The martyrdom of St Thomas from the St Thomas Altarpiece by Meister Francke,
commissioned in 1424 by the Guild of English Merchants in Hamburg
Born in London of a wealthy Norman family in 1117, Thomas was educated at Merton Abbey and in Paris. For a while he was a financial clerk; then he joined the staff of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also a close personal friend of King Henry II of England, and from 1155 served as his chancellor.
When Theobald died in 1162, Henry saw an opportunity to exercise control over the Church and detemined to have his chancellor elected to the Diocese. Thomas saw the dangers of the king’s plan and warned Henry that, if he became archbishop, his first loyalty would be to God and not the king. He told Henry, “Several things you do in prejudice of the rights of the Church make me fear that you would require of me what I could not agree to.” What Thomas feared soon came to pass.
In fact, following his consecration, Thomas, who had a real conversion to Christ, became a champion of the Church. To the surprise of all who knew him, he adopted a spiritual and austere way of life in near-monastic simplicity. He celebrated or attended Mass daily, studied Scripture, distributed alms to the needy, and visited the sick. He lived by Gospel values and rejected Henry’s claim of authority over the Church of England. Eventually he was sent into exile and spent six years in France. He decided that he had to return when the Archbishop of York and six other bishops crowned the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, in contravention of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rights and authority.
Returning to England with letters of support from the Pope, Thomas immediately excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the six other bishops. On Christmas Day 1170 he publicly denounced them from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral. These were the actions that prompted Henry’s infamous angry words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Four knights took the king at his word and travelled to Canterbury where they slew Thomas. According to eyewitness accounts, Thomas processed calmly into the cathedral and refused to bar the doors against his attackers. When the four rushed in yelling, “Where is Thomas the traitor?”, he replied, “Here I am. No traitor, but a priest of God.” As the first blow was struck, he said, “For the name of Jesus and in defence of the Church, I am willing to die.” He was hacked to death between the altar of Our Lady and the altar of St Benedict.
All Europe was outraged by the murder of Thomas in his own cathedral at the behest of the king. Henry was universally condemned and forced to do public penance.
Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173.
O Lord God,
who gavest to thy servant Thomas Becket
grace to put aside all earthly fear
and be faithful even unto death:
grant that we, caring not for worldly esteem,
may fight against evil,
uphold thy rule,
and serve thee to our life’s end;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.