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December 29: The Murder of Thomas Becket

Murder of Thomas Becket (1170)

Stained-glass window of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral

It was on this date, December 29, 1170, that four knights of King Henry II burst into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket. The story of the stormy breakup between king and cleric has been the subject of a play by T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral, 1938) and one by Jean Anouilh (Becket, 1959), as well as an award-winning 1964 film, Becket.

The romanticized account of Thomas Becket's character makes for a better drama, but there is little to the rumors of Becket's rakishness. By all accounts, Becket* was well educated and morally upright, and therefore an excellent choice as Chancellor (1155-1162) of an England conquered scarcely three generations earlier. The true story behind the drama is a classic power struggle between church and state, one largely settled in modern, secular democracies.

Becket served his king with uncompromising loyalty, even when the ship of state collided with the dock of church doctrine. Henry's case was the stronger: his charge was to protect his subjects from real internal and external enemies; the Church represented protection against imaginary crimes (sins) as representatives of an imaginary judge (God). But both sides wielded real power.

Henry knew the Church was lenient on its clerics, even in cases of murder and sexual depravity (how like the Catholic Church today!), and insisted that ecclesiastical criminals be subject to secular courts. Becket argued for Henry's case until, in a tragic stroke of political and personal naïveté, Henry elevated Becket to Archbishop of Canterbury, there to serve him, even as head of the Church.

Becket succeeded Archbishop Theobald, who died in 1161, and was ordained and made Archbishop over a weekend. The transition of his loyalties to the Church seemed just as rapid, but not surprising for one whose loyalties always resided in the institution he was compelled to represent. At this same time, the invidious Pope Alexander III, who had wrestled with Victor IV for the papacy, was forced to flee to France.[1] From 1162 until 1165, Alexander was in his French exile.

Feeling he could not serve two irreconcilable masters, Becket relinquished the Chancellorship, becoming a zealous advocate for ecclesiastical exemption from secular courts. This caused Henry great consternation, not only for Becket's political disloyalty but for his personal betrayal. In the wake of a false charge of embezzlement, Becket was forced to flee into France in 1162, as the Pope had. There, Alexander urged Becket to retain his office.

Becket reconciled with Henry at Freteval in 1170. But Henry had had his eldest son crowned by Roger Archbishop of York, with the acquiescence of the Bishop of London, Gilbert Foliot. Becket excommunicated both for violating the traditional right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown a king. Henry, so the story goes, made an offhand remark, such as "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"[2] — overheard by some knights with more weapons than wits. A sympathetic eyewitness (Edward Grim, a monk) reports,

The murderers pursued [Becket] and asked, "Absolve and restore to communion those you have excommunicated and return to office those who have been suspended."
To these words [Becket] replied, "No penance has been made, so I will not absolve them."
"Then you," they said, "will now die and will suffer what you have earned."
"And I," he said, "am prepared to die for my Lord, so that in my blood the church will attain liberty and peace..."[3]

The murder was blamed on King Henry, who did penance four years later. Becket was made a saint, presumably for standing against the jurisdiction of secular courts over priests committing crimes. The question of primacy — church or state — was still unresolved, so the 12th century drama was repeated in the 16th century between Henry VIII and Thomas More. As if to demonstrate just how powerful and persistent the conflict is, those events too were dramatized in the play and film, A Man for All Seasons.

Though Thomas Becket died for his beliefs, that in no way made his beliefs valid. Had he but served his king with half the zeal that he served his God, he would not have been left naked to his enemies.[4]

*The name "Thomas à Becket" is not contemporary, and appears to be a post-Reformation creation, possibly in imitation of Thomas à Kempis.

[1] Alexander III fought his way back into the Papal palace with a French army bought with French gold. The fight littered the floor of St. Peter's, which was "strewn with corpses," as one chronicler describes it, but the Romans expelled him. It took two more attempts to settle him into an undistinguished papacy, marred by a bull in 1163 which forbade to ecclesiastics "the study of physics or the laws of the world," and decreed that anyone violating this command "shall be avoided by all and excommunicated." Hence, the only men likely study science were officially forbidden to do so. [2] The quote is from Anuoilh's play, as translated for the 1964 film Becket — directed by Peter Glenville and featuring brilliant performances by Richard Burton in the title role and Peter O'Toole as Henry.[3] Edward Grim, The Murder of Thomas Becket, in Vita S. Thomae, Cantuariensis Archepiscopi et Martyris, ed. in James Robertson, Materials for the Life of Thomas Becket, (London: Rolls Series, 1875-1885) (7 vols.) Vol. II. The original account by Edward Grim, a monk subordinate of Becket's, was written between 1170 and 1177. The complete text of the narrative can be found at this link, translated by Dawn Marie Hayes, and at the "Eyewitness to History" website. The pope canonized Becket on 21 February 1173; on 12 July 1174 Henry II did public penance, and was scourged at the archbishop's tomb. [4] The quote turns Shakespeare on its head: "Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King, He would not in mine age Have left me naked to mine enemies," is what the dying Cardinal Woolsey is says to Cromwell in King Henry VIII. Act iii. Sc. 2 — and in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt (play 1960, film 1966). [5] Edward Grim writes:
"Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him 'pander', and saying, 'Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.'
"The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. 'No faith', he cried, 'nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.'
"Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martyr Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.
"Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, 'For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.'
"Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

Originally published December 2003.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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