Thursday, December 29, 2016

Feast of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop & martyr

File:English - Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket - Walters W3415V - Open Reverse.jpg
Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, ca. 1250, at the Walters Art Museum.

Today is the Fifth Day of the Octave of Christmas and is the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, Martyr and Archbishop of Canterbury, a champion of those in the Church that would resist the overreach of secular power into the sacred realm.

 In 1154AD, King Stephen of England died, and the young son of Queen Matilda, Stephen's rival, succeeded him as King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189).  He ruled England and, thanks to his marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine, about half of France.  He appointed a good friend, Thomas Becket, Chancellor of England.

When a vacancy in the see of Canterbury opened in 1162, King Henry II had Thomas Becket named to the post.  The king had high hopes of his friend's ability to conform Church policy to that of the crown.

Henry II wanted complete submission of the clergy – but Thomas Becket refused, along with the other English bishops.  Nevertheless, in a show of good faith, the Archbishop agreed that the bishops would abide by the customs of the Kingdom in good faith.

The King, however, demanded in January 1164 that the bishops sign the “Constitutions of Clarendon” which, among other things, made clergy subject to royal courts, made travel out of England by clergy subject to royal approval, and designated that vacant diocesan monies should go to the crown!  Pope Alexander III (reigned 1159-1181) condemned the problematic parts of these Constitutions in August 1164.  Archbishop Becket refused to approve of these royal measures.

Henry went after Becket, and began to trump up charges to break him.  The Archbishop, for the sake of safety, departed for France in November 1164.  King Henry then wrote to King Louis VII (reigned 1137-1180) of France asking that he give no comfort to Becket, who "was" Archbishop of Canterbury.  King Louis replied asking, “who was Archbishop of Canterbury – who deposed him?” For he, the King of France, had no power “to depose the least of the clerks in my realm.”  Louis VII welcomed the Archbishop [Interesting to note is that Louis VII had earlier been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine; a union that was annulled].  Both the Pope and the French king supported St. Thomas, but the exile continued, and for some years.

 By July 1169, Pope Alexander III demanded that King Henry II allow Archbishop Becket be allowed to return to his see and to England.  Henry II ignored this command – and even crowned a son illegally that spring of 1170.

Pope Alexander III threatened immediate interdict that summer of 1170 if Henry did not reconsider.  Henry did, then, finally gave way, stating that the “thief shall have peace” on July 21 1170.  For his part, Louis VII, ruing the departure of the good Archbishop: “if only ours!”

That winter, four knights of King Henry would overhear him lamenting, "who will rid me of this meddlesome priest."  Whether the king intended them to take his words so literally is a matter of some debate.  What is not a matter of debate is that these men proceeded to Canterbury Cathedral to kill the Archbishop.

On December 29, 1170, the famous deed occurs: Thomas Becket was cut down at the altar of his cathedral of Canterbury.

The King, to his credit, responded on News Year’s day, 1171 with wails of lamentation and repentance.  The Pope forbid him to enter a church on Holy Thursday.  King Henry II went on a barefoot pilgrimage to the tomb of Becket in 1174 with a hair shirt, and was flogged by bishops, an abbot, and eighty monks.  He was never the same again – he was a haunted man.

The murderers repented, too, and went to Rome to beg the pope’s forgiveness – all joined the Knights Templar and died on Crusade.

Henry II’s family was a wreck – in 1173 his sons rebelled against him with the help of his wife, Eleanor.  He captured her in that same year, and would keep her in prison for the next eleven years (to 1185).

When the schism of Henry VIII took place some centuries later, they made a particular point of visiting the tomb of St. Thomas Becket, and not for edifying purposes.


["ThomasBecketcandle". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia]

For more on St. Thomas, you might consult these links:
Old Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Thomas Becket

Catholic Saints Info: St. Thomas Becket

Seasonal Customs (Fisheaters): St. Thomas Becket

Merry Christmas & Live well!

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