Becket’s Martyrdom

Until the day of his death, no man can be sure of his courage. -Thomas à Becket, in Jean Anouilh’s Becket (1959)

At Confirmation I took the name Bernard, after Bernard of Clairvaux. But I’d considered Thomas, too – not the doubting one, but Becket, the martyred saint. I had Thomas Merton in mind as well, but he’s not a saint.

My Confirmation came late in life. I’d recently written a book in which Bernard played a role (as a definer of the rules of chivalry), so his impact upon my life was immediate and strong. But my first thoughts of becoming a Catholic more than thirty-five years ago were stimulated as much by Thomas à Becket as by reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or Augustine’s Confessions: worldly men coming to Christ.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike mostly know Becket from Jean Anouilh’s play, usually via Peter Glenville’s filmed version (with Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry II). I’d seen the movie when it opened in 1964, and was mesmerized by the scenes in church and by the remarkable change the former hell-raiser underwent on his way to sainthood. I bought Anouilh’s play and went from it to T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Becket was born on the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle in 1118. His heritage was Norman (from Norsemen), and he was in some ways a Viking at heart. His parents had emigrated from France (many in England then were more French than English), and Becket became a thoroughgoing Londoner. He was educated in part at Merton Priory, and received priestly training, becoming a deacon and working for Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. From that position (archdeacon of the cathedral at the age of 36), he came to the attention of one of the great men of the age, the 21-year-old king, Henry II.

Becket became Henry’s closest advisor, and – this was uncommon – also the king’s best friend.

In Glenville’s film, Henry and Thomas fight, drink, and whore, although Becket is somewhat reticent about that last part, befitting the fact that the real Thomas was, in his own way, a churchman. Henry sent his oldest son (Young King Henry, as he was known) to live with Becket, of whom the young man is said of have quipped: “Becket showed me more fatherly love in a day than father did during my entire life.”

When Henry sought to weaken the Church’s position in society, Becket, having become Lord Chancellor, was his willing henchman. He was anyway until Theobald died, and Henry had what seemed to the king a brilliant idea: make Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury. How better to exert his control over the Church?

Of course, Thomas was not a priest. So on Saturday June 2, 1162, he was ordained and the very next day consecrated as archbishop.

The Martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury by Master Francke, c. 1430
The Martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury by Master Francke, c. 1430

Becket did not want this job, knowing it would put him directly in conflict with the king. He said as much to Henry, who simply could not believe his comrade would ever defy him.

The bone of contention between Henry and Thomas became jurisdiction in trials of clergymen charged with serious crimes. Henry wanted the trials in his courts of law; the Church insisted they be held before ecclesiastical tribunals. Thomas now took the Church’s side.

There are remarkable similarities between the conflict of Henry II and Thomas Becket and the later loggerheads of Henry VIII and Thomas More. Obviously More was an even more “troublesome priest” to his king that Becket was to his, and the stakes in 1535 were far, far greater than in 1270.

Henry II did not presage the Reformation that Henry VIII made manifest. Both kings were thoroughly Catholic. Until Pope Clement VII refused to grant an annulment to Henry Tudor, the king was practically a papal pet. But Protestantism was in the air – and given Henry VIII’s later history (five more “marriages,” another divorce, and two wives beheaded) – nothing More might have done would have made a whit’s difference in the separation of Britain and Rome.

The two Henrys were alike in their rapacity, duplicity, and murderousness; many of their Catholic adversaries were alike in their bravery, fidelity, and selflessness.

In Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot provides Thomas with some extraordinary lines. All his adult life, and through his friendship with the king, Becket tried to serve according to his calling. But when the time came to serve God in the Church, and having rid himself of his former worldliness, he saw no way to avoid the fatal confrontation:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Becket does not seek martyrdom but cannot avoid it. In a way, he’s not even opposing the king; he’s following Christ. This was the same situation in which the later Thomas (More) would find himself: “the king’s loyal servant, but God’s first.”

Both Eliot and Anouilh accept that Henry II may not actually have ordered Becket’s murder: that, to please his majesty, the sword-wielding knights who assassinated Becket acted on their own. Still, the deed done, Henry allowed himself to be flogged by monks at Becket’s tomb. We could use more courageous priests and, now and again, a genuinely penitent leader.

Overall, Henry II was an effective king, and if ever a monarch really deserved whipping (or worse) it was Henry VIII. But history, at least as we live through it, rarely balances the scales. God will, however.

Henry II surrounded himself with “new men,” military and administrative experts who came to their jobs by competence, not by being “well-born.” Becket was one; the great William Marshal was another.

Today is Becket’s feast day, the anniversary of his martyrdom 844 years ago. St. Thomas, pray for us.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.