Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?


Today is the lesser festival of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th C, in the Church of England. It is the anniversary of his death on 29th December 1170.

T'other day hubs and I watched a Time Team Special programme about Dover Castle. English Heritage were restoring some of the rooms to how they would have looked in Medieval King Henry II's time. As part of the programme Thomas Becket was mentioned.

Thomas Becket was for some years chancellor and confident of the King. In 1161 the King appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. Rather than becoming the King's yes-man Becket took his role as Archbishop seriously and resigned from the role of chancellor. After many disagreements over the king's desire to implement Constitutions of Clarendon (in the hope of reducing the Church's control and influence in lawful matters in the ecclesiastical courts - i.e. clergy literally getting away with murder) on 11 October 1164 Thomas Becket was convicted before the Royal Court of contempt of Royal Authority (bizarrely over a piece of land) and malfeasance as Chancellor. Becket and his family (400 dependants!) went into exile in France.

Henry's control over the church and the clergy reached such a point that Pope Alexander III threatened excommunication. In order to placate the Pope the King allowed Becket's return in 1170. However, the King riled Becket's pride by having his son, Henry the Younger, crowned by the Archbishop of York a ceremony which should have been enacted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. So Henry and Becket attempted to reach a 'compromise' - it didn't last. As soon as Becket returned in a fit of pique and to wrest some control back he immediately excommunicated his ecclesiastical enemies and the Archbishop of York.

When news of this reached Henry II he was sick and legend has it that Henry cried out, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?". It would seem that four knights took him at his word and travelled immediately to Canterbury. Eyewitness reports stated that they had first hidden their swords and covered their chainmail they tried to convince Becket to return with them to face the King. When Becket refused the knights really got the 'hump' (to use a Delboyism). During Mass the knights stormed the cathedral and Becket was killed gruesomely!

The following is part of the account from Edward Grim a visiting clerk from Cambridge:

…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.’




The shock spread throughout Henry's Kingdom and he was declared a murderer. Becket was immediately declared a martyr and three years later was canonised by the Pope. Things also started to go wrong for Henry, his three sons revolted against him, and he put this down to God's displeasure because of Becket. Henry did public penance at Becket's tomb in Canterbury and asked Becket to pray for his soul. After which a hostile Flemish armada which had been heading for England did not attack but returned to Europe. Henry also scored a victory over the Scots. Henry took this to mean that Becket had appropriated forgiveness for his sins.

The collect for today is:

Lord God,
who gave grace to your servant Thomas Becket
to put aside all earthly fear
and be faithful even to death:
grant that we, disregarding worldly esteem,
may fight all wrong, uphold your rule,
and serve you to our life's end;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


History is fascinating. Those chaps at English Heritage don't know how lucky they are! Click on the Dover Castle link, or go on the virtual tour. You wouldn't believe how colourful those Medieval peeps liked their furniture.


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