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Saint Thomas Becket

Saint Thomas Becket - Martyr of the Middle Ages (1118-1170)

 

 

Thomas Becket was born on the Feast Day of St. Thomas the Apostle, in 1118.  He lost both his parents when he was twenty one.  He was educated with the Canons regular.  At twenty-four, he obtained a position in the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He received minor orders; the Archbishop was so fond of him, Thomas obtained many favors.  He was ordained deacon, in 1154, and then the Archbishop appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury.  Now, this was an important position, second only to that of a Bishop or Abbot.  The Archbishop entrusted his most delicate affairs to him to manage, seldom doing anything without asking his advice.  He sent him to Rome on a very important mission.  Thomas Becket never gave the Archbishop cause to regret the confidence he placed in him.

Thomas Becket was the kind of man, monarchs liked to have around them.  He spoke frankly, had the gift of discernment and an understanding so profound, he was always able to answer difficult questions plainly and simply.  It was his diplomacy that swayed Blessed Pope Eustace III to discourage the succession to the throne to Stephen's son, making the crown secure for Henry of Anjou.  Later as King Henry II, he would appoint Becket, at age thirty-six, as his Chancellor.  Thomas Becket not only served the King well and faithfully, but became his intimate friend.  They are said to have had "one heart and one mind".  He influenced King Henry to bring about much needed reforms.  But their friendship went beyond their common interest in affairs of state.  They were friends who enjoyed one another; they laughed together; they had fun together. 

Thomas Becket had an entourage almost as large and grand as the King himself.  As Chancellor, he led a predominantly secular grandiose existence.  He was proud and arrogant.  But there was another side to Thomas Becket, the man who went on retreats, would subject himself to heavy penitential disciplines, was spotted praying during  his nightwatches.  His confessor said that at the beginning of his his career Becket's life was blameless, even under the most menacing circumstances and enticements.

The Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1161.  King Henry wanted to raise Becket to that position, but he protested that if he became Archbishop they would lose their close friendship; their friendship would turn from love into hatred.  He told his friend and king that, as Archbishop he could not condone the things he does against the Church.  King Henry would not listen to any of Thomas Becket's arguments.  But Becket was resolved, until Cardinal Henry of Pisa, legate from the Holy See overruled his objections as over scrupulosity.  He was elected in 1162, and set out to Canterbury from London.  On the way, he reached out humbly to several of his Priests from his church to alert him when they detect any faults in his character or conduct. 

He was ordained Priest on Saturday of Whit-week, and on the octave of Pentecost, he was consecrated Bishop of Rochester.  Something happened to Thomas Becket when he received the Pallium from Pope Alexander III.  By  the end of the year, there was a visible change.  He wore a hairshirt next to his skin.  No more fancy clothes for him.  He donned the plain cassock of a Parish Priest.  He rose early in the morning and read Holy Scriptures.  At nine each morning, he sang Holy Mass, or was present when another Priest celebrated.  He gave twice the alms to the poor, his predecessor had given.  He took a nap in the afternoon and when he dined with guests and his household, instead of music, a spiritual book was read.  Although he was generous with portions for his guests, he ate moderately.  He visited the infirmary and the monks who worked in the cloister, each day.  He personally screened and interviewed candidates for the Priesthood.  He became a Priest and a Bishop!

Although he resigned as Chancellor, after he was raised to Archbishop, he and the King remained the good friends they had always been.  Until they had their first disagreement!  It was customary for each landowner and farmer to pay two shillings a year for each hide on their land to the local sheriffs of the counties, for protection against unsavory local officials.  It was graft of the worst kind.  This sum was then ordered to be paid into the the King's exchequer.  The Archbishop argued that this was a voluntary payment and could not be exacted as revenue by the crown.  He added if the sheriffs defended the people, they would pay, otherwise no!  The King was furious and swore: "By God's Eyes, this shall be paid!" to which Becket retorted: "By the reverence of Those Eyes, my lord King."  Henry did not press on, but a chasm grew between them that would become too wide to cross.

There were many battles fought, as the friend became more and more the Bishop.  When a cleric was accused of wrong-doing, the Archbishop insisted they be tried before his court.  The King accused him of showing clemency because he was a Priest.  October, 1163, the King called the Bishops to a Council and ordered all clerics, accused of crimes, to be handed over to the civil courts to be tried and punished.  When the Bishops began to weaken, Archbishop Becket pressed them to remember they were pledged to protect their Priests, insuring they would be treated fairly, that they were sons of the Bishops and if punishment was to be enacted, it was the place of their Bishop to do it.  The King ordered all the Bishops to observe his mandates.  St. Thomas and the other Bishops agreed but with a qualification: "saving their order".  The King took this as a refusal, and the next day ordered Thomas Becket to relinquish certain castles and honors bestowed upon him as Chancellor. 

The King, remembering their friendship, tried in vain to get Becket to change his stand, and accept his conditions.  For awhile, because of little encouragement from Pope Alexander III, Thomas Becket agreed to accept the royal customs.  But when he read the provisions of the constitutions which contained the royal customs, he refused once again to affix his seal to the documents.  Areas he strenuously objected to were: No prelate could leave the kingdom without the royal license, or appeal to Rome without the King's consent, no one could be excommunicated without the royal will.  It went from bad to worse, but the crowning blow was that clerics convicted and sentenced by ecclesiastical courts had to be turned over to the civil jurisdiction of the royal officers, and would be exposed to possible double punishment.

There was no chance of reconciliation between Becket and the King.  The King made false claims of money due the crown which he had already discharged.  He added fines for Becket not appearing in his court.  It went on and on.  When he was ordered to pay up or face judgment, Becket said he would not be judged by anyone but by the Pope who solely had jurisdiction over him.  He left the court with shouts of Traitor! following him, and some from fellow Bishops who chose to serve "man rather than God".

Becket left for France where the Pope was staying.  The Bishops and members of the King's court arrived before Becket and having accused him, left before he reached the Pope.  When Becket arrived, he showed the Pope the sixteen constitutions.  The Pope not only agreed they were intolerable but severely chastised Becket for compromising in the first place.  Becket kneeled before the Pope and accused himself of having received the See of Canterbury uncanonically.  Although it was against his will, he confessed he shared in the sin, and removed his Bishop's ring, and left the Pope's presence.  The Pope called him back and reinstated Becket, only now canonically, as Archbishop, insisting that for him to refuse would be to abandon the cause of God.

Becket went to a Cistercian Monastery to do penance for his sins.  In the meantime, the King confiscated all his property and that of his family, friends and domestics.  He sent them to France so that Becket, seeing them, would be moved and return to England and the King's judgment.  In addition, the King advised the general chapter of Cistercians that he would confiscate all their property, within his realm, if Becket remained at the Monastery.  The Abbot can hardly be blamed for kind of hinting that perhaps Becket should leave the monastery.  After nearly six years of haggling, with the King of France now brought into the struggle, King Henry and Thomas Becket met and reconciled.

The streets leading to Canterbury were lined with cheering faithful welcoming their Archbishop back.  But Becket had made enemies of the other Bishops and they would not rest until he was removed.  At the court of King Henry, someone exclaimed, there would not be any peace for the realm while Becket lived.  And then, King Henry in one of his uncontrollable rages, repeated "Who will rid me of this turbulent Priest?"  The words no sooner out, he, in his heart, knew he would regret them over and over again.  His words would soon become a reality. 

The Archbishop received a letter warning him of his danger.  Four knights arrived from England, and insisted he remove the cinctures from three of his Bishops.  When he refused, they threatened and swore they would return.  And return, they did, but not before the Archbishop's men hustled him off to the Church.  The frightened monks in the Church bolted the door quickly behind the Archbishop, locking out some of their monks.  The Archbishop insisted they unlock the doors and allow the monks to enter.  He remonstrated them, saying: "This is a church, not a castle".  Petrified with fear, all fled, leaving the Archbishop alone, with only one monk staying behind.  The knights, joined by a sub-deacon, shouted "Where is Thomas, the traitor?"  Becket replied he was no traitor, but an Archbishop and Priest of God.  One of the knight's response to his question "Reginald, you have received many favors from me.  Why do you come into my church armed?" was for the knight to swing his axe menacingly at the Archbishop.  St. Thomas spoke: "I am ready to die, but God's curse be on you if you harm my people” One of the knights drew his sword and struck St. Thomas' head and blood ran down his face.  St. Thomas cried out: "Into Your Hands, I commend my spirit!"  They struck him again with the sword, bringing him down on his knees.  He gasped: "For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church, I am willing to die."  With that, he fell forward, and a knight struck him another blow, severing his scalp.  The sub-deacon scattered his Archbishop's brains with his sword, and the cowards ran out shouting: "The King's men!  The King's men!"

For a long while, no one dared touch the Archbishop's body.  But he would not be left for long.  Before dawn began to cut through the dark night, people began calling him Martyr and Saint.  They dipped cloths in his blood that would be used as relics, and miracles began to happen immediately.  The indignation over an Archbishop being murdered in his own church spread throughout Europe, and there was wide-spread clamoring for the canonization of Thomas Becket

The indignant, outraged people of the world demanded no less than a most humiliating form of public penance for King Henry.  The King, for his part, although he never meant for Becket to be killed, grieved and fasted for forty days.  July 1174, eighteen months after Thomas Becket was solemnly canonized as a Martyr by Pope Alexander, King Henry went to the Cathedral where his friend and Archbishop had been slain, and humbly did public penance. 

July 7, 1220, St. Thomas' body was solemnly processed from its tomb in a crypt to a shrine behind the main altar.  This became one of the most visited shrines by pilgrims of the Christian world.

The feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury, as St. Thomas Becket is known, has been kept throughout the Church from the very beginning, and in England he is venerated as protector of the secular clergy.

King Henry IV.  The rulers of England declared themselves the rightful rulers of France and by 1422; England had overrun most of northern France, including Paris and were heading southward.  The ruler of France was the weak King Charles.  But the Lord raised up a Saint who would become a Martyr, sold out by the French King she had helped and by another King Henry's decree.  She, like the other Martyrs in this book had heard the word of the Lord and said Yes!  St. Jeanne d' Arc was burned at the stake.  It was during the reign of King Henry IV that a Saint was put to death for listening to the Lord.  500 years later, she was officially proclaimed a Saint by the Church she loved. 

What was the legacy and example left by the English King?  More Martyrs to be perpetuated by his successors.  And so, once pandora's box of power was opened, another King Henry would dip into it, and hate and division would be the sad struggle of England and her cousins on the British Isle for centuries.  The Martyrs in this book followed the love perpetuated by their King, Our Lord Jesus Christ and His successors, and we, their heirs, can do no less.

King Henry VIII.  On May 30, 1431, Jeanne d' Arc died and by 1491, a new King would be born who would be responsible not only for the Martyrs we will speak about in this chapter but be the catalyst for the ongoing Martyrdom of so many more.  Some of these you will read about in our chapter on the Irish Martyrs. 

King Henry, when you faced Our Lord Jesus, which were the crimes revealed that so deeply touched you that you condemned yourself?  Was it the men who had dearly loved you and you condemned to death because they could not be a party to your sin?  Or was it the rift and division caused by your avarice and selfishness that would pit brother against brother for centuries and centuries, the bloodshed never ending? 

The saddest reaction to King Henry's action was the part he would play in leading his faithful innocent subjects unknowingly away from their beloved Church.  They never knew what hit them!  They loved him!  They trusted him!  He was their king!  The people of England have always loved the Monarchy, willing to accept whatever hardships necessary for King (or Queen) and country.  They had been so proud when King Henry VIII was proclaimed "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X.  They would never be able to accept that he would do anything against them and their immortal souls, no less attack the Church he had pledged to defend.

When did it all start?  When did the "Defender of the Faith" turn from a loyal son of the Church to Heretic-Schismatic?  When his brother King Henry the VII died, King Henry married his widow, the Spanish princess - Catherine of Aragon.  They had a daughter - Mary (who would later become Queen of England).  But that was not good enough for the King.  He wanted a son who would some day carry on as King of England.  When Catherine failed to give him sons, he decided to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn.  He asked the Pope to nullify his marriage to Catherine, declare it illegal, that it never existed.  Of course, the Pope refused.  Now, that was not easy to do.  King Henry had defended the Church against Luther, saving the faithful of England from falling into heresy.  But, the Pope had no choice.  Jesus had said it, and he had to obey: "What God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

When the Pope refused to condone his plan, King Henry the VIII set up his own church and declared himself Head of his newly founded church, the Church of England. 

King Henry VIII married the English Anne Boleyn, who later proved disappointing by giving Henry a girl instead of a boy.  Her name was Elizabeth.  She would later become Queen Elizabeth I.  After three short years, poor Anne Boleyn lost favor with the King.  She had failed to give him any sons.  He accused her of misconduct and had her beheaded!

He then married Anne Seymour who finally gave him the son he so ardently desired.  The baby was named Edward.  He later became King Edward VI.  Well, Anne Seymour did not live long enough to suffer the fate of those others who had not met the King's expectations.  She died giving birth to Edward.

Henry was to go through wife after wife, dissolving marriage after marriage by simply declaring it never existed - nullifying it, or by beheading the wife who lost favor.  But as our Lord would have forgiven Judas if he had only repented as Peter had, Our Lord sent men to King Henry to stand firm in trying to keep him from doing this heinous act that would reverberate so much pain and division.  They were sent to him to save his soul.  But the self-indulgence and gluttony he practiced, putting himself before and above others, would become an addiction that could not be satisfied or arrested.  One of the men Our Lord sent was John Fisher.

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