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St. Thomas Becket Is Martyred at Canterbury Cathedral: December 29, 1170

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part I.

Like the Norman kings before him, Henry II wanted to make England a united nation under the strong rule of the king. Henry made the barons destroy the castles they had built without royal permission, and he recovered the royal lands they had seized. Henry also greatly increased the role of the royal traveling judges. One of his methods was to order 16 men from each locality to appear before his judges to declare what crimes had been committed in their district and to name the suspected culprits. This is the origin of our grand jury system. A little later, Henry ordered that a jury of 12 men be present at trials as witnesses and to decide upon the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Henry, however, wanted to extend his power over the Church in England. The Church had established its own law courts at least as early as the days of William the Conqueror. In these courts, clergy were tried and, if guilty, punished. Unlike the royal courts, however, Church courts could not inflict the death penalty. Because of this, Henry wanted clergy who were proven guilty of certain crimes to be given over to the royal courts, where they would be given harsher punishments than what they would receive in Church courts.

But Henry wanted to control the Church in more ways than through the courts. To make sure the Church would approve his plans, the king appointed Thomas Becket—chancellor of the kingdom and his close friend—as archbishop of Canterbury. But, much to the king’s surprise and annoyance, Becket, as soon as he became archbishop, stood up for the rights of the Church and opposed the king’s plans.

In 1164 Henry issued the Constitutions of Clarendon. These royal decrees limited the jurisdiction of Church courts and forbade anyone in England to appeal to the pope. They also prohibited the bishops from leaving England without the king’s permission and allowed the bishops to excommunicate the king’s subjects only with the king’s approval.

The interior of Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket was martyred
The interior of Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket was martyred

Though his fellow English bishops did not resist the Constitutions of Clarendon, Thomas Becket did. Henry was furious with his old friend, and in 1164 Thomas saw he had little choice but to flee to France. But nearly six years later, Thomas, who had won the pope’s support, returned with the king’s permission to England and Canterbury. On Christmas Day 1170, Thomas publicly excommunicated all those, including some bishops, who had supported the king against the Church.

When Henry heard of this excommunication, he flew into a rage and exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this contentious priest?” Four of the king’s knights interpreted his rashly spoken words as a command and set off for Canterbury. On December 29, 1170, they appeared before Thomas and demanded that he remove the excommunications. Thomas refused. Later that day, the knights returned with armed men and entered the archbishop’s cathedral while he was leading Vespers. “Where is the traitor?” they cried, to which Thomas replied, “Here I am, not traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.” The knights slew Thomas before the altar, scattering his brains on the pavement.

Thomas gained more by his martyrdom than by his opposition to the king. After the archbishop’s murder, the people rose up and forced Henry to give up much of what he had gained. Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury became the site of constant pilgrimages for miraculous healing through the following centuries, until it was destroyed by Protestant zealots in the 16th century.

The English barons used the martyrdom of Thomas Becket as an excuse to rebel against the king. But Henry had built up his own army, paying for it with money he had gotten over the years from the very nobles who were rebelling against him. With this army Henry was able to stop the rebellion, bring the king of Scotland to swear fealty to him, and invade Ireland. But in the 19 years following the death of St. Thomas Becket, Henry faced the rebellion of his own sons, who were encouraged by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. The king died in 1189, abandoned and broken-hearted, separated from the wife he had once loved and from his sons and family.

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