The Martyrdom


  Thomas à Becket


December 29, 1170




King Henry II in June of 1169, "with the view of consolidating his power in England, had caused his eldest son to be crowned king, not merely as his succsessor but as his colleague . . . In the absence of the Archbishop of Canterbury [Thomas, who was on the continent] the ceremony was performed by . . .the Archbishop of York. assisted by Gilbert Foliot and Jocelyn the Lombard, Bishops of London and Salisbury. The instant this intelligence was communicated to Becket, a new blow seemed to be struck at his rights . . . The inalienable right of crowning the sovereigns of England, from the time of Augustine downwards, inherent in the See of Canterbury. had been infringed; and with his usual ardor be procured from the Pope letters against the three prelates who had taken part in the act, probably with the authority of the Pope himself. These letters consisted of a suspension of the Archbishop of York and a revival of a former excommunication of the Bishops of London and Salisbury. . .

The three prelates of York, London, and Salisbury, having left England as soon as they heard the Archbishop was immovable, arrived in France a few days before Christmas . . . All manner of rumors aboutr Becket's proceedings had reached the ears of Henry and he besought the advice of the three prelates. The Archbishop of York answered cautiously, "Ask council from your barons abd knights. It is not for us to say what must be done." A pause ensued; and the oit was added, -- whether by Roger [Archbishop of York] or by someone else does not clearly appear, -- :As long as Thomas lives, you will have neither good days, nor peaceful kingdom nor quiet life." The words goaded the king into . . . [a violent rage]: "A fellow that has eaten my bread has lifted up his heel against me ; a fellow that came to court on a lame horse, with a cloak for a saddle, sits without hindrance on the throne itself! What sluggard wretches!" He burst forth again and again, "what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their master! Not one will deliver me from this low-born priest!' and with these fatal words he rushed out of the room." (Arthur P. Stanley, Historical Memorials of Canterbury, 1889, p. 71-72, 79-80.)[Widener BR 5169 62.12]


There were four knights in this land, of cursed living, and for to have a reward and a thank of the king of England, they made an oath upon the holy relic that with one consent they should slay and destroy holy Thomas; one was called Raynold Beyrson, another William Trasy, the third Sir Richard Bryton, the fourth Sir Hew Morvile. So upon Childermass day in Christmas week, almost at night, these four knights came to Canterbury into the hall of the Bishop's Palace. Then Sir Reynold Beyrson, for he was the most cursed of kind, without any saluting reverence, he said thus unto Saint Thomas: "The King, that is beyond the sea, sent us to thee, commanding and bidding that thou absolve all the bishops that thou hast made acursed." "Sirs," quod Saint Thomas, "I do you to know they be acursed by authority and power of our holy father the Pope, but in no wise by me, and I may not assoil them that our holy father the Pope hath acursed without authority of him."

"Well," quod Reynolde, "then we see thou will not do the king's commandments. By God thou shalt die!" Then cried the other knights, "Slay! Slay!" And they went out of the hall and took their counsel, and concluded for to slay him. So they armed them all in haste, and in the meantime priests and clerks and others that were with him drew holy Thomas into the church and locked the door and barred it fast to them. But when Saint Thomas perceived that the four knights were locked out and wanted to come in, and could not, he went to the door and unbarred it. Then he took a knight by the hand and said, "It is not seemly for to make Holy Church as a castle or place of defense. Come in, my children, in God's name."

Then it was so dark that they could not well see nor know Saint Thomas from another man, but cried and said "Ubi est proditor?" -- "Where is this traitor?" "Nay," quod Saint Thomas, "no traitor but Archbishop is here. I come not to flee but to take my death for God's sake and Holy Church's right." Then Sir Robert Beryson struck at him and smote off half his crown. Then another knight struck in the same place and struck off the skull. Then fell down holy Thomas on his knees and said thus -- "Commendo deo, beato Marie et sancto Dionisio meipsum et ecclesia causum." "I commend to God, to our lady Saint Mary, and to Seint Denis my cause and the right of Holy Church." And so he died. Then the third knight struck at him, and half the stroke fell upon the arm of a clerk who held up Saint Thomas, and so down onto Saint Thomas' hand. Then the fourth knight smote his sword upon the pavement and broke the point of his sword, and said "He is dead. Go we hence!" But when they were at the door on their way out, one of them, Robert Broke, went again and set his foot on his neck, and with his sword scattered the brains on the pavement. Thus took holy Thomas of Canterbury his death full meekly, for right of Holy Church and the welfare of England. (Trans. from the sermon quoted by Owst in Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, p. 132)

Thomas' blood was collected, mixed with water, and effected marvelous cures of physical ailments and disabilities. The almost immediate proof of his sainthood was the discovery by the monks who prepared his body for burial that under his rich pontifical garments he wore a haircloth that completely encased his body. When it was removed it was found to be teeming with "innumerable vermin with which the haircloth abounded; boiling over with them, as one account describes it, like water in a simmering caldron." (Stanley, Memorials, p. 116.

Arnold, a monk, who was goldsmith to the monastery, was sent back, with others, to the transept to collect in a basin any vestiges of the blood asnd brains, now become so precious; and benches were placed across the spot to prevent its being desecrated by the footsteps of the crowd. This perhaps was the moment when the great ardor or the citizens first began for washing their hands and eyes with the blood. One instance of its application gave rise to a practice which became the distinguishing characteristic of all the subsequent pilgrimages to the shrine. A citizen of Canterbury dipped a corner of his shirt in the blood, went home, and gave it, mixed with water, to his wife, who was paralytic, and who was said to have been cured. This suggested the notion of mixing the blood with water, which, endlessly diluted, was kept in innumerable vials, to be distributed to the pilgrims; and thus, as the palm was a sign of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and a scallop-shell of the pilgrimage to Compostela, so a leaden vial or bottle suspended from the neck became the mark of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. (Stanley, Memorials, p. 114).


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