ST THOMAS BECKET
by Michael Green
(Gracewing, 2004, 83pp, $19.95, ISBN: 978-0-85244-590-7. Available from Freedom Publishing)
"Will nobody rid me of this me of this meddlesome priest?"
As a schoolboy, a number of my peers and myself witnessed a friendly but lively exchange between our headmaster and chaplain which ended with the infamous quote by Henry II cited above, itself the catalyst of Becket's martyrdom in 1170. Acclaimed a saint soon after his death, Becket is symbolic of church leaders who suffer persecution and death at the hands of secular leaders attempting to limit the influence and rights of the Church.
This short monograph by Michael Green, author of several books on English saints, traces St Thomas Becket's biography.
Born in London in 1118, Thomas was educated at Merton Priory before studying law. Soon recognised for his talents, he became a staunch advocate for and defender of civil authority, and was thus ultimately selected by Henry II as Chancellor of England. It is interesting to note that Green challenges the image of Becket popularised in the film version of Murder in the Cathedral that portrays him as a dissolute youth. Instead, Green argues that as a young man he practised the virtues, including chastity, and was attentive to prayer and devotion.
When the See of Canterbury fell vacant, Becket was nominated to the position, in the hope that he would be compliant to the king's wishes. Although he already held a number of benefices, he was quickly ordained a priest in 1162, then consecrated a bishop the following day. However, if Henry II expected Becket would be malleable and continue to prioritise the prerogatives of the crown, he was mistaken.
Believing his primary role was that of Archbishop, Becket and Henry soon clashed, resulting in Becket being sent into exile in 1164. While in exile, he showed his resolve by excommunicating those who were vociferous in their attacks on the Church. He returned late in 1170, with a sense of foreboding.
However, Becket refused to back down in the face of Henry II's pressure, with the consequence that Henry, in exasperation uttered the famous words, "Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome priest?" in the presence of four knights. They then sought the counsel of Roger de Pont L'Évêque, Archbishop of York, a rival of Becket's who had recently been excommunicated by him.
Martyr and saint
Ironically, by the time the knights set out, Henry's anger had calmed and he was now determined on merely charging Becket with treason. Sensing his imminent death, Becket nevertheless prepared for Vespers on the evening of 29 December in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was struck dead. Regarded as a martyr by the common people, veneration of him began immediately. He was canonised in 1173.
This short but informative account introduces a new generation to the story of St Thomas Becket. It is well written and contains extensive citations of primary source material. Although Becket was martyred just over 900 years ago, in many respects he is a saint for our age. In a world in which numerous countries such as communist China and Vietnam seek to limit the role of the Church and practice of the faith, the story of this English saint continues to resonate.
Michael E. Daniel is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne.