An English Martyr… (Sonnet)

Thomas Becket, man of God
once confidante of the King,
transferred his allegiance to God
as church opposed the King.

The King called out in despair
will no one rid me of this man,
knights hearing of King’s despair
answered the call, removing this man.

They killed him
this man of God,
they murdered him
upon his altar; to God.

Henry II and his knights paid a penance,
for the taking of Becket’s life.

English Martyr: Thomas Becket

Man of God and King
friends to the end,
became bitter enemies
as church, opposed the King.

Loyal warriors of Henry II
carried out, the King’s wishes,
to rid him of this man
one; Thomas Becket.

They killed him
this man of God,
they murdered him
upon his altar.

Penance was demanded
from King and knights,
for the life of Thomas Becket
a true martyr, to his faith.

King Henry II v Thomas Becket

I was born in late December in the year 1118 to Norman parents.  My father was a London Merchant, who held much wealth and status in the community.

It was expected of me to enter the church.  I was educated at Merton Priory in Surrey and later on in Paris.  Whilst studying abroad, my father’s fortune took a terrible crumble, upon my return I was forced to seek employment.  For three years, I worked as an auditor in the City of London, also serving as Lord Pevensey’s secretary.  By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had moved onwards and upwards, and now worked in the Theobald household, for the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It was here, I entered the world of power and policy within the church, then went on to study law in Italy.

In the year 1154, Henry II was crowned King.  For the first eight years of his reign, I worked as his chancellor.  A post appointed to me by the King and recommended by the Bishops, who wanted a protector and defender of their rights, in times of troubles.  But it wasn’t long before the same Bishops who had recommended me, said, ‘I had forgotten the interests of the church’.  But how wrong they were! 

I followed the rules of the church, and was in the eyes of God a devout believer in a court full of promiscuous behaviour and over indulgence.  I attended mass at dawn and prayed late into the night, and they say I was not true to my God.  ‘Who are they to judge’!

In 1162 I became Theobald’s successor, and was ordained as Archbishop of Canterbury, an important and powerful position in all England.

I carried on my predecessor’s work, becoming champion of ecclesiastical claims.  But Henry, who believed in the rights of the justice system, was provoked by several errors, in the church courts, claiming the right to punish clerical criminals, after they have been degraded by the bishop’s court.  I felt compelled to oppose the King’s request, this angered him immensely.  I carried the full support of the bishops with me; but neither they nor the pope were prepared to go to any lengths in opposing Henry.  Eventually I had to concede to his demands, but not willingly.

Following the stand down by myself and the bishop’s, Henry put forward a document known as the ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’ relating to the way the church is run, but contrary to Cannon Law?

Who does he think he is!

I was angered immensely by this document, and the quarrel between myself and Henry erupted once again, over how the church should be run.

I forced the King’s hand, which outraged him. 

At Northampton Castle a council was held to fine me and charge me with alleged offences in my personal and ministerial life.

Before the King could have me formally charged for these offences.  I escaped to France taking refuge in the Abbey of Pontigny.  There I remained in exile for six years.

Whilst in exile, I gathered support from loyal followers for my cause.

In 1167, the King’s anger, enraged that the exiled archbishop had found safe refuge, decreed, that all English scholars studying on the continent were to return home.  Many students and teachers alike, gathered at Oxford, here they tried to re-create the scholarly atmosphere they had experienced in Paris and other universities in France.

Britain’s oldest university ‘Oxford’, owes its origin to the quarrel between King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

As the year 1170 drew to a close.  The conflict which had divided England for the past six years, was reaching its climax.  It was in early December that Becket agreed to meet Henry in Normandy, to reconcile their differences.

Thomas Becket had remained in exile over the King’s demands to have control over the church.  These demands were limitless.  Henry, had forbidden the clergy to exercise their given rights, to appeal to Rome as the final authority in matters relating to the church.  Furthermore, he had ordered the priests of England to take an oath, against the pope.

It was in early December that Becket agreed to meet Henry in Normandy, and there they reconciled their differences. 

When Becket returned to Canterbury he publicly excommunicated his enemies from the pulpit of the cathedral on Christmas Day 1170, to the utter disgust of Henry.

This was the final straw, Henry could take no more, he had met Becket in Normandy to discuss their differences and this is what he does in return.  In a moment of anger, Henry said, “idle cowards of my court, who stand by while this miserable priest insults me to my face”.  These hasty words were enough to inspire a deed, which shocked the whole of Christendom.

Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh Mauclerk and Richard le Breton took the King at his word.  To get rid of him, would surely be of great service to the realm.

They left the royal court and made their way to Canterbury.  There they had planned to arrest the archbishop Thomas Becket, imprison him to await the King’s pleasure, if this was not possible, they would take it upon themselves to kill him.

By the time the knights had reached Canterbury on December 29, 1170, crowds had gathered outside the cathedral, amid rumours of violence and murder.  FitzUrse ordered his men to stand guard at the cathedral gates, whilst he and his three loyal followers sought out Thomas Becket.

Upon hearing the commotion outside, Becket was escorted into the cathedral by the monks, fearing for his safety.

Moments later, the knights burst through the cathedral doors.  “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to his king and kingdom? demanded FitzUrse.

“I am here, no traitor but a priest of God and an archbishop, “Becket replied from the steps leading to the High Altar.

It was here I was slain on the steps leading to the High Altar by Reginal FitzUrse and his trusted followers, from King Henry II’s court.

But I had the final word, an eyewitness to the tragedy (William FitzStephen) wrote that “the sun’s gaze was averted, its ray’s hidden from the earth and the day veiled in darkness…a terrible storm cloud overhung the firmament, the rain fell suddenly and swiftly and the thunder rolled around the heavens.  After this, the sky turned a deep red in token of the blood which had been shed in horror at the outrage.”

Within three years of this brutal murder, Thomas Becket, had been canonised by Pope Alexander III, and his tomb had become a shrine, for pilgrims from all over Europe.

It was one of those symbolic acts which colour and fortify the convictions of the many.  The few who were closely involved had to extricate themselves.

The penance of the four knights was fourteen years’ service with the Knights Templar in the Holy Land.

The King had to provide 200 knights for a year for the defence of Jerusalem.

In 1174, King Henry II himself was forced into doing a public penance – being whipped in Canterbury Cathedral on the site of Becket’s murder.

But this did not stop him in his purpose.  He succeeded in bringing the English Church, under royal control – a position which his successors, never lost.

Becket had failed in his ongoing struggle, by opposing the King, at every turn, as the rightful head of the Church.  He was slain in his own cathedral for his actions, and became a martyr to his cause, and for centuries the best-known event in English History.

For the next 360 yrs, his memory lived on in the shrine dedicated to him, and became one of the greatest centres of pilgrimages in the Christian world.

Becket’s fame spread further.  In the Holy Land, an order of Christian Knights was founded his memory.

In the 1530’s, England broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1536 an act of Parliament by order of Henry VIII saw the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, and this act was followed by the dissolution of Abbey’s in 1539.  Henry VIII ordered the

shrine to be destroyed, and all the rich gifts, which had been lavished upon it over the centuries-confiscated.

But even this action could not destroy the legend, of a man of God, who perished for his beliefs.

In a sense, I am still alive!!!

Today, a plaque marks the spot in Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket paid with his life in 1170 for his opposition to King Henry II’s demands.

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