December 29, 2023
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his own cathedral in 1170. Soon after his death there were reports of miracles at his grave and he was canonized only two years after his death. His life entails the story of the power struggle between church and state in medieval society.
Thomas was born in England on December 21, 1118, son of Matilda and Gilbert, who was sheriff of London. He studied at Merton Priory in Surrey, studied law in London and continued his education at the University of Paris.
Due to an arrangement his parents had made, Thomas was able to serve in the household of Theobold, archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop was so pleased with Thomas’ service that he was eventually named archdeacon of the cathedral. At some point he met and became friends with young King Henry II. As a seal of their friendship, Henry named Thomas his chancellor. Later when Archbishop Theobold died, Henry appointed Thomas to replace the archbishop. At first Thomas declined, as he feared it would damage their friendship, but he finally relented and accepted. At the time he was only a deacon so he had first to be ordained a priest before becoming an archbishop. The ordination took place just one day prior to his official appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.
It wasn’t long, however, before King Henry regretted the decision to give this position to his friend. Thomas proved to be quite a thorn in the side of the king as he steadfastly defended Church interests. Thomas took his duties very seriously and began fasting and praying. He even secretly wore a hair shirt and practiced other forms of mortification as well. But Henry was a modern monarch who wanted to have complete control over everything and everyone in his domain, including the clergy, and Thomas resisted this. Things became so uncomfortable between the two that Thomas ended up having to flee England. They tried to reconcile their differences many times, but in vain. Henry made things much worse when he arranged for the coronation of his son by the Archbishop of York. He also allowed barons to have property that belonged to the see of Canterbury.
Finally in the summer of 1170, Henry and Thomas met on the beach in Normandy and tried to make amends. Thomas returned to Canterbury where crowds of people greeted him enthusiastically. However, there was to be no true peace. The underlying conflicts between them continued and Henry was still stewing about the excommunication of several of his friends by the archbishop. Thomas knew that Henry was still very upset and in his Christmas sermon that year, he told the congregation that he might not be with them much longer.
Indeed, just a few days later, King Henry exclaimed in a rage: “What a set of idle cowards I keep in my kingdom who allow me to be mocked so shamefully by a low-born clerk.” Four of Henry’s knights, hearing this, perceived that Henry was speaking about Thomas and decided that Henry meant Thomas to be killed. They immediately departed for Canterbury where they found Thomas in his cathedral. When they attacked him, Thomas did not offer any resistance and they proceeded to strike him with their swords. Thomas’ dying words were, “Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”
From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day
The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.
— From a letter of St. Thomas Becket