Thomas Becket

BecketLet us pause for a moment to remember Thomas Becket on his feast day.

The thing that he is remembered for is his death in Canterbury Cathedral – struck down by knights who believed that they were carrying out the orders of Henry II of England. His cult spread through Europe and I remember discovering chapels dedicated to him in Sweden when I was there 10 years ago. I was asked this morning at morning prayer whether there were any ancient dedications to him in Scotland. At the time I could not remember – in fact, Arbroath Abbey was dedicated to Thomas just 8 years after his murder.

It is easy to regard Thomas through rather rosy spectacles. He can seem like a saint whose story speaks of someone prepared to speak truth to power even at great risk to himself. (There are shade of Benazir Bhutto here, don’t miss them). However, I’m not at all sure that I would take Thomas’s side in the argument with Henry that he actually fought.

Henry wanted clerics to be subject to civil authority rather than ecclesiastical courts. In the end, though he had tried to impose that authority on the church, as a consequence of the murder of Becket, he withdrew the changes that he had introduced. Thus, centuries later, churches still claim authority over their own and exemption from the norms of civil society. At the time, the King had much support for his reforms from within the church, but never convinced the archbishop to concede that the church was not above the law of the land.

Plus ça change, plus ça change.