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.

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.

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

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; their Catholic adversaries 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 three sword-wielding knights 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

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • GrahamUSA

    When I became a Catholic in 2009 at age 57, I took the name of St. Thomas More. For many reasons. But most of all because he was honest enough to understand that he wasn’t “martyr material.” You take your lumps today as a Catholic (or in my case, a proto-Catholic on the road to the Church). There are consequences and they are not pleasant at times. There is career martyrdom of course and being pro-life during my years in New York publishing certainly didn’t double my chances for a date on Saturday night in a business in which women were a large majority. Whether I could make the ultimate sacrifice is another matter entirely. But as Mr. Miner has pointed out here, God and His Church have provided extraordinary role models. Thank you for this fine feast day tribute.

    • Dave Fladlien

      Yes, it can be really tough being a Christian in an area where paganism runs really rampant, but I think that is just the place God wants us to be. It is for those who don’t see the light that we must shine it, not by preaching with words but by being admirable people in our attitude, our competence, in the quality of the work we do, and in being people of understanding, compassion, and love. And, as St. Francis of Asisi said, “…occasionally we should use words (in our preaching)”…

    • You are not alone, brother. I know someone who has not worked since his first appearance in a TV program — a decade ago — when he disclosed his conversion to Catholicism. The Church does nothing for that kind of convert. They must bear their Cross practically alone. What I find truly insulting is that there are those who raise funds allegedly to help converts and do absolutely nothing but pay themselves a good salary. More and Becket are in our midst even today and so are their betrayers, unfortunately.

  • ABBonnet

    You’ll never see another repentant leader such as Henry II in modern times. For most of those holding or seeking political power, secularism has robbed the force from “[God] balances the scales.” If they believe in God at all, it’s an all-forgiving one, as in the French proverb,”tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” Or if they don’t believe, the socialist atheist version says “¡la historia me absolverá!”

    Repentance involves doing-penance and making-restitution for sin. But our age demands a one-sided “forgiveness” which must be doled out by God and the sinned-against whether there is repentance or not on the part of the sinner. Of course this is not the Roman Catholic teaching on repentance, which ordinarily involves confession and penance as necessary parts of Christian forgiveness.

    The last US president to even approach such a thing was Clinton after his Lewinsky affair. But where was the penance for his deeds?

    Thomas á Becket is certainly a saint for our times when so many Bishops have become naively coopted by corrupt politicians.

  • Chris Ryland

    Fr. George Tracy, a remarkable priest in his own right (late vocation, started a religious order to approach the very wealthy, encouraged by Mother Teresa and Cardinal Sin of the Phillipines (good friends of his)), and his cousin, another priest, both descendants of one of the knights who murdered Becket, received permission a few years back from both the Catholic and Anglican bishops to say a Mass of reparation for their ancestor (de Tracy) on the very altar where Becket was murdered. And so it was done.

  • W.A. Bullard Jr. “Chief Bull”

    Ours is also a church of Prophecy and we need ‘Prophets’ who dare stand and say “No More”. The Church is rapidly losing its original Semitic face in place of something not the church. The latest Prophet who stood in St. Peters to criticize and whip a corrupt Curia is just the start. Unfortunately it was hamstrung by a corrupt Archbishop in New York who pusillanimously allowed the mendacity of a Mayor to make a political happening out of a Mass. We need more Prophets who are willing to stand and preach damnation against the heretic and purge the Church, who will publicly deny the heretic in politics the grace of mother church and communion, and not be afraid of losing endowments from the wealthy and powerful who are doing nothing more than buying themselves “Get into heaven” passes. We need Priests, Pastors, Monseigneurs, Bishops, Arch-Bishops who are not AmWay hustlers trying to make our faith unpalatable and “Popular”. We need Beckets who are willing to say that Jesus Christ was not Che Guevara “made flesh” without an AK47 to effect income redistribution.

    • Michael O’Loughlin

      Well articulated, Mr. Bullard! I hope that new generation of prophets will articulate prayer to the almighty with the finesse of our forebears, if only so we wax confident in our stance on all political/social issues. If they wield a Rosary with their rhetoric, they will sweep all before the Lord.
      Michael O’Loughlin