In England in the late 1100s Church and State were wrestling for power and caught up in this were Henry II, King of England, and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Two determined and powerful men, first firm friends and eventually opposed to one another. Despite the fact that much of Becket’s story is tied up with politics, it’s possible to see how God was at work in his life, transforming him from a luxury loving diplomat to a man who was prepared to die for what he saw as right.
On Tuesday we remembered Thomas Becket and learnt more of his story. The readings in the 2pm SLT service were Psalm 31:1-5, Ecclesiasticus 51:1-8 and Matthew 10:28-32.
Thomas Becket, whom we remember today, was born in 1118, the son of Gilbert Becket a Norman merchant who lived in London. He had an excellent education first at Merton Priory and later in London and Paris. He first worked as a clerk to another merchant and then joined the staff of Theobald who was Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald recognised his talent and sent him to be educated at Bologna and Auxerre. In his capacity as a member of Theobald’s staff, Becket went on several missions to Rome, proving to be a skilled administrator and diplomat. In 1154 Henry II became king and he asked Archbishop Theobald to help him find good government ministers. Theobald recommended Becket as chancellor which was an important position involving the distribution of royal charters. Becket took up this role early in 1155 and became a trusted advisor and friend to Henry. He raised money for the King’s wars, led his armies into battle, acted as his diplomat and also had charge of the King’s eldest son.
Theobald died in 1161 and in May 1162 Henry chose Becket as his successor. The leading churchmen did not like this idea. Becket had not been a priest and was looked on more as a military commander with a reputation for cruelty. He was also used to living in a very self indulgent way, eating expensive food and drinking wine, and wearing luxurious clothes. The leaders of the Church were also concerned that the close friendship between Henry and Becket would mean Becket would not be independent in leading the Church. Despite their concerns, Becket was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by the Bishop of Winchester on 3rd June 1162.
Becket surprised everyone by changing his way of living completely. He began to dress simply, wearing a monk’s habit over a hair shirt. He slept on a cold stone floor and was whipped each day by his monks. Each morning 13 poor people came to his home where he washed their feet and served them a meal. One of the thirteen was given four silver pennies.
Rather than being very much one to support the King’s wishes, Becket soon made it clear that he stood for the rights of the Church. This caused a lot of strain in the friendship between the King and Becket. Things became worse and worse between them as Henry tried to restore the royal powers to their state in his grandfather’s time. One issue was that of clerks in holy orders choosing to be tried for serious crimes by the Church rather than the King’s courts. In this way they avoided capital punishment or mutilation and instead suffered only spiritual punishments such as being removed from office or forbidden to minister at the altar. The King’s ministers blamed the increase in murders on this loophole.
In 1164 Becket gave a verbal agreement that the King should have precedence over the Church but the other church leaders persuaded Becket to change his mind. He then stated that the Church should still have the right to punish its clergy. The King was very angry at what he saw as Becket’s betrayal. He started legal proceedings against him and in October 1164 ordered the barons and bishops to judge Becket. Becket in his turn forbade them from doing so. He then fled to France to meet the Pope and offered to resign, but the Pope told him to stay as Archbishop of Canterbury.
After three failed attempts at mediation, Becket returned to England in 1170. Henry had had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York in June 1170, which infringed Becket’s rights. Henry feared that the result of this would be his excommunication. An uneasy peace was made and Becket came back on 1st December, knowing he was probably in danger. He excommunicated the Archbishop of York and other churchmen who had supported the King. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard this and exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Richard Ie Bret, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Reginald Fitz Urse heard what Henry said and travelled to England to see Becket. The knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170 and demanded that Becket withdrew the excommunication from the Archbishop of York and others but Becket refused. The knights left, uttering threats. Becket’s monks urged him to hide safely behind locked doors in the church but he refused.
An account of what happened next is given by Edward Grim, an eye witness:
‘In a spirit of mad fury the knights called out: ‘Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the realm?’ When he returned no answer, they cried out the more loudly and insistently: ‘Where is the archbishop?’ At this quite undaunted, the archbishop descended from the steps whither he had been dragged by the monks through their fear of the knights. In a perfectly clear voice he answered: ‘Lo! Here I am, no traitor to the king, but a priest. What do you seek from me?’
Having said thus, he turned aside to the right, under a pillar. ‘Absolve,’ they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated.’ But he answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction made, and I will not absolve them.’ ‘Then you shall die this instant,’ they cried.
‘I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain peace and liberty; but in the name of almighty God I forbid you to harm any of my men, whether clerk or lay.’
The account goes on to tell how it took three blows to kill the Archbishop:
‘At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself to God a living sacrifice…. Neither with hand nor robe, as is the manner of human frailty, did the archbishop oppose the fatal stroke. Bespattered with blood and brains, as though in an attitude of prayer, his body lay prone on the pavement, while his soul rested in Abraham’s bosom.’
Henry acknowledged that his comments had precipitated Becket’s death but he said that it was not something he intended to happen. Henry was absolved of the murder by Pope Alexander III in 1172.
Becket was canonised on 21st February 1173 and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became the most important place in England for pilgrims to visit. This created great wealth for the monks there.
Much of this story is perhaps inevitable given two stubborn men and the fight for supremacy between Church and State. However, it does demonstrate the transformation that the Gospel can make in a person’s life. Thomas Becket changed from a selfish, luxury loving man to one who cared for the poor and who lived a life of self-denial and died the death of a martyr. The Word of God is too powerful to be underestimated.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor