One of England’s greatest men, Saint Thomas Becket, was born in London in 1118. Becket was well educated and worked as a clerk and accountant. Later, he studied law. Becket quarreled with King Henry II and he was murdered in the Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.
Thomas Becket joined the household of Theobold, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who became his patron. Becket became Archdeacon of Canterbury and then King Henry II made him chancellor. Becket was a close friend and companion of the King. Becket also enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Thoroughly in the King’s corner, Becket enjoyed his positions and the rights and privileges that came with them.
At the time, a movement called Gregorian Reform was gaining momentum. Gregorian Reform fostered the moral integrity and independence of the clergy. It promoted free elections to clerical posts, the sacredness of church property, freedom of appeal to Rome, and clerical immunity from civil courts. The Church wanted to control its clergy and move away from civil authorities’ control.
When Theobold died, Henry II wanted Becket to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket encouraged Henry to select someone else. He was concerned and many scholars suggest that he saw his duties change as Archbishop. But Henry saw that Becket became the new Archbishop. Becket seemed predisposed to his king’s views, but with his new responsibilities he suddenly made an about-face and took the side of the Church and Rome. Moving away from worldliness, he became devout.
The situation was complicated. Henry II was falling back on how things had been formerly arranged in England under Henry I. Henry II issued the Constitutions of Clarendon, documents that drew a line in the sand and asserted the King’s right to punish criminal clerks, forbid excommunication of royal officials and appeals to Rome, and give the King the revenues of vacant sees and the power to influence episcopal elections. At first, Becket agreed to the Constitutions of Clarendon, but then he revoked his agreement. Thereafter, Henry and Becket were in opposition.
When Henry went to prosecute Becket, the Archbishop left for France. When Becket returned years later after a truce had been made, more conflict between his office and Henry’s returned. Henry voiced his frustrations: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” Four knights, “perhaps” taking Henry’s wish literally, famously slew the Archbishop in the Canterbury Cathedral.
Within a couple years after the death of Thomas Becket, Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) canonized him. Becket’s burial place at Canterbury became a popular place of pilgrimage. Henry II was an early pilgrim. Relics of Becket were collected and people who came into contact with them were cured of disease. The faithful making the pilgrimage to Canterbury were given a medal badge with the symbol of the Becket Shrine. Monks placed Becket’s marble coffin in the crypt of the Cathedral and built a wall with gaps in it that permitted pilgrims to kiss the Saint’s final resting place. The wall protected the coffin from theft.
In 1220, Becket’s bones were moved behind the high altar and placed on a raised platform supported by pillars. Canterbury was already a place visited by pilgrims, but after Becket’s death pilgrimages grew rapidly.
In the last century, Becket’s story was dramatized by T.S. Elliot in his play, Murder in the Cathedral. Elliot uses a chorus like classic Greek plays and he explores the Saint’s internal conflicts as his death approaches. Elliot’s play was written as fascism was growing before World War II. Elliot taps into the rich tapestry of the Becket story and looks at four temptations similar to those of Christ. The fourth tempter tells Becket to seek martyrdom for the glory of it. A temptation that is described as “the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
At the time of the Reformation, Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church in England, had Becket’s bones and his shrine destroyed. Henry VIII was an advocate for royal rights over the church and had battled his own Becket-like figure, Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor. More opposed Henry’s annulment of marriage to Catherine of Aragon and believed the Reformation to be heretical. Like Becket, More was killed for his views. Thomas More was canonized a saint in 1935.
Pilgrimage: Pilgrimage by Patrick McCaskey is a well-rounded offering that helps readers on their own faith journey through the examples of many others. Some readers may not be able to make a life-changing journey across continents and oceans, but this book can give readers some insights and enrichment. For those seeking adventure and travel in their future, here’s a personal introduction.