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August - September 2009


Medieval martyrdom

by Anil Mehta

‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’ Thomas Becket (died 1170).

The relationship between the medieval king Henry II (1139-89) and his Chancellor and later Archbishop Thomas Becket (1118-70) has fascinated generations of historians. It couldn’t be so fascinating were it not for Becket’s change of heart and his eventual murder following his appointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury by the king. It was a clash of two strong personalities, but there were also important issues at stake, i.e. the right of the Church over the powers of the Crown.

Thomas Becket was born in London, a bright and ambitious son of a wealthy merchant. As a young man he was exceptionally gifted with striking personality. After studying theology he became a lawyer’s clerk, and then joined the household of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The exceptional ability of Becket was spotted by the new King Henry II who appointed him Chancellor. Soon Becket became a trusted friend and advisor to the king and proved he was useful and invaluable. He spent eight years as Chancellor and was rewarded with great wealth. When Theobald died, Henry appointed Becket, although he had never been a priest, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a position which Becket accepted reluctantly. What happened next took the king and everyone else by surprise.

Henry wanted to introduce new laws curbing Church’s power, and it was natural for him to assume that Becket, his friend and confidant would support him in this. But it was not to be. As an archbishop he devoted his loyalty to Church and fiercely defended its rights thus putting himself in open opposition to the king. Henry with his passion for law and order wanted criminal priests tried in King’s courts and not in Church courts (where punishment was generally lenient), but Becket insisted they should be dealt with by Church courts. The dispute became more and more bitter, and the relations between the king and his archbishop quickly deteriorated. Henry felt deeply betrayed and charged Becket with various trumped up offences ultimately forcing him into exile. Becket spent six years in France from where he continued a relentless campaign against his former master.

Although both parties agreed to patch-up their differences and Becket returned to England amid rejoicing, reconciliation was short-lived and soon a fresh quarrel broke out. This irritated Henry and while on a trip to France, he cried out in exasperation ‘will no one rid of me this turbulent priest?’ Four of his loyal knights heard him, and believing (not quite rightly) the king wanted the archbishop out of the way, set off for England, and brutally murdered Becket in his cathedral on December 29, 1170. He was buried next day in the crypt.

Becket’s murder shocked whole Europe. In death he became even more influential than in life and came to be seen as a martyr for the cause of freedom of the Church. It forced the king to call off his plans to change Church’s criminal laws. Following reported miracles at his tomb, Becket was canonised in 1173. His shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a major centre for pilgrimage in Europe for 400 years until its destruction by Henry II’s distant successor Henry VIII’s army in 1538. It was visited by thousands of pilgrims like those described in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387). Even today visitors flock this magnificent cathedral and reflect at the site of Becket’s martyrdom. A sculpture of the assassins’ swords is suspended on the wall of the north transept where the archbishop was murdered.

Becket’s murder even traumatised Henry. He denied that he had ever intended him to be killed but admitted he had spoken angrily about him. He did public penance for Becket’s death by walking to the cathedral barefoot, keeping an all-night vigil at the tomb, and allowing himself being whipped by the monks.

King Henry was intelligent, determined, able administrator, and a great reformer. Though overall, his reign (1154-89) was successful, he failed in one thing - dealing with Thomas Becket. Consequently, his public image remains a negative one and he is mainly remembered as the king who murdered his archbishop.

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