Fifth Day of Christmas – Feast of St. Thomas Becket
“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Thomas Becket was a best friend to King Henry II. Rumor had it that Becket had a grander vision of life than Henry did, “a taste for magnificence.”
But that all changed when Henry made Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury. It not only chilled their friendship but ended Becket’s life.
Becket became Lord Chancellor in 1154 after a recommendation from a friend. This led to Becket and Henry becoming as close as brothers, especially since he helped “the king in his policy of gathering all power into the hands of the monarchy, even when that policy went against claims of the church.”
Henry loved power so it’s not a shock that he eyed controlling the church. With Becket’s success, it is also not surprising Henry wanted him to be the archbishop of Canterbury.
While Becket wanted a large life and the “magnificence,” he knew what it meant to be part of the Church. He knew his life would change if he became archbishop.
Becket warned Henry that he might not be able to follow Henry’s orders.
Henry did not listen. Becket did change after he became archbishop on May 23, 1162:
Once consecrated, Thomas changed both his outlook and his way of life. He became devout and austere and embraced the integral program of the papacy and its canon law. This spectacular change has baffled historians, and several explanations have been attempted: that Thomas was intoxicated by his ambition to dominate or that he threw himself, as before, into a part he had agreed to play. It is simpler to suppose that he accepted at last the spiritual obligations he had ignored as chancellor and turned into a new channel his mingled energy, force of character, impetuosity, and ostentation. Greatly to Henry’s displeasure, he immediately resigned the chancellorship but clung to the archdeaconry until forced by the king to resign.
Henry was in Normandy but came home in 1163. He saw that Becket opposed “a tax proposal and excommunicating a leading bishop.”
But Becket wanting “criminous clerks” to have a trial in front of a bishop instead of a secular court caused a massive rift between the two men. Henry wanted these clerks to face trial in front of a bishop and the secular courts.
Henry knew he could not control Becket. This leads us to the Constitutions of Clarendon, which had 16 articles that defined the state-church relations “to restrict ecclesiastical privileges and curb the power of the church courts.”
Remember, Henry passed the legislation because he wanted power.
Becket rebelled against the legislation after initially accepting it. Henry wanted to put Becket on trial, who fled to France in 1164.
Henry went wild, which you can read here. The man wanted control of his kingdom. Henry and Becket met up in 1169, but nothing happened. They left angry. Henry added articles to the legislation. He had Becket’s old rival the archbishop of York crown his son as co-king.
Henry’s actions “was a flagrant breach of papal prohibition and of the immemorial right of Canterbury to crown the king. Becket and the pope excommunicated everyone involved in the crowning.
Henry wavered a little. He agreed Becket should come back to England, who received all of his property and possessions in 1170.
Becket did not change his attitude or responsibilities:
Neither party withdrew from his position regarding the Constitutions of Clarendon, which on this occasion were not mentioned. This “open-ended” concordat has remained an inexplicable event. Thomas returned to Canterbury (December 2) and was received with enthusiasm, but further excommunications of the hostile royal servants, refusal to lift the excommunication of Roger of York and Foliot, and his ready acceptance of tumultuous acclaim by the crowds infuriated Henry in Normandy.
It all came to an end when Becket refused to cancel the censures he placed on bishops who chose to obey Henry instead of the pope.
The bishops complained to Henry, with one saying “there would be no peace for the realm while Becket lived.”
We do not know exactly what Henry said, but this is the popular version: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Four knights took Henry seriously on December 29, 1170:
“Here I am,” he replied, “no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God!” He came down the steps to stand between the altars of Our Lady and St. Benedict.
The knights clamored at him to absolve the bishops, and Thomas answered firmly, “I cannot do other than I have done. Reginald, you have received many favors from me.
Why do you come into my church armed?” Fitzurse made a threatening gesture with his axe. “I am ready to die,” said Thomas, “but God’s curse on you if you harm my people.” There was some scuffling as they tried to carry Thomas outside bodily.
Fitzurse flung down his axe and drew his sword. “You pander, you owe me fealty and submission!” exclaimed the archbishop. Fitzurse shouted back, “I owe no fealty contrary to the King ! ” and knocked off Thomas’ cap. At this, Thomas covered his face and called aloud on God and the saints. Tracy struck a blow, which Grim intercepted with his own arm, but it grazed Thomas’ skull and blood ran down into his eyes. He wiped the stain away and cried, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!” Another blow from Tracy beat him to his knees, and he pitched forward onto his face, murmuring, “For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church I am willing to die.” With a vigorous thrust Le Bret struck deep into his head, breaking his sword against the pavement, and Hugh of Horsea added a blow, although the archbishop was now dying. Hugh de Morville stood by but struck no blow. The murderers, brandishing their swords, now dashed away through the cloisters, shouting “The King’s men! The King’s men!” The cathedral itself was filling with people unaware of the catastrophe, and a thunderstorm was breaking overhead. The archbishop’s body lay in the middle of the transept, and for a time no one dared approach it.
When Henry learned about Becket’s death he supposedly stayed in his room for 40 days. He felt guilty and “performed public penance in Canterbury Cathedral.” Papal delegates gave him absolution in 1172.
Becket was canonized three years after his death.
Becket became popular thanks to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but that changed with Henry VIII:
His tomb was magnificently adorned with gold, silver, and jewels, only to be despoiled by Henry VIII; the fate of his relics is uncertain. They may have been destroyed as a part of Henry’s policy to subordinate the English Church to the civil authority. Mementoes of this saint are preserved at the cathedral of Sens. The feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury is now kept throughout the Roman Catholic Church, and in England he is regarded as the protector of the secular clergy.
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I had imagined that Beckett fought for matters of principle, of religious doctrine, but your account shows that his only issue was to try to establish the church as a state within a state, undermining the king’s authority. How was it any of his business, let alone the Pope’s, whom the king invited to perform a coronation? And why should clerics have had immunity from the same courts that every other subject had to face if accused of a crime? Can you imagine the church making such demands today, and what resistance it would justly face if it did?
It seems to me that Fitzurse had it exactly right. A subject owes fealty first to the king, and he cannot owe anyone fealty contrary to the king. For Beckett to demand it was to declare himself the king’s equal, if not his superior, and that should never have been tolerated.
And he did. He also fought over government policy and more ‘worldly” matters, including some principles we have today. But of course this being medieval Europe, there wasn’t even the level of separation we have been principle, religious doctrine, and statecraft we expect. Though I think the article gives this a rather hagiographic account of Beckett and- as usual- the case was a lot more complex and ugly than that. And indeed Beckett often staked out more drastic positions than his fellow Clergy and even his superior the Pope.
As far as “establishing the church as a state within a state” He was several centuries too late to do that. The Catholic Church at the time was a state unto itself, overlapping the secular ones not unlike how the king’s authority overlapped those of Earls and Cities. Indeed, even the King and a lot of “his party” didn’t contest the principles that the Church had a say or even authority over a given matter, they just quarreled over things like how Church officials could be appointed and other minutae. Which is probably one reason why they lost.
Secondly: Is it wrong that a King’s authority is undermined? I’m not going to defend medieval canon law or even modern canon law as some kind of modern, democratic, or ideal form of law. But a law it was.
And while most Christian and Jewish authorities don’t see eye to eye on a lot, they do generally agree that *the King cannot claim authority that is not due to them.* in the Bible Christ is recorded as saying (more or less) “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” But this thread went well before. Whether it’s one Prophet after another butting heads with Jewish Kings (ie Jeremiah and Zedekiah).
So Kings are subject to The Law. King does not have the right to demand authority that is not rightfully His. One should not render unto the King that which is not rightfully His, no matter how much they may demand.
A lot of this brouahaha came from an argument over how far the King’s authority stretched versus canon law, and to what degree he had oversight over the Church. Beckett was arguing that many of the King’s demands stepped over the line.
In particular, the King demanding the Crown had the right to enforce collection of Sheriff Pay as a tax rather than a voluntary contribution would speak plenty to us about government overreach and compulsion. Likewise the King arguing he had the right to issue orders to even the highest of England’s churchmen in contradiction of the Pope sounded an awful lot like Henry arguing the King-as-source-of-Law was superior to Canon Law (which was supposedly God’s Law).
President Trump’s “Proclamation on 850th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket”
Mostly the same story, but I like this toward the end:
“A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure — because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.”
I don’t think we will hear this from Biden/Harris.
I’m not sure who was in the right, Becket or King Henry. I put together a 12 Days of Christmas where I make the 5th day Sir Robert Boyle’s Day. Boyle’s virtues are less controversial. See
Interesting. I like it.
Yes, Boyle seems like a better choice of someone for Christians to celebrate on that day. And while my hackles can’t help bristling at “notorious infidels, namely atheists, deists, pagans, Jews and Muslims”, from a Christian perspective that’s exactly right, and I can hardly complain since of course I hold a similar view of Christians. And I like the proviso that the lectures not get into internal Christian divisions and politics. I wonder how well the original lecture series adhered to these rules, and whether the modern revival even bothers.
I also like your inclusion of Bishop Azariah. He seems worthy of this honor.
Excellent study, Eric! Thank you for posting it.
Thank you, Mary. This is an excellent series. I look forward to each day.