"Here let us stand, close by the cathedral. Here let us wait.
Are we drawn by danger? Is it the knowledge of safety, that draws our feet
Towards the cathedral? What danger can be
For us, the poor, the poor women of Canterbury? what tribulation
With which we are not already familiar? There is no danger
For us, and there is no safety in the cathedral. Some presage of an act
Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet
Towards the cathedral. We are forced to bear witness."
Towards what cathedral? - Canterbury. And to bear witness of what? - a murder.
"Some malady is coming upon us, We wait, we wait,
And the saints and the martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints."
It is the morning of the 25th December, with only candles lighting the huge but magnificent cathedral of Canterbury that the recently exiled archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket mounts the pulpit to give the Christmass sermon, taking as his text, the angels' song, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.
In his sermon the archbishop indicated that "Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the Martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men."
Death suffering pain martyrdom were awaiting. Thomas who managed to alienate King and his leading bishops on what he considered were the rights of the Church knew that his hour was near. He who had once been almost inseparable from King Henry II, when he was chancellor, had fallen foul of the royal favour. Henry had expected his friend when Archbishop to do his bidding as he had done as his Chancellor.
Thomas à Becket was born on December 21, 1118, the son of Gilbert à Becket, an English merchant and at one time Sheriff of London, and a French Mother, Matilda of Caen in Normandy. He was educated at Merton Priory in Surrey and was later sent to Paris to study. After five years in Paris, Thomas returned to England where he joined the staff of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald. He soon made Thomas Archdeacon of Canterbury because of his skills at administration. When Henry II became king in 1154 Theobald recommended Thomas as his Chancellor. The two, Henry and Thomas, took an instant liking to each other, even though both were forthright and hot -tempered.
When Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, Henry was determined that his friend, Thomas, would become the new Archbishop, although Thomas begged him not to do so, as he knew it would be disastrous to their relationship. But Henry would not listen to Thomas' pleas. As Thomas was only a deacon, he had to be ordained a priest first. This took place on the 2nd June, 1162, and the next day was consecrated a bishop. He was then enthroned as Archbishop later on the same day, the second person in rank in the realm.
The die was cast. The first clash occurred over the Clarendon Constitution in 1164 when Henry wanted to restrict the power of the Church. One of the clauses wanted to make clergy guilty of crimes in the ecclesiastical courts also subject to trial in the secular courts. At first Thomas agreed but later rescinded when he discovered that this was contrary to Canon Law. In view of Becket's action, Henry called the Archbishop to give an account for sums of money, which passed through his hands as Chancellor. The conflict caused by these accusations was extreme and Thomas, already well liked by the general populous, was helped in October, 1164, to flee England for France. Exiled with him were some 400 members of his family, which settled in parts of France and the Low Countries. Thomas remained in exile in France for six years, with the support of the King of France, first at Pontigny and then at Sens.
In 1169, Henry had his eldest son crowned as King, in the absence of the Archbishop of Canterury, by the Archbishop of York, and assisted by the bishops of London and Salisbury. When this news reached Thomas he excommunicated them, which further annoyed the king. The following year, 1170, while Henry was in France, Thomas returned to England and landed at Sandwich, not far from Canterbury. He was cheered by the local people all the way back to Canterbury.
Meanwhile, back in France, the most ardent opponent of Thomas, Archbishop Roger of York suggested to Henry that, 'while Thomas lives, you will have neither quiet times nor a tranquil kingdom'. This threw Henry into one of his rages and is supposed to have exclaimed, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" These words were overheard by four of his knights (Richard Brito, Hugh de Moreville, Reginald FitzUrse, and William de Tracy) who decided that they could gain great favour by dealing with the problem and left immediately for England.
Meanwhile in Canterbury Christmass day of 1170 passed and St. Stephen's day was kept.
"A day that was always most dear to the Archbishop Thomas.
And he kneeled down and cried with a loud voice:
Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.
Since St. Stephen a day: and the day of St. John the Apostle
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard,
Which we have seen with our eyes, and our hands have handled
Of the word of life, that which we have seen and heard
Declare we unto you.
Since St. John the Apostle a day: and the day of the Holy Innocents.
Out of the mouth of very babes, O God.
As the voice of many waters, of thunder, of harps,
They sung as it were a new song.
The blood of thy saints have they shed like water,
And there was no man to bury them. Avenge, O Lord,
The blood of thy saints. In Rama, a voice heard, weeping.
Out of the mouth of very babes, O God.
Since the Holy Innocents a day: the fourth day from Christmass.
To-day, what is to-day? For the day is half gone."
Before long it will be time to sing Vespers in the darkened cathedral with candles as the only light. But before the monks had assembled a great commotion occurred in the town - the four knights arrived demanding to see Thomas. The frightened monks persuaded Thomas to flee from his residence towards the Cathedral where they felt that he would be safe. But Thomas refused to have the doors of his cathedral barred.
"Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors!
I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
The sanctuary, turned into a fortress. "
Archbishop and monks are chanting the psalms
when a voice penetrates the nave.
"Where is Becket, the traitor to the King?
Where is Becket, the meddling priest?
Where is Becket the Cheapside brat?
Where is Becket the faithless priest?"
The answer echoes around the cathedral.
"I am here.
No traitor to the King. I am a priest,
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
Do with me as you will, to your hurt and shame;
But none of my people, in God's name,
Whether layman or clerk, shall you touch.
This I forbid."
As the knights unsheathed their swords, Thomas exclaimed:
"Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the Blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostle and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church."
"O father, father, gone from us, lost to us,
Who shall now guide us, protect us, direct us?"
Nevertheless "our thanks ascend /To God, who has given us another saint of Canterbury."
We thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood. For the blood of Thy martyr and saints
Shall enrich the earth, shall create holy places,
For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it."
We also "acknowledge our trespass, our weakness, our faults; we acknowledge
That the sin of the world is upon our heads; that the blood of the martyrs and the agony of the saints
Is upon our heads.
Lord have mercy upon us.
Christ have mercy upon us.
Lord have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas pray for us."
It is said that there was a great storm within an hour of the death of the Archbishop and people flocked to the Cathedral to mourn for him. Three days after this there began a series of miracles, which are depicted in 'the miracle windows' and were attributed to Thomas. In 1173, the Archbishop was canonized by Pope Alexander III. Immediately after the murder the body of the Archbishop was prepared for burial and laid in state before the high altar before being taken into the East end of crypt where it was hastily buried behind the altar of the Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft. The remains of the Saint were kept in this location from 1170 to 1220 when they were moved to a new location in the Shrine, which had been constructed in the Trinity Chapel. The Shrine was eventually destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538 as representing the victory of State over Church, for Becket's martyrdom represented victory of Church over State.
On July 12, 1174 Henry II came to Canterbury to perform penance at the tomb of the Saint, probably more as a result of public pressure than anything else but it would be nice to think that he was saddened by his part in the tragedy. It is said that he put on sack-cloth and ashes at Harbledown and walked barefoot into the City where he was beaten with birch twigs by eighty monks. He then did penance at the tomb of the martyr in the crypt, remaining there for the night and leaving the next morning.
Although the great Shrine in Canterbury Cathedral is no longer with us (thanks to another Henry Henry VIII), there are still some relics of Thomas. And every year in the Cathedral on 29th December Vespers is sung around the shrine of Thomas, martyr of Canterbury.
O Thomas, exert thy power on our behalf, govern the upright, raise up those who fall: amend our morals, our deeds, and our life: and lead us into the way of peace. Amen.
Thomas was right. At the end of that Christmass sermon in 1170 he predicted his own martyrdom. "I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."