Wednesday, 20 March 2013

This Troublesome Priest

The young boy from Cheapside who grew up to be the nemesis of the King of England, and later, a Saint. The life and achievements of St. Thomas Becket are impressive no matter the times. Just as famous as his deeds however, was his infamous end...

The Angevin Empire at its height
Map created by the author
The twelfth century was a tumultuous time for the young Kingdom of England. Fifty two years before 1118, the year of Thomas' birth, the Saxon dynasty had been overthrown forever, replaced with the iron rule of the Normans. The lives of many, on both sides of the Channel, were changed forever. Around this time, Gilbert Becket decided to move his family from the village of Thierville in Normandy to London, there to seek a new life in the new Norman domain. By the time his son Thomas was born, he was a wealthy and respected London merchant and landowner. Young Thomas spent many a summer on the Sussex estates of the family friend Richer de L'Aigle, whiling away the sunny days hunting and hawking, fine pursuits of a young man. Schooled at Merton Priory and later Grammar School in London, young Thomas received a fine education for the day, thanks to his father's success in business. But dark times were coming. The peaceful days of King Henry I were soon overthrown in a ruinous civil war. After the tragic shipwreck which claimed the life of Prince William Adelin, the broken hearted Henry was left with only his daughter, Matilda, as his hope for an heir. Long did the King try to persuade the English barons to accept her, the first woman to reign in her own right in the history of England. Matilda, whose husband the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V had died not long before, was soon wed to Geoffrey of Anjou, so that Henry I might gain an alliance with the mighty County of Anjou in France. To the relief of the King, the couple produced a male heir, Henry. But when the King died in 1135, the ever suspicious Norman lords refused to acknowledge Matilda, throwing in their lot for Stephen, the Count of Blois, triggering a near twenty year devastating civil war in England between the forces loyal to Matilda, and those loyal to Stephen, in a period infamously known to history as The Anarchy. The war laid waste to vast swathes of Albion, and it was in this destruction that Gilbert Becket once prosperous trade crumbled. Young Thomas took up a job as a clerk to help the family, and soon ended up in the employ of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most powerful avatar of Christendom in the realm.

King Henry II of England
Image taken from the Manuscipt of the
Historia Anglorum of Matthew Parris
Escaping the turmoil that England had been hurled into, young Thomas marched forth as an emissary of Canterbury to Rome, spending many years in Europe learning the intricacies of many laws of the Church. After what seemed an age without end, there seemed to be hope at last for the dystopic British Isles. In December 1154, after a generation of endless war, the Norman dynasty lay in flames, when Henry the son of Empress Matilda landed on the southern coast of England. On the 19th of December, he was crowned King Henry II of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Duke of Aquitaine and Lord of Ireland, alongside his new Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. The House of Normandy was over. The House of Plantagenet, a dynasty that would rule England longer than any other, even to this day, had begun. By conquest and by marriage, King Henry now ruled one of the mightiest realms in Europe, a vast state known as the Angevin Empire. In those bygone days, the kings of England ruled more of France than the King of France did. The lawlessness of the Anarchy was over, and once again the people of England enjoyed peace. With order restored, young Thomas returned triumphantly to the British Isles, and was granted the honour of Archdeacon of Canterbury, and offices in Lincoln Cathedral and St. Paul's Cathedral. The merchant's son was rising rapidly within the ranks of Feudal England...

Thomas Becket Enthroned
Nottingham Alabaster
With all the tenacity and determination that so characterised him, Becket hurled himself into his mission, impressing Archbishop Theobald with his whirlwind efficiency. Such was his drive, within a year the Archbishop recommended Becket directly to the King himself. Further up the rungs of the ladder of state did young Thomas go, when the King appointed him Lord Chancellor, arguably the most powerful minister of the kingdom, and custodian of the Great Seal of the Realm, a spectacular honour for one of such relatively humble birth. Fro seven years Thomas shone once more as comptroller of the King's finances, gaining the King's trust to such a degree that the heir to the throne the young Prince Henry was even sent to live in Becket's household. It was once remarked that the Prince once said that Becket became more a father to him than the King himself. When Theobald died in 1162, the mightiest Bishopric in England fell vacant, and to many there was no doubt as to whom should succeed. A deeply pious man at heart, Becket cast aside the Chancellorship and took the cloth on the 3rd of June, taking vows of asceticism, and pledging to champion the cause of Christendom in England. Storm clouds began to gather between the King and his new Archbishop, dismayed as Henry was that Becket had put the Church before State. It began with the rejection of the authority of secular courts over the clergy by Becket, which challenged the power of the state. Alarmed at this sudden thinking, King Henry conspired to turn the other Bishops against him. Yet rumours of treachery ran common, and in 1164, the King decreed, near four hundred years before Henry VIII, that England would not automatically bow to the wishes of the Pope of Rome (due to his fame, one often considers Henry VIII as the man who grappled with the Pope - the truth is that the Kings of England had wrestled with Rome for centuries by the time the Reformation took place). It took all of Henry's charisma and majesty with words to sway the gathered courts at Clarendon, but carry the day he did. Archbishop Becket however, refused to sign the heretical treaty. The board was set. Thomas Becket was ordered to present himself before the royal council on charges of contempt of royal authority. The Council, jealous of Becket's upstart power, convicted him, and the Archbishop was banished from the realm.

Evading the King's men, Becket fled to France where he was given sanctuary by King Louis VII in the monastery of Pontigny. For near two years he resisted in exile, excommunicating his foes in the English Church, for no precedent existed for removing the Archbishop of Canterbury from power. Meanwhile, King Henry seethed. The looming eyes of Pope Alexander III were ever watchful, but when Becket threatened the King of England himself with excommunication (a fate worse than death in the medieval world), the King's frustration turned to anger. When the Pope agreed a truce, Becket returned to England, immune to earthly shackles, and continued to excommunicate all in his path. When he heard that Prince Henry had been crowned in his absence, an act only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform, he excommunicated the Archbishop of York.

King Henry was in Normandy when the news reached him. As news of rifts in his vast empire fell upon his ears, a cry of rage shook the hall, with words that to this day have been in dispute:

                 " What miserable fools and traitors hath I nourished and
                    raised in my household, who grant their Lord be so trifled
                   by so low born a cleric! "
                           - KING HENRY II ON BECKET

Some say his fury was stronger still, and that the King roared in frustration:

                 " Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?! "
                          - KING HENRY II's LETHAL WISH

The Murder of Thomas Becket
English Psalter of 1250,
currently in the Walters Art Gallery,
Legendary was the wrath of the Plantagenet Kings, and all who looked on feared what irrational deeds anger would inspire in the King. Standing there that day were four knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Richard le Breton and Reginald FitzUrse, all eager to serve and please their King. Mistaking the King's fiery words for royal command, the four rode forth from court to carry out their terrible deed. On sunset of the fifth day of Christmas 1170, the four knights arrived in Canterbury town, their eyes set on the towering cathedral. As evening fell on Canterbury, the clergy and the Archbishop were celebrating the Vespers service. A certain Subdeacon of the cathedral beckoned the knights in, a name since blackened in history. The monks loyal to the Archbishop moved to bar the doors, but their hand was stayed by Becket. "'Tis not proper", spake he, "that a house of prayer,a church of Christ, be made a fortress". Seizing their chance, the knights burst in in full armour, sharpened swords gleaming in the failing light. "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor of the King and Kingdom", one demanded to the congregation. Silence reigned. "Where is the Archbishop!" they cried aloud. At this Becket rose to his feet and faced his foe. "The righteous will be like a bold lion and free from fear", said he. Into the evenlight he moved, "Here I am, not a traitor of the King but a priest; why do you seek me?". At the altar Archbishop Becket stopped, and turned to face the image of the holy confessor St. Benedict. The four men of steel bore down upon him, "Absolve and restore to communion those thou hast excommunicated, and reconcile those who hath been banished", the knights commanded. "No penance hath been made, so I shall not absolve them", the Archbishop coolly replied. "Then you", spake they, "will now die and will suffer what thou hast earned". "And I", said he, "am prepared to die for my Lord, so that in my blood the Church will attain liberty and peace; but in the name of Almighty God I forbid that thou striketh my men, cleric or layman should he be".

"With rapid motion they laid sacrilegious hands on him", and moved to drag him from the sanctum, for to strike down a man of the cloth was sin enough, but to do so on hallowed ground was the devil's work indeed. But Archbishop Becket was loath to release his grip upon the stone pillar. Seeing Reginald coming near, Archbishop Becket spoke his last command. "Touch me not, Reginald, you who oweth me faith and obedience, you who foolishly follow these men". A burning rage did this spark in the knight, who rounded on Becket, "I owe thee neither faith nor obedience when faced with fealty I owe my King". Seeing Doom coming now, Thomas Becket lowered in prayer when Reginald's blade sang through the air. With one mighty blow, as the heavenly crown was laid on the Archbishop's head, his earthly one was hewn by steel. A second blow met its mark, but not yet over was it. On the third strike he sank to his knees, "for the name of Jesus I am ready to embrace death", said he. So forceful was the knight's blow, the blade of the sword was shattered upon the cold stone below. An accomplice in the Church, loyal to the King, spoke the last. "We can leave this place, knights, he will rise no more".

The Becket Casket
Reliquary made c. 1180-1190,
Currently in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Soon after news of the impious deed spread like wildfire through Europe, and with it admiration for the pious Becket. Crowds across the continent chanted his name and called him martyr. two years later, Pope Alexander III declared him a saint. The four assassins fled north to Knaresborough Castle, and holed up for a year. All four were excommunicated by the Pope, yet journeyed to Rome, braving threats of lynching, to plead before the Vicar of Christ. Pope Alexander was merciful, and decreed that each man serve penance for fourteen years in the Holy Lands. To Outremer were they henceforth banished. But it was King Henry who was racked with grief and guilt at the horrible deed. Never truly meaning his death, after all, they had once been friends, the King fell into a desperate sorrow, and a fear for his immortal soul. On the 12th July, 1174, the King performed an unprecedented humility. By the Church of St. Dunstans, the King of England set out barefoot and clad in sackcloth, and undertook his pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, whipped along the road to redemption. The monks, afraid of relic thieves, buried Becket beneath the floor in the East of the Cathedral. Fifty years later, King Henry III, grandson of Henry II, gave them a lavish new setting in pride of place within the Cathedral. There they regally sat until they were destroyed by order of King Henry VIII in 1538. The most intact relic survives today in the so called Becket Casket. Canterbury has ever since been a great pilgrimage site in Christendom, with images of the Saint all over the Christian World. Quite a legacy for the boy from Cheapside...

United Kingdom

The Biography
Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold
(A grand tale of Becket's life, easy to read and with links to the original accounts)

United States

The Biography
Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel
(A grand tale of Becket's life, easy to read and with links to the original accounts)