Feast Day: December 29
Thomas was born in Southwark, England of wealthy Norman parents. He studied law in Paris and Bologna and became good friends with King Henry II who appointed Thomas chancellor in 1155. Outwardly, Becket gave all the appearances of enjoying life as chancellor indulging in extravagant worldliness in his role as diplomat and statesman, while remaining loyal to his king, whose army he even led into battle.
Yet all this gusto evaporated when Henry appointed him archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. He changed, as he himself admitted, from being “a patron of play-actors and follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls.” Gone was the lavish entertainment – in its place, austerity and dedication to the duties of his new office. Whereas Henry expected his friend to support him in curtailing the power of the Church, which was challenging his royal authority, Becket did the opposite and defended its rights.
After a quarrel over the jurisdiction of clergy convicted of crimes, the two men became bitter enemies and Becket was forced to live in France as an exile. Six years passed before they were reconciled, though only briefly, before they argued again, this time over the excommunication of bishops who had supported the king in Becket’s absence. On hearing the news, a despairing Henry uttered the reckless words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four barons took him literally and set off for Canterbury. Just as Vespers were beginning in a side chapel of the cathedral, the barons broke in, yelling: “Where is the archbishop? Where is the traitor?” The monks fled, and Thomas might easily have escaped. But he advanced, saying: “Here I am – no traitor, but archbishop. What seek you?”
“Your life,” they cried.
“Gladly do I give it,” was the reply; and bowing his head, the invincible martyr was hacked and hewn till his soul went to God. The whole of Christendom let out a collective howl in horror. The king, racked with guilt, submitted to be publicly scourged at the Saint’s shrine, and gladly served three years of penance in contrition.
The inspiration behind Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic medieval poem “Canterbury Tales” was Becket’s martyrdom, a horrific incident that turned Canterbury Cathedral into one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. Under the weight of great acclaim, with reports of miracles at his shrine running into many hundreds, the pope of the day had little choice but to canonize the bishop whose life was taken in such a sacrilegious manner.
“The Roman Church remains the head of all churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach the full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God. All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgment of Peter in the person of the Roman Pontiff.” – St. Thomas Becket
Butler, Fr. Alban. “Lives of the Saints, For Every Day in the Year.” Charlotte, North Carolina: Tan Books, 2012.
Day, Malcom. “A Treasury of Saints-100 Saints: Their Lives and Times.” New York, NY: Chartwell Books, 2012.
Pennington, M. Basil, O.C.S.O. “Through the Year with the Saints.” New York, NY: Image Books, 1988.
Image: Wikimedia Commons