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.
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, 1162.
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
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 Church.
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
their father whom they had heard was dead but they saw alive and
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
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 of flesh.
The murderers pursued him and asked, "Absolve and restore to communion
those you have excommunicated and return to office those who have been
To these words [Thomas] 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
"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
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.
medieval chronicler, Gervase of Canterbury, who knew Thomas Becket, is
our eye-witness as to how Becket's clothing revealed his penitential
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.
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:
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.
outraged all of Europe, and pilgrimages
to the site began almost immediately, with miracles following in
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).