Tuesday, December 29, 2020

December 29 – Murder in the Cathedral

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From the Carrow Psalter-Hours
English (East Anglia), c. 1250
Baltimore, Walters Art Museum
MS W.34, fol. 15v


"O God, who gave the Martyr Saint Thomas Becket the courage to give up his life for the sake of justice, grant, through his intercession, that, renouncing our life for the sake of Christ in this world, we may find it in heaven."

(Optional memorial prayer for liturgies of December 29)


In any year December 29 is the feast day of an important European saint.  This year, December 29, 2020, is especially evocative.  For it is the 850th anniversary of the notorious murder in the cathedral that catapulted this man to sainthood and to long-term importance in the secular realm, even to our own day.  As it happens, 2020 is also the 900th anniversary of his birth (although he may have been born as early as 1118), so it’s a doubly important date.

The man is, of course, Saint Thomas Becket, one-time Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. 

His story is fairly well-known, especially so in modern times within the last 100 years.  In the 20th and 21st centuries he has been the subject of several biographies, in addition to the plays “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot and “Becket” by Jean Anouilh.  The Anouilh play was the source for the 1964 film “Becket” which starred two dynamic actors, Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry II.  It is their fateful clash that precipitated the ugly murder.



Unfortunately, the Anouilh play got some very basic things wrong, as did the film which followed it.  Becket was not a Saxon, although he was born in London.  In fact, he was the son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket, the children of Norman immigrants who came to London after the Norman Conquest of England.*  His father was a fairly prosperous wine merchant.  They were comfortably off, though not wealthy.   One might call them striving middle class entrepreneurs.  They owned a house and several other investment properties in the center of London. 

The Marriage of Becket's Parents
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 289v

The Birth of Thomas Becket
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 290

Thomas received a good education and was able to obtain a clerical job with the sheriff of London.  In those days, the word “clerical” did not mean just being a paper pusher.  Clerical meant “clergy” because it was predominantly the clergy who could read and write.  But “clergy” did not mean what it means now, that is, a person ordained and set aside to work as spiritual guides and leaders of religious congregations.  There were whole ranks of minor clerical offices that have long since vanished or been declericalized, jobs such as doorkeepers, sacristans, acolytes.  There were often not much in the way of requirements for these positions, beyond enough education to have the ability to read and write. 

Once employed Thomas began to climb a clerical career ladder.  From working for the Sheriff of London, he moved to the offices of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Theobold.  Eventually, he attracted the attention of the king of England, Henry II Plantagenet.  Henry recognized his valuable skills and, with the Archbishop’s agreement, made Becket Chancellor of England.  This was an important office.  The Chancellor had to record all the important documents and laws of the realm.  He was the keeper of the Great Seal of England and no important document could pass into law or be sent to a foreign court without the application of the seal.  This kept him at the king’s side and the two men became friends, in spite of a discrepancy of about ten years in their ages (Henry was the younger). 

Thomas Becket Named Chancellor_
Ivory Liturgical Comb
English, c. 1200-1210
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henry used Becket as an ambassador as well, sending him on diplomatic missions to France and elsewhere.  As ambassador and in everyday life Thomas Becket was, at this time, a very worldly man, delighting in fine clothes, fine foods and many different kinds of ostentation. 

Becket as Chancellor
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 290v

Therefore, it is small wonder that, when Archbishop Theobold died, the king decided that the new archbishop, the Primate of the Church in England, should be his worldly friend, Thomas Becket.  He believed that his friend, Thomas, would be more amenable to his wishes than the old archbishop had been.

Thomas Becket Installed as Archbishop of Canterbury
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 291


Consecration of Thomas Becket as Bishop
Alabaster Carving
English, c. 1450-1500
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

At this time and, indeed, for the previous hundred years, secular rulers and the upper hierarchy of the Church had been at loggerheads over what is known as The Investiture Controversy.  The problem was about who controlled the appointments and assets of the Church.  The rulers attempted to emulate the example of the Byzantine emperors, who exercised a quasi-divine authority over the Orthodox church, following the example provided by Constantine and his successors.  However, having experienced a period of independence from secular power during the years following the barbarian invasions of Western Europe, the Popes and bishops of those territories resisted intervention from the rulers of what had been the Western Roman Empire.  The problem appeared at first in the relationship between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, but later it also appeared in the newly emerging national states.  The rulers wanted to have control over the choice of the men named as new bishops in their territories, for bishops were also great magnates within the kingdoms.  The Church, on the other hand, saw itself as independent and, as the earthly representative of God, superior to lay kings.   In addition, kings believed that they were appointed by God as His representative on earth and that the anointing they received at their coronations made them quasi-sacred beings, superior to mere churchmen.  Under these circumstances clashes were almost unavoidable and frequent.


King Henry and Bishop Thomas Disputing
English, c. 1307-1327
London, British Library
MS Royal 20 A II, fol. 7v

In England Henry II had already clashed with Becket’s predecessor, hence his suggestion that Becket should be the new Archbishop, a suggestion which was received favorably by Rome.  He undoubtedly believed that he would now be able to get his own way with church matters.  He was wrong.  Whatever Becket may have been or may have thought before he became archbishop, he appears to have had a complete change of heart once he assumed the office.
Thomas Becket Having a Vision of Christ
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 296

The specific question over which Becket and Henry came into the most conflict was over the question of “criminous clerks” (i.e., churchmen who had committed civil crimes).  Bearing in mind that the word “clerk” or “cleric” included many more people than it does today, we can perhaps understand the king’s frustration in the obstacle which their clerical status presented for his legal system, which was being greatly developed at the time.  Because these men were “clerics” they insisted that they could only be tried for crimes in the church courts, not in the ordinary civil courts.  Church courts, which operated under canon law, were generally more lenient with punishments than the civil courts, which at the time were handing out savage sentences, like blinding and maiming for what we would consider relatively minor crimes.  Small wonder then, that anyone who could claim clerical status wished to be tried in the church courts. 

Henry II and Becket Disputing
From Abrégé des histoires divines
French (Picardy), c. 1300-1310
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 751, fol. 113v


Thomas Becket Disputing with King Henry
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 291v

Without getting into the details of the steps by which the king and the archbishop went from friends to bitter enemies I will just summarize by saying that by the third year of Becket’s tenure as archbishop, their relationship had completely broken down.  Becket resigned the chancellorship and concentrated on his duties as archbishop.

Indeed, the relationship was so badly broken that Becket decided to leave England and go into exile in France where he remained for several years. 

Thomas Becket Leaving for Exile
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 292


Master of the Cité des Dames, Becket Going into Exile
From Le Miroir historial by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c. 1400-1410
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 72 A 24, fol. 233r

Thomas Becket Being Welcomed by the Abbot of Pontigny
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (london), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 295v

During his time in exile he continued to oppose the king, appealing to the Pope for support and, to some extent, receiving it.

Thoms Becket Resigning the Chancellorship in Front of the Pope
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 294v


Thomas Becket Dining with the Pope
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 295


Thomas Becket Received by the Pope
Embroidered Orphrey Panel
English, c. 1380-1410
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Master François, Becket Before Pope Alexander III
From Le Miroir historial by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c. 1400
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 722, fol. 345v

Becket Received by the Pope
Alabaster Carving
English, c. 1450-1500
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

For his part, the king proved both intransigent and vindictive.  At one point he dispossessed all of Becket's relations and sent them to follow their brother into exile.  

Thomas Becket's Relatives Banished from England
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 292v


Thomas Becket's Family Going into Exile
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 293


Thomas Becket Welcoming and Blessing his Family
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 294

In 1170 a reconciliation was attempted, with the intercession of the Pope and the king of France.  

Thomas Becket Reconciled to King Henry
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 296v


Henry agreed to allow Becket to return to England and to resume his duties as archbishop without fear of imprisonment.  However, Henry also undermined the accord by having his eldest son, also Henry, crowned as his successor by the archbishop of the other English ecclesiastical province, the Archbishop of York.  The right to crown the king had long been a prerogative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so this action was a deliberate snub to Becket.  On November 24, 1170, the Pope, Alexander III, excommunicated the bishops who had taken part in this unauthorized ceremony.  Becket was entrusted with delivering this terrible news on his return to England.

Thomas Becket Landing at Sandwich
Alabaster Carving
English, c. 1450-1500
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Thomas Becket arrived in England, at Sandwich, on December 1, 1170.  He was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the common people who were happy to have their archbishop back again, and who also probably saw him as a force who might take their side in any conflict with the king.  One of the first things he did, however, was extremely risky.  He delivered the terms of the papal excommunication to the bishops who had participated in crowning the junior king.  He may have had right on his side, but it was a dangerous move to make.  That he knew this is proved by the sermon he delivered at the cathedral on Christmas Day, December 25, 1170. 

When the irate bishops arrived in Normandy, where the king was spending the Christmas season, they ignited a tremendous explosion.  Henry II was known for his short fuse and for the wildness of his anger when provoked.  Hearing the complaints of the bishops and of Becket’s enthusiastic reception in England, Henry flew into one of these towering rages.  It was during this period of wild anger that he is supposed to have uttered words that have traditionally been reported as “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest!”  I suspect he did say something like this, but I also suspect that what he said was far more explosive and crude than this. 

Whatever he did say, four knights of his household decided to take it as a command to eliminate the problem.  They crossed the channel and arrived in England on December 28.  They headed straight for Canterbury and arrived there on December 29.  Becket was at the episcopal residence next to the cathedral when they burst in.  A nasty confrontation took place, with a great deal of name calling on both sides.  However, as the knights were not armed, no actual violence took place.  The knights left, promising to return and take the archbishop prisoner.

 What happened next is attested to by several eye witnesses.   It is probably the best documented medieval event we have.  Five of the members of the archbishop’s household that had remained with him described the events that now took place.  His household were very alarmed by the knights and they urged the archbishop to leave, to go into hiding, even trying to pull him into hiding.  He refused and resisted.  Instead, he went about his duties and as dusk settled he went into the cathedral to preside at Vespers (evening liturgy of prayer).  His staff begged him to at least lock the cathedral doors during the service.  He refused, saying that the doors of God’s house should not be locked during prayer and that, if the knights sought his life, he was ready to die for the freedom of the Church.

The knights returned, fortified with their weapons (and probably some alcohol).  They confronted the archbishop in the church, in the presence of all the monks of Canterbury, the archbishop’s household and the townspeople attending Vespers.  They attempted to take him prisoner so as to murder him outside the church itself.  He resisted, at one point locking his arms around one of the columns of the cathedral to prevent them from removing him.  Swords were raised.  When they descended one of them sliced through the arm of a monk who had attempted to intercept the blow aimed at Becket by using the processional cross.  The other sword found its target and sliced off the top of the archbishop’s head.  The other knights also found their targets.  Within seconds, the primate of England was a bloodied corpse on the floor, his brains spilling out onto the pavement and mingling with his blood.  The knights ran.

The Murder of Thomas Becket
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British LIbrary
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 298

After their departure the monks and townspeople cautiously approached the body.  Some people dipped clothes or clothing in the blood, acknowledging by their actions that they were already thinking of him as a martyr and saint.  That night the monks quietly buried his body in the cathedral crypt.  


Burial of Thomas Becket
From a Psalter
English, c. 1200-1225
London, British Library
MS Harley 5102, fol. 17


Word of the shocking deed spread rapidly.  The murder of an archbishop before the altar of his own cathedral church was an unheard of sacrilege.  Before long anger grew and turned upon not only the knights who had done the murder, but on the king who had presumably ordered it.  Within days word had reached the king in Normandy and, a few days later, the pope in Rome.  A letter dated in early 1171 from the pope to Archbishop William of Sens outlines the killing and lists the names of the four knights:  William de Tracy, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Moreville and Richard Brito.  In the letter the pope also compares the king to some well-known names of evil rulers and villains from the Bible and from history:  Ahab, Herod, Nero, Julian the Apostate and Judas and claims that Henry’s guilt exceeds theirs.  This reaction was general across Europe, even from other kings. 

King Henry himself was horrified by what his rash words had done.  Faced with mounting waves of horror as the news traveled from England to France and then to the rest of Europe, he found himself isolated.  There was a rebellion in his own territories.  The Pope threatened excommunication.  No doubt reacting both to his own remorse and to the external threats Henry undertook a remarkable public penance.  He went to Canterbury where he stripped to his waist and allowed every monk and all the prelates of England to scourge him.  Then he spent the night praying at Becket’s tomb (the 1964 film reproduces these events fairly accurately, although the king’s inner dialogue with the dead archbishop is, of course, invented). 

The knights who had done the killing found themselves without the thanks they had anticipated and, because their names were now well-known, outcasts in society.  They appealed to the Pope for a penance to atone for their deed.  The penance they were given was to serve ten years each in the service of the Cross in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  They went east.  Within a few years all of them had been killed, fighting in the Holy Land.  The king, from whom they had expected reward, disinherited their heirs. 

In the immediate aftermath of Becket’s death, miracles began to occur at his tomb.  Within three years the Pope had declared him to be a saint.  His remains were removed from the tomb in the crypt and placed in a beautiful reliquary shrine chest in the church.  

The Body of Thomas Becket Lying in State
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 298v

Pilgrims began to come to visit this shrine from all over the Christian world.  The pilgrimage to Canterbury became one of the most popular pilgrimages of the middle ages, second only to the pilgrimage to Compostela and to Rome.  Some of the flavor of the pilgrimage can be found in “The Canterbury Tales”, the fourteenth century poem of Geoffrey Chaucer that stands as the first great narrative poem of the developing English language.    

The cathedral of Canterbury and the town of Canterbury grew rich with the money spent by the pilgrims.  Museums around the world have mementos of this journey in the form of pilgrim badges.  These were souvenirs sold to pilgrims when they reached their destination.  They functioned as proofs of the pilgrimage journey, a reminder of the event and as a kind of third class relic if they had been touched to the actual relics of the saint.  The badges from Becket’s shrine are among the most diverse I have seen.  

Pilgrim Badge in the Shape of the Becket Reliquary
English, c. 1250-1400
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pilgrim Badge, Showing Becket Returning from Exile in France
English, 14th Century
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pilgrim Badge
English (Canterbury), 14th Century
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum


The shrine itself was decorated with gold and precious jewels.  It must have been an amazing sight.  Smaller shrines for items of cloth stained in his blood were distributed throughout the Christian world.

Master Alpais, Reliquary
French (Limoges), c. 1180
Paris, Musée du Louvre

The Becket Reliquary
French (Limoges), c. 1180-1190
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Reliquary
French (Limoges), c. 1200
Hereford, Cathedral Treasury

Reliquary Pendant with an Image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop
English, 15th Century
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

This all came to a halt in England in 1538.  The king in that year was another Henry, the Eighth.  He had recently had himself made Supreme Head of the Church in England by Parliament.  And, after engineering the deaths of many who refused to accept his title, one of his actions was to undo Becket as a possible source of opposition.  The shrine at Canterbury was demolished so completely that nothing of it remained.  Becket’s remains were removed and (presumably) burnt and scattered into a nearby river.  Today the only reminder in the cathedral it once ornamented is an inscription on the floor memorializing the location of the shrine. 

The art that developed during the middle ages and later tended to focus on the moment of Becket’s martyrdom.  It comes from all over the Christian world, not only from England, and takes virtually all the forms of medieval art:  illumination, wall painting, ivory carving, embroidery, stained glass, sculpture.  Depictions of the event begin surprisingly early, within a few years of the event.  Early images frequently include the figure of Edward Grim, one of Becket's entourage who stayed with him through the horrifying encounter and tried to intervene as the first sword blows fell.  Grim nearly lost his arm in the attempt.  

Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket
From a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 28v

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From a Psalter
English, c. 1200-1225
London, British Library
MS Harley 5102, fol. 32

Murder of Thomas Becket
Ivory Liturgical Comb
English, c. 1200-1210
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Murder of Thomas Becket
From the Livre d’images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 81r
This image is rather unusual for including only one assailant.  However, it is clearly labeled as "S. Thomas de Cantorbire". 


Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From the Huth Psalter
English (Lincoln or York), c. 1275-1300
London, British Library
MS Additional 38116, fol. 13


Murder of Thomas Becket
Leaf from a Ramsey Abbey Psalter
English (Ramsey Abbey), c. 1295-1315
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 302, fol. 4v

Ivory Plaque with the Coronation of the Virgin and the Murder of Thomas Becket
French, c. 1330-1350
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Ivory Plaque with the Murder of Thomas Becket
German (Cologne), c. 1360-1380
London, Victoria and Albert Museum


Murder of Thomas Becket
Embroidered Orphrey Panel
English, c. 1370-1390
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
Possibly English, c. 1400
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

By the fifteenth century the image had become somewhat standardized, as if there was a single source model available. 

Boucicaut Master. Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1412-1416
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André
MS MJAP-MS 1311, fol. 24v

Master of Guillebert de Mets, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Ghent), c. 1415-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 46, fol. 25v

Murder of Thomas Becket
From a Book of Hours
Flemish, c. 1425-1450
London, British Library
MS Harley 2982, fol. 13v

Murder of Thomas Becket
From a Book of Hours
French (Rouen), c. 1430-1440
London, British Library
MS Harley 2900, fol. 56v 

However, a few artists imagined it differently.  

The Fastolf Master, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From the Hours of William Porter
French (Rouen), c. 1415-1430
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 105, fol. 46r

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1445-1465
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 672, fol. 58r

Jean le Tavernier and Follower, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From the Hours of Philip of Burgundy
Flemish (Oudenaarde), c. 1450-1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 2, fol. 259v

Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian I, Murder of Thomas Becket
From the Hastings Hours
Flemish (Ghent), c. 1480
London, British Library
MS Additional 54782, fol. 55v

The later images also tend to transpose the timing of the event to the celebration of Mass, rather than to a service of Vespers.  This is evidenced by the presence of a chalice and sometimes of a host on the altar at the moment of the murder.  In some images, Becket is actually shown being struck down at the elevation.  These images make what was already a gravely sacrilegious event even more so.

Willem Vrelant and Workshop, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1455-1465
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 387, fol. 80v

Murder of Thomas Becket
From a Book of Hours
Flemish, c. 1500
London, British Library
MS King's 9, fol. 38v 

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
From a Breviary
French, c. 1506-1516
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 8, fol. 23v


Running alongside the images of his martyrdom were images of Becket as a saint, often in the company of other saints.  

Saints Stephen, Thomas Becket and Nicholas of Bari
Italian, 1200-1250
Subiaco, Church of San Benedetto, Upper Church

Saints Thomas Becket and Martin of Tours
From a Psalter
German, c. 1208-1228
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 8, fol.54v


Saint Thomas Becket
Stained Glass, Reconstructed in 1919 from fragments of 13th Century Glass
English
Canterbury, Cathedral

Painted Screen with Saints
English, c. 1300-1310
National Trust, Kingston lacy (UK)

Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze, Virgin and Child with Ten Saints
Detail with Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene M and Thomas Becket
Italian, c. 1365-1370
London, National Gallery


Wenceslaus Hollar, Vera Effigies Sta. Thomae Archi-Episcopi Cantauriensis et Martyris
Czech, 1647
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum


Benjamin West, Saint Thomas Becket
Design for Window in St. Mary's, Bristol
American, 1798
London, Fulham Palace


Stephen Reid, Consecration of the Church at Reading Abbey by Thomas Becket, 19 April 1165
English, 1920
Reading (UK), Reading Museum & Town Hall

There is a hiatus of image production in England following the destruction of the shrine in 1538.  However, on the continent interest in the subject continued, often in the form of book illustrations, and became more diverse in its interpretation. 

After Niccolo Circignani, Murder of Thomas Becket
From Ecclesiae Anglicanae Trophaea
Italian, 1584
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gregoire Huret, Murder of Thomas Becket
From S. Thomas of Canterburie his life
French, c. 1635-1650
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Benedetto Lutti, Murder of Thomas Becket
Italian, c. 1690-1724
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sebastien Leclerc, Murder of Thomas Becket
From Fleury's Histoire ecclesiastique, Vol. 15
French (Paris), c. 1710
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
French, 1748
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A revival of interest seems to have occurred in England around the end of the eighteenth century.  This dating is significant.  It is during this period that the first stirrings of the modern view of religious freedom began to emerge, as did a rising movement toward loosening and eventually abolishing the restrictive Penal Laws against Catholics in England and Ireland.  By the middle of the nineteenth century the subject became at least mildly popular in England once again.

John Opie, Martrydom of Thomas Becket
English, c. 1793
Canterbury (UK), Canterbury Museums and Galleries

_Thomas Stothard, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
English, c. 1800
Canterbury (UK), Canterbury Museums and Galleries


After Charles Benazech, Murder of Thomas Becket
From Lyttleton's History of England
English, 1802
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum


William Fowler,  Murder of Thomas Becket
After a window at Christ-Church Cathedral, Oxford
English, 1808
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

After Sir John Gilbert, Thomas Becket Encounters His Assassins
From L'Univers Illustré, Sept 3, 1864
English, 1864
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Cyril Power, Murder of Thomas Becket
English, c. 1931
London, © The Trustees of the British Museum and Estate of the Artist

Interest seems to have peaked in the 1930s, which is the period in which the play by T. S. Eliot appeared.  Interest increased as the 850th anniversary of the murder (today) approached.  A major exhibition at the British Museum had been scheduled for this year and was to include Becket's actual blood-stained tunicle, on loan from the Vatican where it has reposed since 1485.**  Due to the pandemic it has been postponed to April of next year.  Whether it will actually open at that time remains to be seen, of course.


So, what are we to make of this anniversary?  Does it matter that on this date in 1170, a group of knights murdered an archbishop at the altar of his own cathedral?  Is it relevant to us?  The answer, I think is, yes.

Henry VIII was no fool.  He understood the implications of Becket’s life and of his murder.  The struggle between king and archbishop had never been just about the trials of criminal clergy nor the rights to performing the coronation ceremony.  As had been the case in the preceding one hundred years, there had been larger underlying issues about the proper roles of Church and State.  Becket’s stand had been for the freedom of the Church from political influence and the king’s had been for subordination of the Church to control by the State for its own purposes.  In 1538 Henry VIII had just won a complete victory in the latest battle in that struggle, which is real and never ending.  It ebbs and flows constantly, for the Church is not just an earthly institution.  It forms the kingdom of God on earth, partly in time and partly outside time.  It looks beyond the world to eternity.

Since Henry VIII’s spectacular, though hollow, victory the independence of the Church from State control has been enshrined in many laws, in many countries, but it is not often easy to determine where the boundaries lie.  In recent years the Church has suffered a profound loss of confidence following the revelations surrounding lax handling of sex abuse, its recognition, reporting and discipline and has been required to involve the civil authorities.  This makes sense as the earthly crime is heinous and the appropriate earthly punishment one which the state can administer more easily than the Church.  But this is hardly the only issue in which there is the potential for conflict.

In the present day the same struggle continues.  It can be seen in many places and in many guises.  Some of them are as mundane as the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of the diocese of Brooklyn which denies the State of New York the power to dictate closure of churches or synagogues during the current pandemic.  However, some of the conflicts have led to deaths.  Indeed, within my own lifetime I have seen the very same martyrdom as Becket's repeated over and over.  In 1980 Saint Oscar Romero suffered a near identical martyrdom in his cathedral.  Priests have been killed all over the world, from France, to Poland, to Iraq and points in between, many times in their churches during Mass.  The Little Sisters of the Poor have fought for years against being compelled to fund abortions in the healthcare plans they offer their lay employees.  And, in spite of several Supreme Court rulings in their favor, they are still under attack.  Christian laypeople of many denominations have been punished for following the principles of their faith. They may not be required to lose their lives, but they may lose their livelihoods.  And, in some places, they have lost both.  December 29, 1170 is as long ago as 850 years and as recent as December 29, 2020.

Thomae Cantua-Archiepi, Mart.
Unknown, 17th Century
London, British Museum

Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr, pray for us. 


* There is no truth to the charming story, invented in the fourteenth century, that Gilbert Becket was a crusading knight who, in the Holy Land, fell in love with the daughter of a Muslim emir.  According to the story, he returned to England, convinced of the impossibility of their love.  She, however, ran away from home and followed him to London, the only English word she knew.  There she was recognized by one of his servants and brought to him.  She converted to Christianity, was baptized, married him and became the mother of a saint.  This fable was no doubt invented to supply a more romantic parentage than really existed in order to account for Becket's noble qualities.

** See: Thomas Becket’s bloody tunic returns to Canterbury 850 years after he died (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/04/thomas-becket-canterbury-saint-martyr-murder-cathedral-rome-pope-relic-pepinster)



See also: Has St. Thomas Becket's Personal Copy of the Psalms Been Found?

For information about Becket’s life see the following:

Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket.  New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.

John Guy, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: a 900-year-old story retold.  New York, Viking, 2012.

See also:

J. Craigie Robertson, et al., Material for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (canonized by Pope Alexander III, A. D. 1173), Vol. VII.  London, Longmans, 1885.  (Available online through the New York Public Library and the Hathi Trust.)

T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.  New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963.

Jean Anouilh, Becket: or, The Honor of God, a Play in Four Acts.   Translated by Lucienne Hill.  New York, Coward-McCann, 1960.