Weninger’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury

detail from a Saint Thomas a Becket holy card, artist unknownArticle

Glorious and celebrated is the great Archbishop, Saint Thomas, on account of his fortitude in defending the rights of the Christian Church. He was born at London, in England, of noble, pious and rich parents, who led him early in the path of virtue, and had him carefully instructed in the arts and sciences. Thomas progressed rapidly in both, and gained so high an esteem among both clergy and laity, that Henry II. chose him as Chancellor of the kingdom. He discharged his functions to the entire satisfaction of king and people, until the episcopal See of Canterbury became vacant by the death of Theobald, who had long since ordained Thomas deacon. The king, of his own free will, appointed Thomas as successor to the late archbishop. Thomas refused, for a long time, to obey the king’s wish, but at length, recognizing the will of the Almighty, he accepted the high but burdensome dignity. No sooner had he done this, than he renounced every bodily enjoyment, and in consideration of the grave duties of his station, endeavored so to conduct himself, that his life might shine as a bright example to those under him. Zeal for the honor of God and the salvation of his flock took entire possession of his heart, so that he left nothing undone to further both. The poor and needy enjoyed the greater part of his income,- while he used the rest for his own maintenance, being far from delighting in pride or luxury, but devoted to mortifying himself continually. So edify ing a mode of life made the new Archbishop agreeable both to God and men. But when he claimed several ecclesiastical benefices, which had been unjustly taken from the church, the usurpers of these estates roused a part of the people against their shepherd, disseminated scandalous reports against him, and endeavored to withdraw from him the love and esteem of the king. At that time, two ecclesiastics had committed grievous faults; and when Saint Thomas wished to punish them, some of the courtiers told the king that he, as Lord of the land, should claim the right of judging and punishing as well the clergy as the laity; that he had the power over all, and ought not to permit any encroachment on his rights; and that it was a disgrace to him that the clergy were independent of his power. Not content with this, they persuaded the king to issue laws entirely contrary to the rights and liberties of the church, but approved by the highest nobility of the kingdom, and even by many bishops, whom fear had influenced.

Saint Thomas boldly resisted these laws, ready rather to die than consent to anything that was against the vow he had made to God and the Church. This lost him the king’s favor; and seeing that still greater disturbances might arise if he remained in the country, he secretly left the court, and with two ecclesiastics, went to Rome, related to the Pope what had taken place, and begged him to appoint another Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope praised his constancy, but would not listen to his request, but advised him to live in retirement, until the king should come to the knowledge of his fault. Hence, the holy archbishop went into the Cistercian monastery of Pontigni, in France, and lived there in great austerity and holiness, until he was informed that the king of England had notified the Abbot of Pontigni that he would destroy every monastery of his Order in England, unless his enemy, Thomas, were dismissed. The holy man then voluntarily left Pontigni, in order that his presence might not cause evil to the Order. Louis, king of France, informed of this, came to meet the exiled Archbishop, and took him to another monastery at Sens, which was named after Saint Columba. Here he remained until the king of England became reconciled to him. Thus, after seven years, Saint Thomas returned to his see, and was received by his flock with inexpressible joy. The Saint discharged his functions as before with great zeal, not in the least complaining of the wrong that had been done to him. But his enemies gave him no peace, they accused him of conspiring against the kingdom and the general welfare of the people, and even of aspiring to the crown. Senseless and plainly false as these accusations were, still they made an impression upon the king, who, in his wrath, said more than once: “Can I have no peace in my kingdom on account of one single priest? Is there no one who will free me from so proud and obstinate a man?” Some of those, who heard these words, supposed that the king would regard them with great favor if they would rid him of the bishop. Hence, they gathered together, went to Canterbury and entered the church, where the holy man was at Vespers. The priests present, when they heard of the arrival of the murderers, would have closed the doors of the church; but Saint Thomas would not permit it. “The Church,” said he, “is no fort where one prepares for an attack. I am willing to sacrifice my life for the Church of God.” During this time, the murderers pressed into the church, and one, of them exclaimed on entering: “Where is Thomas, the traitor?” I am here!” answered the holy man, “but I am no traitor. I am a priest of God, and ready to give my blood for God and His Church. But, in the name of the Almighty, I forbid you to hurt one of my people.” He then knelt before the altar and commended himself and his church to God, the Divine Mother, Saint Dionysius and other patrons. He had hardly finished his prayer, when the most daring of the murderers gave him so violent a stroke with his sword, that he clove the holy archbishop’s head. The others followed and maltreated the Saint so cruelly, that his brains were scattered over the steps leading to the altar, and the pavement before it was covered with blood. After this, they demolished the episcopal palace, and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands. The religious and priests, who, in fear and trembling, had endeavored to flee, returned, after the departure of the assassins from the church, called the other ecclesiastics, and with great veneration, interred the body of the murdered Saint. In taking off his clothing, they found a hair-shirt, which the Saint had always worn. This sad and, at the same time, cruel event took place in the year of our Lord, 1170.

The king, who, although he had not desired the assassination of the archbishop, had occasioned it by his angry words, did severe and public penance. The murderers were punished by the Almighty. He who had dealt the blow, after long internal suffering, in rage and despair, tore his own body with his teeth, and cut with knives one piece after another from it, until he miserably expired. The other three, who had laid their sacrilegious hands on the holy archbishop, wandered insane and trembling through England, for three years, and at last ended their lives in despair. They were frequently heard to exclaim:

“The vengeance, the punishment of God has overtaken us.” The tomb of Saint Thomas was glorified by many miracles, and all England honored him as a Saint, until the time of Henry VIII, who separating from the Catholic Church, proclaimed himself head of the English church. This king, in a most unprecedented manner, summoned Saint Thomas, who had been dead 490 years, to appear in court, and there sentenced him as a convicted traitor. In consequence of this act, his holy relics were exhumed, burned to ashes and then given to the winds. At the same time, a royal command was issued, no longer to call the archbishop holy or to invoke him as a Saint. The real cause of this proceeding was, that Saint Thomas had been so fearless a defender of the rights and privileges of the Church of God and of the Apostolic See, upon which Henry VIII would set his foot, while, at the same time, he laid violent hands on the dead, who had so bravely protected them. So far goes the rage of heresy, regarding neither Christian nor heathen laws; sparing neither the dead nor the living; and not hesitating to dishonor God and His Saints.

Practical Considerations

Some godless noblemen plotted against Saint Thomas of Canterbury, who, as in duty bound, defended the rights of the Church. In our days there are thousands and hundreds of thousands who join secret societies, which in their way labor to overthrow the Church and her rights. The Holy Fathers call Satan the ape of God. Lucifer had only too well perceived how greatly the assemblies of the Catholics in the catacombs had contributed to the spread of the gospel in the first century, and he has seen in all ages, what help the Church received from her many religious orders, congregations, associations and brotherhoods. Hence his hatred against these institutions. On his side, therefore, he endeavors by means of secret societies and associations, to ruin the foundation of the Church and to overthrow the work of God. That he may have easier play, he seeks to cover the end and aim of these societies under honorable names, such as the rights of man, philanthropy, humanity, enlightenment, advancement, culture, pretending that these associations are only mutual-aid societies, founded through pure humanity, and that every Catholic might join them without burdening his conscience. But, dear reader, let not this syren song deceive you. Under the honey of sweet words is hidden the deadly poison. Hear and consider well what I tell you of the wickedness of these associations, which are called secret societies. If you converse with people who endeavor to entice you into their net, they will say: “Why will you not join us, though you are a Catholic? We know one religion only: to believe in God, and be honest, that is sufficient.” Answer: “If you do not regard the religion of a man, this in itself is a bad sign which induces me not to join you. I esteem religion and cannot join men to whom it is indifferent.” In fact, no Catholic ever joined a secret society, and became thereby better, more zealous or more pious; on the contrary, such persons sink only too soon into entire indifference in regard to matters of faith, and become scoffers. Besides this, how can a Catholic join a secret society. He would be excommunicated and cease to be a Catholic; which means, that the Church would expel him from the community of the faithful and refuse him the Sacraments and Christian burial. How blind are those who think they can belong to secret societies and yet remain Catholics! They ought to be ashamed that they know so little of the consequences of excommunication. But they will say: why does the Church excommunicate secret societies, as they are only associations for mutual aid.” Answer: They are apparently mutual aid associations, but in reality, they injure and destroy the root of brotherly love, which says, without making any distinction: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” hence, also, aid him as thyself. And though it is impossible for us to practice this commandment literally in regard to all men on earth, yet we must observe it in favor of those with whom we come in contact, on principles very different from those on which secret societies are based.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ. “Saint Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 June 2018. Web. 25 September 2018. <>