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Thomas à Becket - Martyr and Archbishop of Canterbury

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 10 February 2015
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


Even the Middle Ages sound the bell for modern society: Take heed of this poignant passage of medieval history or seriously jeopardise modern Catholicism and her moral backbone.

1. Background

England was a Norman domain in Becket’s time. Henry II reigned alongside Becket and Henry was the great grandson of William the Conqueror the victor at Hastings in 1066. The Normans controlled a large portion of the Continent including most of France and Southern Italy as we now call it. They were Kings and battlefield winners in the mould of the Romans and their legions and commanders. They left a legacy of castles, cathedrals (Chartres in e.g. Northern France), and the written word in Norman French (The Domesday Book logging the detail of their English Kingdom’s, Manors and Monasteries). There was no Protestantism then and they were to launch the Crusades later against Islam in the Holy Land. Becket was as Norman as Henry II his liege.

2. What went wrong

between Henry II and Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, the principal See in England then and now? Essentially, Henry Plantagenet would not tolerate a power within his kingdom. Becket was running Church Courts to adjudicate over offending priests and refusing to let Henry’s Royal Courts try and punish these clerical malefactors. Thus Becket, supported by the Pope, was, in accordance with past practice, setting the Ecclesiastical Courts against Henry’s Assize Judges of the Kings Bench Division as it had become since the Conqueror’s day. Norman French was the language of those who pleaded in the Royal Courts.

“Honi soit qui mal y pense = Shame upon him who thinks evil of another.”

To this day in our Court Rooms of Civil and Criminal Justice these words are prominent. I imagine Becket’s Courts were conducted in Latin to add insult to Henry’s injury.

3. Becket’s Flight

Matters were brought to a head when Henry issued a law, whereby any person found guilty in a Church Court would be punished by a Royal Court of Criminal Justice. Becket fled abroad fearing his life was in danger from the King, but more importantly he wished to defuse this very tense situation between himself and Henry. Henry was the King not Becket – he had to show he could retreat from confrontation and duly did so. He did not rule England – Henry did. An Archbishop of Catholicism had to show he was modest and graceful to his King, which Becket most definitely did. He remained in France for six years; his actions loudly stated he desired no showdown with the King of England Henry II. Eventually he did return rightly to his Cathedral and his diocesan flock. He was no coward, but did all he could to make it easier for Henry.

4. T.S. Eliot’s drama

Eliot writes in verse and his drama brings to the fore Becket’s impending murder, and the brooding ill will generated by Henry II and his Council of Knights and Barons. Becket was well known and admired in Rome and Europe. Henry feared Becket’s spiritual and temporal power and his faithful followers in England. Yes, he was a power in the land and this Archbishop was right to leave England and stay away as he did. Eliot picks up on all these themes by the chorus who voice the fears of the English for the Crown and Becket. The Chorus is the spoken rhythm and beat of a highly charged play centring on Becket’s life and eventual murder in the most brutal manner. Without Becket’s martyrdom there could be no play, and Eliot recognised Becket’s sacrifice would never be repeated, despite the later deaths and executions of SS John Fisher and Thomas More. The darkness and foreboding in Eliot’s words is almost visible and tangible.

5. The Murder in the Cathedral

It was occasioned by the;

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

comment undoubtedly uttered by Henry. The overzealous Knights cut Becket to pieces. In those days people spoke the truth and it was laid bare. This story has been known since Becket’s death in his Cathedral. There was no deceit – it was all very clear. There was no cover up. His “sheep” revered the place of his death and attributed favours to him at the point where he suffered and died. He did not neglect his flock in his life or death.

6. What about Henry?

He wanted forgiveness, unlike the intransigent, and undoubtedly received that absolution as an honest penitent. We were told years ago that Henry was so sorry he went on his knees to Canterbury, as the Irish climb the mountain, Croagh Patrick, in the West of Ireland. Here again he made no secret of his culpability and how it caused the tragic end of his erstwhile friend and esteemed bishop: Thomas à Becket. In the middle ages in Europe there was only Catholicism. Yes, it is a hard religion, but Henry II and Becket proved they were good Catholics. Henry was no deceiver and Becket was no pretender.

I raise my glass to these two leading Catholics who shored up Catholicism and the Papacy in the 12th Century. May we follow their good conduct.