“Those who tread among serpents, and along a tortuous path, must use the cunning of the serpent.” – Thomas Becket
For this blog entry, I will be deviating from the Greeks to detail the life and importance of Thomas Becket, whose feast day in the Catholic Church is celebrated on December 29th. Hopefully, by the end, you will be able to see his importance to Western tradition.
Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, once described himself as “a proud, vain man, a feeder of birds and a follower of hounds.”[i] Once a friend and advisor to King Henry II, Becket opposed Henry’s legal reforms concerning the Church. He thought that no member of the clergy should be subject to the laws of England and vowed to fight King Henry’s Constitution of Clarendon as long as he lived. His stand represents one of the classic confrontations between Church and state in politics.
Becket rose from very humble beginnings to end up challenging a king. He was born in London and studied at Paris under a noted teacher, Robert of Melun. He then entered the service of the English monarchy, working with the English sheriffs as a clerk. In 1141, he became a member of the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Becket made a name for himself as a man with a considerable future. As a result, he was sent to study law at Bologna and Auxerre and in 1154 he was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury. As a rising young star in English politics, Becket attracted the attention of King Henry II and they became fast friends. Both had similar tastes and interests; both had a love of hunting, women and luxury. Eventually, Henry gave Becket the position of Chancellor of England. Becket wielded vast power in English government and with his gift of administration, he ruthlessly enforced Henry’s political will. As Chancellor of England, Becket reduced the opposition of barons and centralized royal power, often to the detriment of the Church. Since the power of the Church was always a problem for the king, it seemed logical for Henry to appoint his friend and confidante to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury with the death of Theobald in 1161. Becket was reluctant to take office, but did after Henry’s prompting in 1162.
Becket soon clashed with King Henry II on several issues. He excommunicated a baron, one of Henry’s loyal vassals; opposed a tax proposal; and fought against the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket also rebuffed Henry’s claim that clerics who committed crimes should be tried in secular courts. Henry responded with some harsh measures of his own against his former friend. He had Becket condemned by a council of English bishops loyal to the king. As a result of the condemnation, Becket fled the country and came under the protection of King Louis VII of France. He remained in exile from 1164 to 1170. During this period, Becket appealed his case to Pope Alexander III, while Henry ran the Church of England through the bishop of York, who was loyal to the king. In 1170, Henry and Becket were reconciled. Becket returned to England in November of that year. The people of England, who saw Becket as a hero, lined the roads to greet him as he made his way to the cathedral in Canterbury.
But the reconciliation did not last. By December, the final break between Henry and Becket occurred. Becket refused to absolve any of the English bishops who supported Henry during his exile unless they took an oath of obedience to the pope. Henry, upset over the public displays of support for Thomas, greeted the news with rage and fury. In the end, Henry, angry and drunk, supposedly referring to Becket, asked some of his knights, “Is there no one to rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four of those knights took Henry’s words to heart as a command and murdered Becket as he prayed in the cathedral at Canterbury. Becket’s last words, reported by one eyewitness, were, “Willingly, I die for the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church.”[ii]
The death of Becket was universally condemned. Miracles were reported at Canterbury shortly after his death. Soon pilgrims began appearing at Canterbury, making it into one of the most famous holy sites during the Middle Ages. Becket received sainthood quickly from Pope Alexander III in 1173. Henry was blamed for the popular Becket’s murder and performed penance for his sin, which included being flogged naked by monks. The king also agreed to recognize papal authority in Church law and to exempt clergy from punishment in the civil courts.
What Can We Learn from Thomas Becket?
- There has been some controversy about Becket’s character, with ambitious and imperious most frequently used as descriptors. But one can’t make an impact without overcoming challenges, both internal and eternal.
- His defense of the Church has resonated through the centuries of Western development, creating a dichotomy between Church and state. This dichotomy is never balanced or without tension, but it has allowed for the development of individuality so essential to Western tradition.
- Becket’s compelling story has attracted dramatists from Tennyson’s Becket through T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Anouilh’s play Becket or The Honor of God, which was later adapted into the 1964 film starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. All recognize and explore the tension between Church and state resonating still today.
Resources on Thomas Becket
- Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold – John Guy
- Thomas Becket – Thomas Barlow
- The Honor of God with Kierekegaard: A Kierkegaardian View of the Play ‘Becket’ – Tim Hall (Blog author)
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[i] Paul Burns, Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 606.
[ii] Donald Attwater and Catherine Rachel John, The Penguin Dictionary of the Saints, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 342.