Beckett Essay, Research Paper
St. Thomas Becket died for the rights of the Church, under the reigning king, Henry II. He was martyred while he was giving mass and he was enabled to be willing to die for the faith that he loved. Thomas stands for the principle of God against Caesar. Somewhere between these two points, between these respective duties, comes a dividing line, where the territories meet. A man of conscience must decide on which side he will stand. It is the old conflict between Church and State. It was on that difficult borderline that Thomas was called upon to live and die. What he resisted in those early years, other men did not see or understand, but he foresaw the dangers ahead that eventually overwhelmed the Church in England.
Thomas was born into a Norman family and was baptized the same day. All remarked upon his purity of life. He loved the lovely things of God, the noble horse, the swift flying falcon, and God looked upon him with pleasure. So, from about 1142, he was employed as a clerk at the court of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Because of his noble bearing, his shrewdness and capability, the archbishop himself noticed him. Thomas encountered the highest in the land, even became a close friend of the king himself, who like the archbishop took a fancy to him. In 1154, while still quite young, Thomas was ordained a deacon and appointed archdeacon of Canterbury. In this position, Archbishop Theobald used him as a negotiator with the Crown. The following year (1155), Thomas was made Chancellor of England, a post in which he loyally served Henry II for seven years as diplomat, diplomat, and soldier. Thomas’s personal efficiency, lavish entertainment, and support for the king’s interests even, on occasion, against those of the Church, made him an outstanding royal official.
All these dignities were a wonderful ascent, but Thomas rose rapidly to power by his ability and by his magnetic personality, which all who associated with him remarked upon. The state of the country improved greatly under his rule as chancellor; his business was to administer the law and this he did with impartiality to alike, to churchmen as well as laymen. God brought this servant along a strange and long road, preparing gradually the instrument of his design, as he does with every individual according to the plan of life and work he has chosen for him. When the king selected him for his final post, being his close friend, he must have thought he would have an obedient tool, which he could use as he wished. He had made a wrong choice to carry out his evil designs. He wished to curb the power of the Church, to regulate her benefices to make appointments to suit himself, in fact to take from the Church the rights which were peculiarly her own. Though Thomas had outwardly appeared worldly, he loved rather the things of God and His Church. “If you make me Archbishop,” he said, “you will regret it. You say you love me now; well that love will turn to hatred.” When accepting the office of archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he took over the authority–his training and character fitted him for so high a dignity but henceforth he would be a different man; from the day of his election, he completely changed. He had served the king, now he was to serve the King of kings, where glory lies in discipline and humility. To Henry’s amazement and annoyance, Thomas resigned the chancellor ship and was ordained a priest the day before his Episcopal consecration. He had not wished to be made archbishop, but when the office fell to him, his style of life changed radically. As Thomas put it, he changed from being “a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls.” Now that he was a priest he lived as one, putting aside all the costly robes he used as Chancellor; he wore the habit of a monk. Every time he said mass he said it with great devotion and even with tears, as those who saw him testify.
Now that he was archbishop, he intended to carry out the proper duties of his state in life. There were many abuses to rectify and disputes about church lands and property Plus, there were clergy who were not ready to forego their privileges. Two of the major points of conflict with Henry concerned the respective jurisdictions of church and state over clergymen convicted of crimes, and the freedom to appeal to Rome. Because the alienation of church lands, Thomas, who knew the state of affairs better than anyone else, predicted trouble. It also failed to take into account such recent developments as the Gregorian Reform and the investiture controversy. Becket accepted these Constitutions at first, but after understanding their implications, rejected them. At the famous assembly at Northampton in 1164, Thomas faced his opponents. The king, who was also present, lost his temper and showed his real purpose in the former election: “You are my man,” he said, “I raised you from nothing and now you defy me.” “Sir,” said Thomas, “Peter was raised from nothing yet he ruled the Church.” “Yes,” replied the king, “but Peter died for his Lord.” “I, too, will die for him when the time comes,” answered Thomas. “You will not yield to me then?” asked the king. “I will not, Sir,” answered Thomas. Seeing there could be no solution, Thomas thought it best to accept exile rather than any compromise with Henry II over the rights of the Church. Perhaps the king would see reason and then grant the Church her rights. Thomas left the country and took refuge in France, where he remained for over six years. Upon the pope’s recommendation, Thomas entered the Cistercian monastery until Henry threatened to eliminate all Cistercian monks from his realm if they continued to harbor Thomas. Both sides appealed to Pope Alexander III, who tried hard to find an acceptable solution. The conflict grew bitterer as Henry seemed bent on Thomas’s ruin and Thomas censured the king’s supporters and even attempted to obtain an interdict. Henry thought that on his return Thomas would not press his claims. Henry admitted the freedom of appeals to Rome, but kept the real power with himself. Scarcely had Thomas been welcomed back to his community in England when on December 1, 1170, they began to quarrel again. When Henry heard, in Normandy, that the pope had excommunicated the recalcitrant bishops for usurping the rights of the archbishop of Canterbury and that Thomas would not release them until they swore obedience to the pope, he flew into a violent, reckless rage, saying: “Is there no one who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” These were words spoken in anger and not intentional; however, four knights who were with the king, determined to take matters into their own hands. They took ship and crossed to England at once. On December 29, 1170, four knights with a troop of soldiers appeared outside Canterbury Cathedral demanding to see the archbishop. They were determined to murder Archbishop Becket, believing they had the blessing of Henry II to do so. With a few priest attendants, for most of the community of monks was in the church saying vespers, the archbishop was in the palace adjoining, attending to business. They closed the doors behind them to try to save Thomas fate. Thomas forbade them under obedience to close the doors: “A church must not be turned into a castle,” he said. “Why do you behave so?” he asked. “What do you fear?” “They can do naught but what God permits.” The knights with drawn swords forcing their way into the church demanded angrily, “Where is the traitor, where is the archbishop?” “Here I am,” said Thomas, “no traitor but a priest of God.” One of the knights raised his sword as if to strike the holy man, but waited. Then they slew St. Thomas on the steps of his own sanctuary and scattered his brains upon the floor. As successive blows killed him, Thomas repeated the names of those archbishops martyred before him: Saint Denis and Saint Elphege of Canterbury. Then he said, “Into Your hand, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” His last words, according to one eyewitness, were: “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church.” Near to the high altar, where the seat was, upon which he and all his predecessors from time immemorial had been enthroned, he was martyred and gave up his soul to God.
Every step of his martyrdom was linked with that of the Passion of Christ; from the incident in the secluded area, where he was first apprehended with his few companions, to his burial in the tomb. In truth, there is a likeness between the deaths of Master and servant that his early biographers were not slow to use. All Christendom was shocked. Henry was forced to do public penance for the murder of Thomas, including the construction of the monastery at Witham in Somerset. Thomas was not flawless; he was imperious and obstinate, ambitious and violent. The years of exile in France were a time of preparation for the final ordeal. Thomas was a martyr for Christ, most like to him in his death. The solemn translation of the relics to a new shrine behind the high altar took place in the year 1220. St. Thomas was a fearless champion of truth and righteousness, against wicked and unscrupulous men. Even the king made reparation and did penance at his shrine. He teaches us that we must be prepared to face persecution and even death for our faith and for the rights of the Church against the state. In most European countries today the state is supreme–God and religion have no place. We are soldiers of Christ, confirmed and anointed with the holy chrism; let us be strong and fearless then in our endeavor.