 29th. He had made up for his early failings by reforming his ways, but most of all, by sacrificing his life for the liberty of the Church.
–Father Robert F. McNamara