An Apologia for St Thomas of Canterbury
Becket's victory is of crucial importance for the unity of the Church and for keeping England within the folds of the Church, at least until her tragic break with Rome in the 16th century. Thus Z. N. Brooke says that for Thomas Becket "the freedom of the English Church, he repeats again and again, means the freedom to obey the Pope, to be under papal government as the rest of the Church was; he is fighting not only the battle of the English Church, but of the whole Church and the Pope" (The English Church and the Papacy, p209). Therefore, St Thomas ought to stand as a beacon for all Catholic Christians... One thinks of the Catholics of China who still suffer from the tyranny of the State and who are still not free. Were it not for Thomas Becket, English Catholics in the 12th century would have fallen prey to the ambitions of king Henry II.
However, as we know: "the assassination of a metropolitan in his own cathedral while acting with the authority of the pope was a deed of sacrilege that produced universal horror both in England and on the Continent... the public revulsion demanded a public penance of the most severe kind, and this [the king] performed - first at Avranches in May 1172 when he received absolution from the papal legates, and then at Canterbury in July 1174, eighteen months after the solemn canonization of Thomas as a martyr by Pope Alexander III" (Butler's Life of the Saints - December, p.228).
Nothing now remains of the Shrine or the saint's relics; the Corona at Canterbury Cathedral, the highest site in the great church where the Shrine stood, is now incongruously vacant. Chaucer's famous 'Canterbury Tales' added lustre to the cult of Thomas Becket, reminding us that this was once the most popular place of pilgrimage in England and almost certainly placed England on the ecclesiastical pilgrimage map!
In 1935, T. S. Eliot immortalised the story of St Thomas' martyrdom in his riveting play: 'Murder in the Cathedral' and this great saint, an icon of the trials of the Church in England, remains a powerful figure in the popular imagination and he is still patron of the English diocesan clergy.
Sadly, those who champion Henry VIII's cause, those who believe that the Church should be subject in every way to the State, those who have a secular agenda and see the Pope (and thus the Vatican) as a "meddling priest" who interferes in affairs of State and politics, unsurprisingly despise St Thomas of Canterbury and all he stands for. Like Henry VIII, they seek to denigrate and destroy the cult of St Thomas, labelling him as a traitor and a rebel. But history has shown such attempts are in vain. Indeed, Thomas' murder only established his cult and even king Henry's attempts were unsuccessful - people still flock to Canterbury, if only to gaze at the empty space and the site of his death, above which hangs a menacing and jagged swordlike sculpture (on left).
On 27 December 2005, the newspapers announced a list of Britain's top ten villians and we were aghast to discover that St Thomas Becket was singled out as one of them! John Hudson, Professor of Legal History at St Andrew's University nominated the saint as "the worst character that the 12th century could offer" because he "divided England" and "was a founder of gesture politics. He was also greedy." The ignoble professor then said that Thomas' martyrdom, which involved the crown of his head being sliced off, was "a fitting grisly end." At least the professor admits that he and his ilk harbour a "prejudice" against St Thomas and it is clear that his prejudice has jaundiced his point of view and any sense of academic integrity.
One has to ask how St Thomas, if he had indeed so grievously divided England became such a popular saint within 4 years of his death. There is clear evidence of a cult of the saint and his Shrine remained as popular as ever until destroyed by another egoistic and power-hungry king. As Edwin Jones notes: "At the time of the Reformation, Thomas Becket had been for more than three centuries one of the most popular of English saints and thousands of pilgrims from home and abroad had visited his shrine at Canterbury" (op. cit., p151).
Moreover, one ought to consider the nature of the opponent St Thomas was facing. Roy Strong, notes in 'Coronation - a history of kingship and the British monarchy' that King Henry II was unprecedented in the powers and titles he arrogated to the Crown. Thus: "the struggle between [Thomas] and the king was to produce the most extreme claims for theocratic kingship, ones which based the royal control of the Church on the anointment of the king with chrism" (p46). As such, the power-hungry king, the first of the Plantagenet line, was trumped up in this astonishing way: "... he is not called a layman, since he is the anointed of the Lord [Christus Domini] and through grace he is God. He is the supreme-ruler, the chief shepherd, master, defender and instructor of the Holy Church, lord over his brethren and worthy to be 'adored' by all, since he is chief and supreme prelate" (Tract 24a, quoted by Roy Strong, ibid, p48). Hence, we have here a king who had clearly overstepped his historical, theological and natural boundaries and it was left to St Thomas to resist his ambition and greed. It is a bitter irony that professor Hudson should accuse St Thomas of greed when it is evident that the lust for power, wealth and control pervaded Henry II's mindset.
In addition, the English and those who may be inclined to side with Henry II ought to take into account the fact that for the Plantagenet kings, England was merely a part of a larger empire, to be used and abused for the selfish purposes of the Crown. In the year of Thomas' martyrdom, 1170, the king spent 38 weeks in various parts of France and only 14 weeks in England. This pattern was to continue throughout the Plantagenet rule, clear evidence of divided loyalties and interests. As such, to suggest that St Thomas "divided England" in 1170 is disingenuous and ridiculous! There was no England, as we know it, to divide - she was merely part of a larger realm - called "the greatest continental empire in Western Europe since Charlemagne" by Roy Strong - to be milked at the (Francophile) king's pleasure! The true Frenchness of the king is revealed in the fact that he is buried in Fontverault in France. As Norman Davies says: "The idea that these people were English is a later fiction. There is no evidence that any of them could speak a word of the English language" (The Isles, p339).
So why Professor Hudson makes so much of a king who treated England as a French colony is a mystery to me. Rather he ought to exult in the fame and glory that St Thomas of Canterbury and his cult brought to England!
The 12th century also saw the reign of King Richard the Lion-Heart and the coronation of King John of Robin Hood fame. Duped by propaganda, Hudson does not see fit to name either of these as villains of the 12th century. Granted that John was only crowned in 1199, the fact remains that Richard I was a disasterous king of England, neglecting the realm and draining the coffers. He was king for 10 years but spent less than six months in his kingdom; he requisitioned the entire wool-crop of the Cistercians to pay for his ransom and taxed his subjects mercilessly. For laying such needless burdens on the people, often for his Crusader bloodlust, and abandoning his duty - to say nothing of his solemn oath - as king, Richard I must surely rank as a villain. By comparison, the sainted Thomas was described by the historian John Lingard as "a martyr to what he deemed to be his duty" and Butler's (in a fair assessment) says: "Thomas had not lived like a saint, but he died like one. A man of many parts, he sought glory; in the end, by courage and self-denial, he found it." Therefore, in his assessment, I fear John Hudson is sorely mistaken and firmly in error.
In the final assessment, perhaps the best understanding of the martyrdom of St Thomas belongs to T. S. Eliot:
"Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice... A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of man. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom."
Surely this is why St Thomas of Canterbury is still beloved and venerated by Catholics the world over: he is a true martyr, a saint who ultimately fought to the death for the rights of the Church - and thus the ordinary Christian - over the tyranny of the State, politics and ideology. This great saint did not shun his duty but embraced the Cross, telling his monks of Canterbury: "Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors! [for] The Church shall protect her own, in her own way..." And truly the Church did so by glorifying St Thomas with the martyr's palm.
May his dying words be his perennial prayer for us and especially for all persecuted Christians, be they in China, Zimbabwe, Israel or other less obvious nations:
"Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church." Amen!
The images above are of a mosaic of St Thomas' martyrdom from Westminster Cathedral, a stained glass image of the saint from our parish church in Cambridge and the site of his murder in Canterbury Cathedral.