Meditation and Reflection

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket


On this day in 1170 Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered by the knights of King Henry II in Canterbury Cathedral. It was muddled politics and religion – the ages-old conflict between the temporal principalities and the spiritual powers. The Archbishop was concerned with the historic integrity and legal privileges of the Church; the King with the political autonomy and jurisdiction of the State. This King Henry of England sought the submission of the clergy and pursued sovereign self-government from Rome some four centuries before that later King Henry of England. And this Archbishop Thomas of Canterbury was a harbinger of that later Archbishop Thomas of Canterbury who was also martyred for his defence of the Church and the purity of the Faith.

One contemporary account of the martyrdom eath of Thomas Becket is recorded thus:

The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.

One contemporary account of the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer is recorded thus:

Coming to the stake with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he put off his garments with haste, and stood upright in his shirt: and bachelor of divinity, named Elye, of Brazen-nose college, labored to convert him to his former recantation, with the two Spanish friars. And when the friars saw his constancy, they said in Latin to one another “Let us go from him: we ought not to be nigh him: for the devil is with him.” But the bachelor of divinity was more earnest with him: unto whom he answered, that, as concerning his recantation, he repented it right sore, because he knew it was against the truth; with other words more. Whereby the Lord Williams cried, “Make short, make short.” Then the bishop took certain of his friends by the hand. But the bachelor of divinity refused to take him by the hand, and blamed all the others that so did, and said, he was sorry that ever he came in his company. And yet again he required him to agree to his former recantation. And the bishop answered, (showing his hand), “This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.” Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a  loud voice, “This hand hath offended.” As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.

These are the austere endings of faithful servants of God. High-handed kings still affirm their notions of secular power, and meddlesome priests still seek to assert their notions of Christian virtue. We may wrap it up in the Royal Prerogative and characterise it as Erastian, and protests over the power of secular courts may have become the interrogation of Wonga and the provocation of foodbanks. But out of the confused mass of religio-political murkiness, the English Church-State settlement has bequeathed three centuries of political peace and incremental happiness, and archbishops of Canterbury still do what only archbishops of Canterbury can.

We do not live in an ideal world, and God is bound by the constraints of His creation. All that we have in the holy reality of the witness of the saints, and they – we – are charged to act in faith and to speak the truth, in season and out. Sometimes believers are called to die at the hands of men, and archbishops are not exempt from that calling. But they follow One who also died at the hands of men, and His greatest torment was the abandonment of the Father. To be murdered in a cathedral is to die at the holy altar in the House of God: to hang on a cross is to shiver and quail in the agony of God-forsakenness.

Christians killing Christians is the open wound of the Church. We used to do it with swords and flames; now we do it with unholy bickering and profane words. We used to erect shrines and commemorate liturgical cults; now we honour bitterness and sanctify devotion to division. You may think Thomas Becket was righteously killed for his subversive political activities. You may think Thomas Cranmer was righteously killed for his subversive theological heresies. But religion and politics were confused and conflated: those who perished did so as faithful disciples of the One who hung on a cross. In the spirit of ecumenical grace, the least we can do is honour the courage and sacrifice of those who died for their sincerely-held beliefs, for they can still move hearts, change minds, and speak to this generation of what it is to be really Christian.