Saint Thomas Becket: In Memorium

On this day we remember Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered (whether under the direct orders of the King or not, we will never truly know) as a result of his confronting the King of England with a law higher than the law of the land – the law of God, revealed and preserved by His Church. King Henry II, frustrated by Thomas’ reluctance to allow secular encroachment into ecclesiastical court cases, and particularly his intransigence regarding the excommunication of other English bishops who had kow-towed to the King’s position, became more and more furious, finally uttering words interpreted by five knights as orders for Becket’s assassination. Whatever was actually said, Henry seemed to regret Saint Thomas’ murder, and publicly repented of his part in it. Given the reasons for Becket’s death (Church resistance of State power), it is noteworthy that Henry VIII was particularly keen that his shrine be destroyed during the English Reformation.

In commemoration of the life of Saint Thomas, I present here the only full eyewitness account given of his murder, given between five and seven years after the event, by Edward Grim, a monk visiting Canterbury at the time, who not only witnessed the murder but sustained a wound trying to protect Saint Thomas. His words, though necessarily coloured by reflection on the holiness of Thomas’ life and the relevance of his murder within the context of the ongoing Church versus State dispute, still convey a genuine sense of horror at the senselessness of life lost, and bear an authentic imprint of witness to a man wholly given to serving God – in the manner of Saint Thomas Becket’s death, we see the state and intentions of his soul shining forth:

 

‘The murderers followed him; “Absolve”, they cried, “and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.”

He answered, “There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.”

“Then you shall die,” they cried, “and receive what you deserve.”

“I am ready,” he replied, “to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.”

Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him “pander”, and saying, “Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.”

The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. “No faith”, he cried, “nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.”

Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, “For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”

Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, “Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.”’

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