On this, the fifth day of Christmas, after having honored the martyrdom of
St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents, we remember
yet another martyr -- St. Thomas Becket (sometimes known as "Thomas of
Canterbury" or Thomas á Becket").
St. Thomas was born in London on 21 December 1118 to Norman parents who'd
lived in England for some time. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives this description
of him as found in the Icelandic Saga:
To look upon he
was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly
featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and loveable in his
conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering
in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always
make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.
Educated in Paris,
he later became the clerk of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent
him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law and ordained him as a deacon.
Around this time, Henry II became King of England and, upon the advice of
Archbishop Theobald, made him his chancellor. Thomas and the King became
great friends due to their mutual interests and love of luxury. Thomas even
took up arms with King Henry when the monarch went to battle in Toulouse,
and is said to have served well as a warrior.
When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, King Henry did all in his power to
see that Thomas took over his archdiocese. Thomas was not happy about the
idea but, urged on by Cardinal Henry of Pisa, was ordained priest on a Saturday
in Whitweek, and was consecrated as Bishop the next day, Sunday, 3 June,
After attaining the See of Canterbury, something changed in him. He gave
up his former life of indulgence and focused on penance and prayer. His
friendship with King Henry, however, became strained after he resisted various
plans that Henry wanted to institute -- but the issue that led to St. Thomas's
martyrdom concerned jurisdiction: King Henry wanted all clerics to assent
to the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) which asserted that the King, not
the Church, had jurisdiction over criminal clerks. Thomas at first assented,
but later stood tall and spoke out for the rights of the Church. Threatened
with imprisonment or death, he fled to the Pope for a resolution to the matter,
and then exiled himself for a few years in a French Cistercian abbey, devoting
himself even more deeply to penance. While there, he also excommunicated
the Bishops of London and Salisbury for siding with the King.
An uneasy peace was worked out between Thomas and Henry, and so Thomas, amid
the cheers of the local people, returned to Canterbury. But he refused to
lift the censures against the Bishops who stood with the King against the
Meanwhile, the second most powerful cleric -- Roger of York -- had the King's
ear, and told him that as long as Thomas lived, the King would never have
a tranquil kingdom. The King is said to have cried, "Who will rid me of this
meddlesome priest?" -- whereupon, four knights -- William de Tracy, Richard
Brito, Hugh de Moreville, and Reginald FitzUrse -- who overheard the conversation
set out to grant the King's wishes. It was the afternoon of 29 December 1170
when the four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral. An eyewitness named Edward
Grim tells us what happened next:
After the monks
took [Thomas] through the doors of the church, the four aforementioned knights
followed behind with a rapid pace. A certain subdeacon, Hugh the Evil-clerk,
named for his wicked offense and armed with their malice, went with them
-- showing no reverence for either God or the saints because by following
them he condoned their deed. When the holy archbishop entered the cathedral
the monks who were glorifying God abandoned vespers -- which they had begun
to celebrate for God -- and
ran to their father whom
they had heard was dead but they saw alive and unharmed.
They hastened to close the doors of the church in order to bar the enemies
from slaughtering the bishop, but the wondrous athlete turned toward them
and ordered that the doors be opened. "It is not proper," he said, "that
a house of prayer, a church of Christ, be made a fortress since although
it is not shut up, it serves as a fortification for his people; we will triumph
over the enemy through suffering rather than by fighting -- and we come to
suffer, not to resist."
Without delay the sacrilegious men entered the house of peace and reconciliation
with swords drawn; indeed the sight alone as well as the rattle of arms inflicted
not a small amount of horror on those who watched. And those knights who
approached the confused and disordered people who had been observing vespers
but, by now, had run toward the lethal spectacle exclaimed in a rage: "Where
is Thomas Becket, traitor of the king and kingdom?"
No one responded and instantly they cried out more loudly, "Where is the
Unshaken he replied to this voice as it is written, "The righteous will be
like a bold lion and free from fear," he descended from the steps to which
he had been taken by the monks who were fearful of the knights and said in
an adequately audible voice, "Here I am, not a traitor of the king but a
priest; why do you seek me?" And [Thomas], who had previously told them that
he had no fear of them added, "Here I am ready to suffer in the name of He
who redeemed me with His blood; God forbid that I should flee on account
of your swords or that I should depart from righteousness."
With these words -- at the foot of a pillar -- he turned to the right. On
one side was the altar of the blessed mother of God, on the other the altar
of the holy confessor Benedict -- through whose example and prayers he had
been crucified to the world and his lusts; he endured whatever the murderers
did to him with such constancy of the soul that he seemed as if he were not
The murderers pursued him and asked, "Absolve and restore to communion those
you have excommunicated and return to office those who have been suspended."
To these words [Thomas] replied, "No penance has been made, so I will not
"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; but in the name of Almighty God I forbid
that you hurt my men, either cleric or layman, in any way." The glorious
martyr acted conscientiously with foresight for his men and prudently on
his own behalf, so that no one near him would be hurt as he hastened toward
Christ. It was fitting that the soldier of the Lord and the martyr of the
Savior adhered to His words when he was sought by the impious, "If it is
me you seek, let them leave."
With rapid motion they laid sacrilegious hands on him, handling and dragging
him roughly outside of the walls of the church so that there they would slay
him or carry him from there as a prisoner, as they later confessed. But when
it was not possible to easily move him from the column, he bravely pushed
one [of the knights] who was pursuing and drawing near to him; he called
him a panderer saying, "Don't touch me, Rainaldus, you who owes me faith
and obedience, you who foolishly follow your accomplices."
On account of the rebuff the knight was suddenly set on fire with a terrible
rage and, wielding a sword against the sacred crown said, "I don't owe faith
or obedience to you that is in opposition to the fealty I owe my lord king."
The invincible martyr -- seeing that the hour which would bring the end to
his miserable mortal life was at hand and already promised by God to be the
next to receive the crown of immortality -- with his neck bent as if he were
in prayer and with his joined hands elevated above -- commended himself and
the cause of the Church to God, St. Mary, and the blessed martyr St. Denis.
He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight, fearing that [Thomas]
would be saved by the people and escape alive, suddenly set upon him and,
shaving off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to
God, he wounded the sacrificial lamb of God in the head; the lower arm of
the writer was cut by the same blow. Indeed [the writer] stood firmly with
the holy archbishop, holding him in his arms -- while all the clerics and
monks fled -- until the one he had raised in opposition to the blow was severed.
Behold the simplicity of the dove, behold the wisdom of the serpent in this
martyr who presented his body to the killers so that he might keep his head,
in other words his soul and the church, safe; nor would he devise a trick
or a snare against the slayers of the flesh so that he might preserve himself
because it was better that he be free from this nature! O worthy shepherd
who so boldly set himself against the attacks of wolves so that the sheep
might not be torn to pieces! and because he abandoned the world, the world
-- wanting to overpower him -- unknowingly elevated him.
Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with
the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself
as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the Name of Jesus and
the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death."
But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this
blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large,
separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet
no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance
of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the
Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr.
The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others
could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth -- not a knight
but a cleric who entered with the knights -- so that a fifth blow might not
be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, placed his foot on
the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say)
scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest,
"We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again."
But during all these incredible things the martyr displayed the virtue of
perseverance. Neither his hand nor clothes indicated that he had opposed
a murderer -- as is often the case in human weakness; nor when stricken did
he utter a word, nor did he let out a cry or a sigh, or a sign signaling
any kind of pain; instead he held still the head that he had bent toward
the unsheathed swords.
As his body -- which had been mingled with blood and brain -- laid on the
ground as if in prayer, he placed his soul in Abraham's bosom. Having risen
above himself, without doubt, out of love for the Creator and wholly striving
for celestial sweetness, he easily received whatever pain, whatever malice,
the bloody murderer was able to inflict. And how intrepidly -- how devotedly
and courageously -- he offered himself for the murder when it was made clear
that for his salvation and faith this martyr should fight for the protection
of others so that the affairs of the Church might be managed according to
its paternal traditions and decrees.
The famous medieval
chronicler, Gervase of Canterbury, who knew Thomas Becket, is our eye-witness
as to how Becket's clothing revealed his penitential nature:
His dead body was
removed and placed in the shrine before the altar of Christ. On the morrow
it was carried by the monks and deposited in a tomb of marble within the
crypt. Now, to speak the truth -- that which I saw with my eyes, and handled
with my hands -- he wore hair-cloth next his skin, then stamin, over that
a black cowl, then the white cowl in which he was consecrated; he also wore
his tunic and dalmatic, his chasuble, pall, and miter; Lower down, he had
drawers of sack-cloth, and over these others of linen; his socks were of
wool, and he had on sandals.
The Golden Legend,
written in A.D. 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, relates
the tale of how the Pope came to know of Thomas's death:
...the Pope would
daily look upon the white chasuble that S. Thomas had said Mass in, and the
same day that he was martyred he saw it turned into red, whereby he knew
well that that same day he suffered martyrdom for the right of holy church,
and commanded a Mass of requiem solemnly to be sung for his soul. And when
the quire began to sing requiem, an angel on high above began the office
of a martyr: Letabitur justus, and then all the quire followed singing forth
the mass of the office of a martyr. And the Pope thanked God that it pleased
him to show such miracles for his holy martyr, at whose tomb by the merits
and prayers of this holy martyr our blessed Lord hath showed many miracles.
The blind have recovered their sight, the dumb their speech, the deaf their
hearing, the lame their limbs, and the dead their life.
The murder outraged
all of Europe, and pilgrimages to the site
began almost immediately, with miracles following in abundance.
He was canonized in 1173. King Henry repented and made public penance at
the tomb, allowing himself to be scourged there. Canterbury became the third
greatest site of pilgrimage in all of Europe (Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"
concerns pilgrimage to his shrine). His relics are said to have been destroyed
in 1538 during the Protestant rebellions foreshadowed by King Henry's attitudes,
but some believe that a skeleton found in the crypt there in 1888 belongs
to the martyr.
St. Thomas is one of the patron of priests. He is symbolized in art with
an axe or sword over or in his head, or with a wounded head, and is usually
depicted at the time of his martyrdom.
Note: T. S. Eliot wrote a play -- "Murder in the Cathedral" -- about his
life, and a movie --
"Becket" (1964) -- starring Peter O'Toole and Richard
Burton has been made, too (link to the movie is offsite and will open in
new browser window).