A blessed continuing ‘merrie Christmas!’ to all our readers, as we celebrate all these twelve days, right up to the Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord. So keep those lights and candles burning, the decorations up! Christmas has just begun!
Today is the memorial of Saint Thomas à Becket, the glorious bishop of Canterbury – in its own glory days before its usurpation by the Anglican reformers, which is to say, by the State and her minions. Thomas was martyred 850 years ago on this day in 1170, a century after the great cathedral’s completion, offering his life for the rights of the Church, as independent of the King (see my reflection on the diminution of this truth in our current crisis – we need a new Becket!). Henry II’s thirst for power encroached upon the Church’s lawful autonomy, to the resistance of his former chancellor and boon companion, Thomas, whom he had appointed bishop of the primary see of England. Henry thought that the carousing Thomas would be a pliant tool in his royal hands – but how wrong he was. Thomas underwent a deep conversion upon his ordination as bishop, and actually took his spiritual duties seriously, as though, one day, he were to be asked to give an account for them before His Maker and Judge.
The King – as is the wont of most petty tyrants – could not stand to be contradicted, and Thomas was exiled for seven years before an uneasy truce was arranged. Warned of a trap, he nevertheless courageously returned to his see and rightful place, and would not budge an inch on the Church’s fundamental rights. Eventually, the king’s simmering resentment burst forth in ungoverned anger and harsh words burst forth, perhaps under the influence of too much mulled wine:
What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?
And, as the story goes, four knights took this as an implicit command to deal with the bishop as they saw fit, violating the very sanctuary of God.
Thomas’ brutal murder and martyrdom before the altar was a sign of the Church’s unbending courage, independence against the folly of kings, and Henry knew he had committed a grave sin – for which Henry repented publicly, having himself scourged in full view by the monks.
But what Henry II began, another Henry – the eighth by that name, and less repentant than his predecessor – would bring to completion four centuries afterward in the bitter fruit of the Protestant ‘reformation’. As a definitive sign of the end of what was once England, Henry VIII had the shrine of Becket – the destination of the Canterbury Tales pilgrims, and the most popular holy site of England, along with Walsingham – destroyed in 1541, and the martyr’s relics dispersed to the four winds, which is about where the faith of England is now going, or gone.
Ironic that Thomas à Becket is now honoured as a saint in the Anglican communion, and I must confess I find it rather odd that the great English poet Thomas Stearns Eliot could write a brilliant dramatic play on the murder, yet not see the deeper issues at work, that Becket’s death presaged the loss of the Faith in England, that Anglicanism has not the foundation to withstand the assaults of secularism and, now, Islamism, and is now in its own death throes. There is only one, true Church, as countless martyrs before and after the bishop Thomas saw so clearly, and for which they were willing to suffer and die.
See the analysis of Becket’s complex character by Dan Hitchens.
And, for lighter reading, feel free to peruse my thoughts on Canterbury upon my pilgrimage there a couple of summers ago, when one could travel and pilgrimage freely. Oh, that such days may arrive again, before our Saviour does.
Saint Thomas à Becket, ora pro nobis!