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Bishop Cut Down in His Own Cathedral
By Lawrence S. Cunningham

Q U I C K S C A N

Born in London to an old Norman family in 1118, Thomas Becket rose rapidly through the clerical ranks after he finished his education. In 1154, he was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury, a post of honor. Thanks to his diplomatic skills in dealing with the papacy, Thomas, only 36, was named Englandís chancellor by King Henry II.

Like many clerical politicians of the time, he lived a lavish lifestyle supported by income from a number of revenue-generating clerical benefices or posts. Nevertheless, Thomas was a man of regular prayer and penitential practices. In 1162, the king named him archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after, he received the pallium, a symbol of his authority, from Pope Alexander III.

Thomasís rise to the highest ecclesiastical post in England became an occasion of conversion. He abandoned his love of luxury to lead a rigorous life of personal piety. He gave alms daily and tempered his judgments with mercy. He also proved more zealous than the king might have thought about protecting the privileges of the Church against secular intrusions. That zeal led to increasing tension between king and prelate.

In his final decade of life, Thomas fought the king on a number of issues: the right of the secular power to appoint to clerical benefices; the place and power of ecclesiastical courts; and, most notably, the crowning of the heir to the throne by the archbishop of York, who had usurped the primacy of Canterbury.

Thomas, with the popeís backing, excommunicated the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury for their collusion. When Henry heard this news, he raged that someone needed to rid him of Thomas. Four knights obliged by hacking Thomas to death inside his church on December 29, 1170.

The king, who may well not have desired anything so drastic, did public penance for his sins in the same cathedral in July 1174, right after the canonization of Thomas as a martyr. In 1220, the saintís body was transferred to a place under the high altar from its previous crypt to accommodate better the vast number of pilgrims coming to Canterbury.

The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to venerate St. Thomas is im-mortalized in Chaucerís Canterbury Tales. As the Prologue says, ďTo Canterbury they come, the holy blessed martyr there to seek, who gave his help to them that were sick.Ē

In the 16th century, aware of the powerful symbolism of a bishop who stood up against the monarchy to ensure the Churchís independence, Henry VIII, after breaking with the papacy, had the shrine of St. Thomas razed and the pilgrimages stopped. Todayís pilgrims can see the two places where Thomasís body was buried and view the stained-glass windows depicting his martyrdom. His feast is observed in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars.

Thomas Becket stands in the great tradition of martyrs who lost their lives by speaking truth to power. England has provided two conspicuous examples: Becket and St. Thomas More. In our day, we have seen Bishop Oscar Romero gunned down while celebrating Mass. These lives exemplify the observation of Pope John Paul II that the martyrs demonstrate that truth is worth giving up even oneís life in its defense.

This concludes our series on saints.


The story of Thomas Becket has been dramatic enough to catch the imagination of writers and artists. In 1935, the Anglo-Catholic poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote a short play, Murder in the Cathedral, for a festival at Canterbury. That play echoes the Book of Job, as Becket is tempted from his stand by three tempters.

In 1959, the French dramatist, Jean Anouilh, premiered his play, Becket. It was on the basis of that text that the 1964 movie of the same name was made with Peter OíToole as King Henry and Richard Burton as Thomas. Both actors were nominated for Oscars because of their powerful performances.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 18 books, and is at work on another about St. Francis of Assisi.

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