29 December 2009
"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"--these historically stylized, if not accurate, words of King Henry II of England set in motion the four knights that brought the white robe of martyrdom to Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on 29 December 1170 in the Canterbury Cathedral.
Saint Thomas was born in London in about 1118, and received an education in civil and canon law from Merton Priory and abroad. In about 1141, tradition tells that Saint Thomas entered the service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Becoming the most trusted of the Archbishop's clerks, Saint Thomas was ordained as a deacon in 1154. At about the same time King Stephen died and his successor, King Henry II, took Saint Thomas as his chancellor, making the young Thomas one of the most powerful subjects of the king.
At first, King Henry II and Saint Thomas were very close, spending a good deal of time together collaborating on the needs of the kingdom. History records that they both had the prosperity of the kingdom at heart. However, in his service as chancellor, Saint Thomas on several ocassions risked the king's displeasure, departing from him on views of his authority over the church.
When Theobald died, King Henry II decided that Saint Thomas should become archbishop, even as Saint Thomas alarmingly resisted and told the King that as archbishop he must oppose the king's plans for the church. However, the king was unpersuaded, and with the assistance of Cardinal Henry of Pisa, Saint Thomas consented to becoming archbishop and was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162, and consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury the next day, 3 June 1162.
While Saint Thomas had secretly practiced austerity as chancellor, his austerity became outwardly apparent after his consecration as archbishop. Saint Thomas was reported to have gone barefoot to receive the envoy that brought him the pallium from Rome. All lavish displays as chancellor were rejected by Saint Thomas, along with the title itself by the end of 1162.
As archbishop, a rift soon developed between the king and Saint Thomas. One of the openings of the rift involved the jurisdiction of civil courts over clerics. In 1164 King Henry II presided over an assembly at Clarendon Palace, the result of which were the Constitutions of Claredon that sought to weaken the church's connection to Rome and reduce the independence of clerics. While other bishops were agreeable to the Constitutions of Claredon, Saint Thomas refused to sign the documents evidencing his consent. There followed greater turmoil between the king and the saint. Saint Thomas was tried before the royal court, but stormed out during the trial, fleeing to France where he was received by King Louis VII. Saint Thomas spent two years in exile at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, before returning to England.
In principle, Saint Thomas wanted to be able to exercise the perogatives of the Church, namely excommunication, and the king wanted the bishops to submit to his authority on such matters.
In 1170, the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury held the coronation of King Henry II's second son in York, although coronation was privilege reserved to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In response, Saint Thomas excommunicated all three bishops. The excommunicated bishops fled to Normandy, and when the news reached Henry II, he is reported to have raised his head from his sick bed and uttered those now famous words--"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Interpreting the question as a royal command, four of Henry's knights set out to Canterbury.
Upon reaching Canterbury Cathedral, the knights attempted to bring Saint Thomas to Winchester to account for his actions. When Saint Thomas refused to go with the knights they retrieved their weapons from outside the Cathedral and killed Saint Thomas inside the Cathedral by cutting off the crown of his head.
Shortly after his murder, large numbers of pilgrims began retracing Saint Thomas' last journey from Southwark to Canterbury. The pilgrimages brought economic prosperity to Southwark and led, in part, to the quick canonization of Saint Thomas by papal bull in 1173.
On 12 July 1174, King Henry II did public penance and was scourged at Saint Thomas' tomb. Many miracles are recorded at Saint Thomas' tomb and for the remainder of the Middle Ages, the Shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury was one of the wealthiest and most popular in Europe. Saint Thomas' remains are believed, however, to have been destroyed in 1538 as a part of the violent suppression of the Church by King Henry VIII.
IMAGE: the martyrdom of Saint Thomas, from the Saint Thomas altarpiece commissioned in 1424 from Meister Francke.