St. Thomas Becket: For God or Country?

It’s the feast day of St Thomas Becket, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his martyrdom in 1170.

For some reason (probably because I watched all four seasons of The Crown in 2020), his story has lit up my imagination this year. Becket was martyred by four of King Henry II’s “yes-men”, who interpreted the king’s complaints about Becket as an order to kill him. Shockingly, the assassins carried out the murder in the quire of Canterbury Cathedral, where they accosted Becket and hacked at his head with a sword until his brains were scattered across the stone floor.

What was it that made Becket such a meddlesome priest? In a foreshadowing of the disputes of the Reformation 400 years later, Becket consistently sided with the Pope against the King whenever the two came into conflict. King Henry II wanted to expand the powers of the Crown into the the affairs of the Church, but Becket resisted. Here’s Becket in a letter:

There are a great many bishops in the Church [ . . . ] Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ.

Becket was canonized a mere two years after his martyrdom, and his assassins later did their penance in the Holy Land by order of Pope Alexander III.

The Church in England remained a part of the Catholic Church for 400 more years, but the legacy of St. Thomas Becket was a major thorn in the side of another King Henry, King Henry VIII. During the English Reformation, the King had Becket’s shrine and relics destroyed, and mention of his name was forbidden.

This King Henry, of course, did eventually succeed in bringing the Church in England completely under the control of the Crown.