In the afternoon of December 29 1170, four knights stormed into the sanctuary of Canterbury Cathedral and murdered the Archbishop, Thomas.
Thomas was born in London on the feast of St Thomas, 21 December, in 1120. His parents were Normans and whilst not nobility, they were well-connected and could afford to give Thomas a good education. Age 20, he spent a year in Paris and later had a position in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Theobold sent him on missions to Rome and to study in Italy and France. By 1154, Thomas was Archdeacon of Canterbury and January 1155 he became Henry II’s Lord Chancellor. The King sent his son (another Henry) to live in Becket’s household. The King and Thomas were firm and trusted friends.
Thomas was nominated Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, after Theobald’s death. Henry II thought he could continue to count on Thomas’ friendship and loyalty, and that he would put Royal needs above those of the Church.
He was mistaken. Matters went from bad to worse, with Thomas being convicted of contempt of royal authority and fleeing to the continent, where he spent several years.
In June 1170 the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury crowned Henry II’s son as ‘Junior King’. This was a breach of Canterbury’s privilege of coronation, and so Becket excommunicated all three.
Who knows what really happened next? In school, I learned that Henry, in a moment of anger and exasperation, shouted:
“Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
It was enough for those four knights to gallop to Canterbury, break into the Cathedral and murder Thomas.
Henry was very sorry of course. Too late. And by 1173 Thomas was St Thomas, and his shrine and relics in Canterbury Cathedral had become a place of pilgrimage.
Later, another Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, played an important role in the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 Magna Carta – The British Library (bl.uk) and in 1540 King Henry III dissolved the monasteries and had St Thomas’ shrine destroyed; his relics were lost.
Canterbury Cathedral remains the ‘Mother Church’ of the worldwide Anglican Congregation and Archbishops of Canterbury, including the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, have continued to speak out not only on matters of religion but also politics and social questions.
So, before Christmas 2020 is quite over…