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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

Murder in the Cathedral!: THOMAS à BECKET: Martyr--Witness for Christ!

  • THOMAS à BECKET had been a successful warrior, archdeacon, and chancellor of England when his friend King Henry II tapped him to become archbishop of Canterbury. Becket may have been reluctant to accept the position, knowing that Henry found ways to divert church revenues to the throne. He had helped Henry in at least one such scheme and knew that as archbishop he would feel obliged to resist the king’s practices. Confrontation with Henry would be inevitable. He remarked that if appointed he must forfeit either the favor of God or of the king.

  • Nonetheless Cardinal Henry of Pisa, the pope’s legate, urged Becket to accept the position. The monks of Christchurch had first to elect him, which they promptly did. As he was only in minor orders, he needed to become a priest first. Bishop Walter of Rochester ordained him to the priesthood in Canterbury. 

On the following day, Trinity Sunday, 3 June 1162, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, consecrated Becket archbishop of Canterbury, with the assistance of thirteen other bishops. Almost at once Becket surprised the king by resigning the chancellorship, thus establishing his independence. He also seized back church lands the church had forfeited. “Everything that had ever been given to the Church was to be claimed, while nothing that had been parted with was to be abandoned,” wrote James Craigie Robertson.

Not quite a year after his elevation to archbishop, Becket made another significant challenge to Henry when he sided with England’s sheriffs against a taxation scheme that would have upset long-standing traditions. He rejected the king of England’s determination to punish clergy who committed crimes, saying such cases must be tried in church courts. Henry was furious because the clergy were committing murders, robberies, and other violent crimes with virtual impunity. The archbishop based his position in part on the False Decretals (spurious canons).

By 1164 Henry was demanding that the bishops and barons condemn Becket as insubordinate to him, his feudal lord. Although Becket forbade the bishops from judging him, they did condemn him. Becket fled to France where he remained until 1170, issuing excommunications when his commands and claims were violated, much to the chagrin of the pope who instructed the two sides to make peace. Meanwhile Becket often relieved beggars and washed their feet. King and archbishop finally came to an arrangement. Becket sailed for England, where hordes met him, covering his path with their clothes and chanting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Becket proceeded to excommunicate some bishops who had participated in the coronation of Prince Henry, son of the king. Talebearers falsely reported to the king that Becket had gathered a large force and was besieging towns.

Outraged, the king complained that no one had relieved him of the problematic archbishop. Four of Henry’s knights immediately left to do so. The clash between a king who was insincere and often violated his promises, and an archbishop who was harsh and haughty, ended on 29 December 1170, after the four knights entered the cathedral and exchanged angry words with Becket. The archbishop could have escaped, but refused to do so. His opponents tried to drag him out of the church, but Becket and his cross-bearer Edward Grim held them off. Becket called Reginal Fitzurse a “pander” (which had the connotation of a pimp). Stung by the insult, Fitsurse struck the prelate. Becket died in front of the altar. He died bravely: I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.

By his death, which shocked the Christian world, Becket made it possible for Pope Alexander to win from Henry a number of concessions the archbishop had demanded. The people immediately considered Becket a saint, especially when it became known that at his death he was wearing both a hair shirt and underpants, crawling with vermin. Three years later he was canonized. Henry was compelled to do penance at Becket’s shrine which became the most-visited shrine in England. Written by—Dan Graves

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