Thursday, December 29, 2005

December 29: Feast of St. Thomas à Becket

Most of us who study literature first learn of Thomas à Becket (1118? – 1170) from our initial encounter with Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, which tells the story of pilgrims telling their stories as they ride together on their way toward Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket, an archbishop who had been assassinated on December 29, 1170 by agents of the Norman king Henry II, as depicted in the image from an illuminated manuscript reproduced to the right.

A mere three years following this assassination, Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1173.

Supposedly, King Henry II had wished to have Becket done away with because of the latter's stubborn insistence on the right of the Catholic Church not to come under the jurisdiction of secular authorities.

Simply put, Becket held that the king couldn't tell the Church what to do.

One can understand why King Henry II might object to that.

In a replay of this state-versus-church issue during the reign of Henry VIII, all images of St. Thomas were ordered defaced, with the result that few portraits remain today. Henry VIII also ordered the dissolution of the monasteries between 1538 and 1541, and in that process, the shrine of St. Thomas was destroyed.

But the great, and the stubborn, leave their mark everywhere, it seems, for according to Wikipedia, "the word 'canter' came into the English language from the slow, leisurely pace of the horses" ridden by pilgrims heading for the Canterbury shrine of St. Thomas à Becket, the term "canter" being a shortened form of the longer original expression, "Canterbury gallop."

Oh, and lest I forget, let us raise a cup to the optional memory of this stubborn saint.


At 7:14 AM, Blogger James Brush said...

Excellent. Your last post had me briefly worried that I wouldn't know to whom I should be drinking today. I was prepared to raise my glass only to the emptiness of space, but now that that's settled then, bottom's up, and thanks for this series. Perhaps on the 13th day of Christmas, I'll drink to you!

At 7:28 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Did you see that BBC History Magazine (in consultation with professional historians) has dubbed Becket one of the ten worst Britons of the past 1,000 years?

I find him an awfully odd and inappropriate choice for that distinction.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, I began this series more or less by accident. Christmas seems too short every year -- all that anticipation, yet a single day and it's gone!

When I happened to mention the traditional 12 days of Christmas to my son, I probably began musing on the significance of each day . . . which may have contributed somewhat in preparing me.

But I began in earnest with the joke about Boxing Day, only to discover that this day is also St. Stephen's Day, which led to more serious treatment of St. John.

And then on from there . . .

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, yes, I saw the ranking. I'm curious to know the reason. I can imagine that historians might have considered Becket interested solely in his own power since as Lord Chancellor, he enforced the king's tax on the Church, but as archbishop, he rejected the king's authority over the Church.

After his death, however, he was discovered to be wearing a hair shirt, which the pious secretely wore to cause the itching that increased their suffering in imitation of Christ's suffering on the cross. Some historians, therefore, might not have liked his possibly sincere support for the Church's independence from the state -- especially given his strong support for Church discipline and hierarchy.

I suppose that I could try to find out why the historians ranked him as they did.

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying these posts, Dr. Hodges!

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Nathan. They're enjoyable to write, even the serious ones.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Forgive me - I only remember the story from the movie, but wasn't a priest charged with a crime, and Beckett wouldn't hand him over to the crown to be tried, saying the priest needed to be punished by the church instead? Wouldn't this disregard for authority (the church letting a crime go unpunished by the state) be a possible reason for his ranking on that list? If this is true, then Beckett handed down this horrible precedent which (ok, this is a really long stretch here) led to the coverups of pedophile priests?

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Chris, that's certainly possible. Here's what Wikipedia says:

"On his return to England, Becket proceeded at once to put into execution the project he had formed for the liberation of the Church in England from the very limitations which he had formerly helped to enforce. His aim was twofold: the complete exemption of the Church from all civil jurisdiction, with undivided control of the clergy, freedom of appeal, etc., and the acquisition and security of an independent fund of church property."

The exemption of the church from ALL civil jurisdiction would imply tht the state has no right to demand that the Church hand over a priest who has committed a crime.

Modern historians wouldn't like that much, given our modern sensibilities about the state having a monopoly on the punishment of crime.

But Becket wouldn't have been setting a precedent so much as upholding a long tradition and the larger Church's view. So, blaming him for the Church's coverup of pedophile priests would be too much of a stretch (though some modern historians might have been swayed by such a concern, I suppose).

And even if Becket had been setting a precedent, today's Church is under the state's jurisdiction anyway, so any 12th century ecclesiastical precedent would no longer have any relevance.

Still, I don't know what those who ranked Becket were thinking about, so they may have had these very concerns in mind.


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