Saturday, December 29, 2012

If All the Swords in England





 O God, who gave the Martyr Saint Thomas Becket the courage to give up his life for the sake of justice, grant, through his intercession, that, renouncing our life for the sake of Christ in this world, we may find it in heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever-Collect for the Feast of St Thomas Becket
Stained glass in Cantaur. Cathedral
Thomas Becket was a Norman born in London in ca. 1120. His father was a textile merchant and property owner of sorts, and was involved in the local Norman governance of London. Thomas studied the trivium and quadrivium under the Canons Regular at Merton Priory, but was forced to take a position in business, and then in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury after his father suffered financial trouble. As a result of his success, Thomas was named to several ecclesiastical offices by Theobald, and Theobald nominated him to King Henry II to become Lord Chancellor of England. Thomas was responsible for collecting the tradition revenue owed to the king; Henry sent his son to live with Becket, an unusual move considering that noble children usually went to other noble households. Evidently, the two had a strong relationship, with Henry considering Thomas Becket to be a better father.


In 1162, the see at Canterbury became vacant, and Thomas was successfully appointed to the position by the King. In May of that year, he was approved, on June 2 he was ordained to the priesthood, and the next day he was consecrated bishop. Henry seems to have thought Thomas's first loyalties would have been to the crown, as Henry desired to reassert royal supremacy over the Church. However, he apparently didn't take careful note of Thomas's growth in pious penitential practices around this time. He drank infrequently, and often practiced various forms of self-mortification (I believe he wore a hair-shirt from time to time, and made his sleep uncomfortable.)

Several controversies quickly arose between the Church and king. The largest involved the clergy who had committed crimes. Henry wished for clerics to be tried in secular courts, and felt that this undercut royal control and law and order. However, Thomas felt all clergy should be held accountable to ecclesiastical law only, even those clerics who only held minor orders. Henry's beef stemmed from the fact that up to 1/5 of the English male population at this time were enrolled in minor orders, and in some ways this might have been justified; later in the 12th century, at Paris especially, a bad habit developed among the university students, who abused their clerical status to get away with crimes. On the other hand, his desire to control the Church was uncalled for.

Cantaur. Cathedral
The dispute bubbled throughout 1163. The bishops of England in a meeting with the King at Westminster were completely behind Becket, and said that ancient customs in conflict with canon law would be disobeyed. This angered Henry, who then dismissed Thomas of all previously-bestowed honors. Then, in 1164, it boiled over at Clarendon Castle, where Henry bullied the bishops into accepting a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. A compromise of sorts was reached, where laicized clergy could be then tried in the secular court, after being thrown about between the ecclesiastical court and King's Court. Recognizing both  the injustice and infringement of the liberty of the Church, Becket refused to sign the document, though he was willing to agree to the substance of the articles.

Becket attempted a now-illegal escape to France, and was brought to a royal trial for charges related to the his seizure of some land belonging to an important noble family. After his conviction, Becket fled to the Continent, and Henry's edicts forced his supporters into exile. King Louis VII of France protected many of  them at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny. Over the next several years, Becket excommunicated many advisers and clergy loyal to Henry, and for you budding canon lawyers, the various appeals to the pope led to a formal appeals process for excommunication being developed.

Henry, however, didn't care to avoid Becket's wrath. The Archbishop of York crowned his son Henry as the Young King, contrary to the authority of Canterbury to crown (Canterbury is the most ancient diocese of England, as it is where St. Augustine of Kent landed in the 6th century.) Pope Alexander III allowed Becket to threaten an interdict, and that was too much for Henry, who was forced to compromise on the Church's terms. Becket was finally able to return to England, but before he did so, he excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Salisbury and London (for the second time each it seems). Becket offered to absolve the latter, but said absolution was reserved to the Holy See for the archbishop.

Altar marking the spot of his martyrdom
At this news, Henry is reputed to have said, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Well, four knights took him quite literally, and traveled from Normandy across the channel to Canterbury Cathedral. They ordered him to go with them to Winchester, and he refused, proceeding to go sing Vespers. He is reported to have said, "If all the swords in England were pointed against my head, your threats would not move me." The knights went back outside for their weapons, and rushed in for the kill. His dying words were "I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace."

Thomas Becket was quickly venerated as a martyr, and canonized in 1173. The Protestant Revolt led to the destruction of the shrine, which today is only marked by a candle. His bones are missing; some claim the monks hid them from 'the Royal Commission on the Destruction of Shrines,' but it is not known where they might have been placed in the cathedral or where they might have been moved. Otherwise they have been destroyed, on the orders of Henry VIII (Is it any wonder why they attacked his shrine, besides their lousy theology? Nah. The English Reformation was just a more widespread and successful version of what Henry II had attempted.)

Gothic Dreams: Manuscript depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket
From a 12th Cent. manuscript 


In 1172, Henry vowed to go on crusade, and to allow petitions to the Holy Father from the faithful in England (these were forbidden for the most part under the Constitution of Clarendon).  The excommunications and suspensions from church offices were largely confirmed; eventually the punishments were lifted, after they cleared themselves of involvement in the murder. In 1174, Henry performed a very public penance at Canterbury Cathedral;  it had been shuttered for a year so that it might be cleansed, and the sacraments were not celebrated there. This involved five blows from a rod by each of the bishops present, followed by three each from the eighty monks of the cathedral.

Also if the current monarch and 'Archbishop of Canterbury' are reading this (hey, it's worth a shot): GIVE BACK OUR CATHEDRALS, ABBEYS, AND CHURCHES. Then, give us restitution for what you destroyed, and help us find the relics that have been moved or stolen since you stole the churches. Also, I find it highly ironic that you venerate his martyrdom, however grudgingly, even though he and the other English saints would have been horrified at the idea of a separate Anglican church.

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