Saints of the Day – Thomas Becket (of Canterbury)

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

Born in London (Cheapside), England, 1118; died in Canterbury, England, 1170; canonized 1173.

It is significant that Henry VIII, when he broke away from the Church and appointed himself the head of the church in England, should have elected to remove Thomas, who had died four centuries earlier, from the long calendar of English saints. Saint Thomas died for the rights of the Church, under the then reigning king, Henry II, which his successor finally abrogated. In the 16th century his shrine, which had been a major pilgrimage site for 400 years, was destroyed and the relics that it contained were burned (although some say they were transferred to Stoneyhurst).

Thomas stands for the principle of God against Caesar. Somewhere between these two points, between these respective duties, comes a dividing line, where the territories meet. A man of conscience must decide on which side he will stand. It is the old conflict between Church and State. It was on that difficult border line that Thomas was called upon to live and die.

What he resisted in those early years, other men did not see or understand, but he foresaw the dangers ahead that eventually overwhelmed the Church in England. It reached its full climax when Crammer was elected archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. The same conflict goes on today elsewhere, under other forms, though Christ foretold that Satan will not finally overcome the Church.

Thomas was born into an ordinary, hard-working Norman family and was baptized the same day. As he grew, his mother Matilda used to weigh the child and give the same amount of bread to the poor that the scales showed – a generous form of charity. His father Gilbert, the sheriff of London, ensured that Thomas was given a good, well- rounded education. First, he was sent as a student to the monks at Merton Abbey in Surrey, then to London, and later went to the University of Paris, returning to England when he was 21.

He was tall and handsome, with keen features, loved good living and fine clothing, and was fond of outdoor sport, so he made many friends as a young man and left his mark. All remarked upon his purity of life. He loved the lovely things of God, the noble horse, the swift flying falcon, and God looked upon him with pleasure.

His father’s death left him in straitened circumstances. So, from about 1142, he was employed as a clerk at the court of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Because of his noble bearing, his shrewdness and capability, the archbishop himself noticed him. He began to trust him more with important documents, to confide in him and eventually won his friendship. He took him into his regular service, travelling together on the king’s business, they visited France and Rome and various parts of the Continent. Thus Thomas came into contact with the highest in the land, even became a close friend of the king himself, who like the archbishop took a fancy to him.

About this time Thomas obtained permission to study canon and civil law at Bologna and Auxerre, which afterward fitted him well for the work he was to undertake. He was awarded for his many services by the benefices of several churches, as was customary in those days, though he was not yet a priest.

In 1154, while still quite young, Thomas was ordained a deacon and appointed archdeacon of Canterbury. In this position, Archbishop Theobald used him as a negotiator with the Crown. Thomas became a favorite of Henry of Anjou when he convinced Pope Eugene III not to recognize the succession of King Stephen of Blois’ son, Eustace, thus ensuring Henry’s right to the English throne as Henry II.

The following year (1155), at Theobald’s suggestion, Thomas was made Chancellor of England, a post in which he loyally served Henry II for seven years as statesman, diplomat, and soldier. Thomas’s personal efficiency, lavish entertainment, and support for the king’s interests even, on occasion, against those of the Church, made him an outstanding royal official.

All these dignities were a wonderful ascent, but Thomas rose rapidly to power by his ability and by his magnetic personality, which all who associated with him remarked upon. The state of the country improved greatly under his rule as chancellor; his business was to administer the law and this he did with impartiality to all alike, to churchmen as well as laymen.

God brought this servant along a strange and long road, preparing step by step the instrument of his design, as he does with every individual according to the plan of life and work he has chosen for him.

When the king selected him for his final post, being his close friend, he must have thought he would have an obedient tool, which he could use as he wished. He had made a wrong choice to carry out his evil designs. He wished to curb the power of the Church, to regulate her benefices to make appointments to suit himself, in fact to take from the Church the rights which were peculiarly her own. Though Thomas had outwardly appeared worldly, he loved rather the things of God and His Church. “If you make me Archbishop,” he said, “you will regret it. You say you love me now; well that love will turn to hatred.”

So it came about as he had foretold. When accepting the office of archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he took over the authority – his training and character fitted him for so high a dignity but henceforth he would be a different man; from the day of his election he completely changed. He had served the king, now he was to serve the King of kings, where glory lies in discipline and humility. To Henry’s amazement and annoyance, Thomas resigned the chancellorship and was ordained a priest the day before his episcopal consecration.

He had not wished to be made archbishop, but when the office fell to him, his style of life changed radically. As Thomas put it, he changed from being “a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls.” Now that he was a priest he lived as one, putting aside all the costly robes he used as Chancellor; he wore the habit of a monk.

Every morning he said his Mass in the cathedral with great devotion and even with tears, as those who saw him testify. Nightly he took part in the divine office that was chanted by the community of monks, of which he was the head. He was also profuse in alms- giving. Daily he attended to the business in hand, which must have been very great, since now he was primate of England.

Now that he was archbishop, he intended to carry out the proper duties of his state in life. These included the paternal care of the king’s soul, tactlessly and annoyingly presented by his former friend.

There were many abuses to rectify, disputes about church lands and property, clergy who were not ready to forego their privileges. Some of his own prelates were rebellious; their relatives, who were closely related and supporters of the king, made trouble. In fact, two of the major points of conflict with Henry concerned the respective jurisdictions of church and state over clergymen convicted of crimes, and the freedom to appeal to Rome. On account of the alienation of church lands, Thomas, who knew the state of affairs better than anyone else, predicted trouble; it was not long in coming to a head.

In the controversy, Henry claimed to be acting according to the customs of his grandfather that were codified in the Constitutions of Clarendon. In the view of Henry’s mother, Matilda, this codification was a mistake. It also failed to take into account such recent developments as the Gregorian Reform and the investiture controversy. Becket accepted these Constitutions at first, but after understanding their implications, rejected them. Thus ensured the conflict.

At the famous assembly at Northampton in 1164, Thomas faced his opponents. He foresaw that many of the knights would not be willing to fall in with his decrees, that they would even go so far as to do away with him, if it suited their purpose; he was courageous and unmoved by their threats: “If I am murdered,” he told the bishops, “I enjoin you to lay the interdict upon these districts.” The king, who was also present, lost his temper and showed his real purpose in the former election: “You are my man,” he said, “I raised you from nothing and now you defy me.”

“Sir,” said Thomas, “Peter was raised from nothing yet he ruled the Church.” “Yes,” replied the king, “but Peter died for his Lord.” “I, too, will die for him when the time comes,” answered Thomas.

“You will not yield to me then?” asked the king. “I will not, Sir,” answered Thomas.

Seeing there could be no solution, Thomas thought it best to accept exile rather than any compromise with Henry II over the rights of the Church. Perhaps the king would see reason and then grant the Church her rights. Thomas left the country and took refuge in France, where he remained for over six years. Upon the pope’s recommendation, Thomas entered the Cistercian monastery at Pontigny, until Henry threatened to eliminate all Cistercian monks from his realm if they continued to harbor Thomas. Then, in 1166, he moved to Saint Columba Abbey at Sens, which was under the protection of King Louis VII of France.

Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, who tried hard to find an acceptable solution. The conflict grew more bitter as Henry seemed bent on Thomas’s ruin and Thomas censured the king’s supporters and even attempted to obtain an interdict.

At last King Louis VII of France persuaded Henry II to go to Thomas and make peace but no promises were made on either side. Henry thought that on his return Thomas would not press his claims. Henry admitted the freedom of appeals to Rome, but kept the real power with himself.

Scarcely had Thomas been welcomed back to his community in England when on December 1, 1170, they began to quarrel again. When Henry heard, in Normandy, that the pope had excommunicated the recalcitrant bishops for usurping the rights of the archbishop of Canterbury and that Thomas would not release them until they swore obedience to the pope, he flew into a violent, reckless rage, saying: “Is there no one who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” These were words spoken in anger and not intentional; however, four knights who were with the king, determined to take matters into their own hands. They took ship and crossed to England at once. It was in Advent and Christmas was approaching.

On December 29, 1170, four knights with a troop of soldiers appeared outside Canterbury Cathedral demanding to see the archbishop. They were determined to murder Archbishop Becket, believing they had the blessing of Henry II to do so.

With a few priest attendants, for most of the community of monks were in the church saying vespers, the archbishop was in the palace adjoining, attending to business. Sensing trouble they at first urged him, then eventually forced him against his will to go into the church, not only to avoid the rabble but to find sanctuary there, closing the doors behind them. Thomas forbade them under obedience to close the doors: “A church must not be turned into a castle,” he said.

“Why do you behave so?” he asked. “What do you fear?” “They can do naught but what God permits.”

In the semi-darkness, for it was past dusk at that time of the year, the knights with drawn swords forcing their way into the church demanded angrily, “Where is the traitor, where is the archbishop?”

“Here I am,” said Thomas, “no traitor but a priest of God. I wonder that in such attire you have entered into the church of God. What is it you want with me?” One of the knights raised his sword as if to strike the holy man, but his companion stretching out his arm, shielded the blow.

“Put up your sword,” said Saint Thomas, “not such is the defense the Lord would have.”

The knights rushing forward together perpetrated their foul deed – they slew Saint Thomas on the steps of his own sanctuary and scattered his brains upon the floor. As he was killed by successive blows, Thomas repeated the names of those archbishops martyred before him: Saint Denis and Saint Elphege of Canterbury. Then he said, “Into Your hand, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

His last words, according to one eye-witness, were: “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church.”

Near to the high-altar, where the seat was, upon which he and all his predecessors from time immemorial had been enthroned, he was martyred and gave up his soul to God. Every step of his martyrdom is linked with that of the Passion of Christ; from the incident in the cloister-garth, where he was first apprehended with his few companions, to his burial in the tomb, which was newly hewn out of the rock. In truth there is a marvelous similitude between the deaths of Master and servant that his early biographers, voicing the sentiments of the common people, were not slow to use.

All Christendom was aghast. Henry was forced to do public penance for the murder of Thomas, including the construction of the monastery at Witham in Somerset, described in the life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

Many miracles followed immediately upon his death. Within ten years, 703 miracles were recorded. He was universally acclaimed a saint even before his canonization by Pope Alexander III, two years after his death. Thomas was not flawless; he was imperious and obstinate, ambitious and violent. Yet all the time more exalted qualities were also exhibited. The years of exile at Pontigny and Sens were a time of preparation for the final ordeal.

Thomas was a martyr for Christ, most like to him in his death. The solemn translation of the relics to a new shrine behind the high altar took place in the year 1220 (July 7). The ceremony was the most magnificent ever seen and people came from all over Europe to assist at it.

The shrine-tomb of Saint Thomas Becket was of unparalleled splendor, perhaps the richest in the whole world. Nothing of it now remains for it was plundered of all its riches during the reign of Henry VIII. It has been thus described: “All above the stonework was first of wood, jewels of gold set with stone, covered with plates of gold, wrought upon with gold wire, then again with jewels, gold as brooches, images, angels, rings, ten or twelve together, clawed with gold into the ground of gold. The spoils of which filled to chests, such as six or eight men could but convey one out of the Church. At one side was a stone with an angel of gold, pointing thereunto, offered there by a king of France, which king Henry put into a ring and wore on his thumb” (Morris).

Saint Thomas was a fearless champion of truth and righteousness, against wicked and unscrupulous men. Even the king made reparation and did penance at his shrine. He teaches us that we must be prepared to face persecution and even death for our faith and for the rights of the Church against the state.

In most European countries today the state is supreme – God and religion have no place. We are soldiers of Christ, confirmed and anointed with the holy chrism; let us be strong and fearless then in our endeavor. Pray to Saint Thomas in your present need. He died for the faith for which we should all live (Abbott, Attwater, Belloc, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Duggan, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Hope, Hutton, Knowles, Morris, Murray, Speaight, Tancred, White).

Saint Thomas is generally portrayed as an archbishop killed at the altar by three knights, his crucifer by him. There can be differences. Sometimes (1) there is only one knight, (2) there is a candle-bearer by him, (3) he has a sword in his bleeding head, (4) the tail of his horse is cut off as he rides through Rochester, (5) angels sing Laetabitur justus at his requiem, (6) he is consecrated in the presence of the king, or (7) he is accompanied by his crucifer in the presence of the Pope. He is venerated at Sens (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 August 2020. Web. 24 November 2020. <>