St. Thomas Becket’s Martyrdom

The relationship between faith and the state has been controversial at least since the beginning of Christian history. Matthew points to this fact in his Infancy Narrative: King Herod, for fear of the “newborn king of the Jews,” ordains the massacre of the Holy Innocents (Mt 2:1-18), the first martyrs (thousands of them!) for Christ.

In a unique way, the feast day of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom (aged about 50 on December 29th, 1170) again highlights this royal aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Son of David. Thomas, at the age of 35, entered the service of Henry II Plantagenet as the king’s chancellor, soon becoming his close friend. Becket’s exceptional skills and loyalty helped Henry reinforce royal power and palaces.

In 1162, the king made his friend – who was then only a deacon – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important church official in England. Once Becket became archbishop, however, he quit his post as chancellor, donated his wealth, dedicated himself to study and prayer, and made clear that his loyalty now belonged entirely to God and His Church.

Finally, when Henry tried to reassert royal control over the church, Becket refused to comply. Threatened with death, he fled to France, where he spent six years in exile, living like a monk. After six years, Becket returned to England amid cheering crowds after supposedly reconciling with Henry. Henry raged against his former friend, however, when he learned that Becket had excommunicated unfaithful bishops. Spurred on by these royal complaints, four knights made their way toward Canterbury and struck the archbishop down in his cathedral on December 29th, 1170. Two days later, the first miracles were attributed to his intercession. Even the king himself, after having repented and implored the help of the one he brought to death, chose Thomas as his personal patron saint (canonized 1173) after having obtained his protection in battle.

A first, somewhat general lesson may be drawn from the fact that the death of Thomas Becket was initiated by an outburst of the king, who possibly did not even intend to have someone kill him. With the Psalmist, one may thus pray: “Set a guard, LORD, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps 141:3).

What Becket specifically has died for, however, is his allegiance to God and the freedom of His church, subsisting in the Roman Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium 8). Ultimately, to whom do we pledge our loyalty? Are we ready to give glory and witness (Greek martyria) to Christ, sacrificing friendships, careers, and, if necessary, even our lives for the “newborn king”?

References “Thomas Becket. Murder and the Making of a Saint.,” June 2021.;

Raymonde, Foreville. “Mort et Survie de Saint Thomas Becket.” Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 14, no. 53 (January 1971): 21–38.

———. “Thomas Becket.” In Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 773–80. XV. Paris: Beauchesne, 1991.

Br. Dominicus Maria Armbruster, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE

Henry II Plantagenet and Thomas Becket arguing.