How is Canterbury Cathedral related to the story of Thomas à Becket?

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England. It is also the site of a dramatic and tragic event that shaped the history of the Church and the nation: the murder of Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.

Who was Thomas à Becket?

Thomas à Becket was born in London around 1119 or 1120 to a merchant family. He rose to prominence as a skilled administrator and diplomat, serving as Lord Chancellor to King Henry II from 1155 to 1162. He was a close friend and confidant of the king, who trusted him with many important affairs of state. He was also a worldly and ambitious man, enjoying a lavish lifestyle and a reputation for generosity and charm.

In 1162, Henry II appointed Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest position in the English Church. He hoped that his friend would help him reform the Church and bring it under his control. However, Thomas underwent a radical transformation after becoming archbishop. He renounced his former ways and devoted himself to defending the rights and privileges of the Church against the king’s encroachments. He wore a hair shirt under his robes, fasted regularly, and gave alms to the poor. He also clashed with Henry over several issues, such as the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts, the taxation of church property, and the appointment of bishops.

What happened at Canterbury Cathedral?

The conflict between Thomas and Henry reached a breaking point in 1164, when Thomas refused to accept the Constitutions of Clarendon, a set of laws that limited the power of the Church and increased the authority of the king. He was accused of treason and fled to France, where he remained in exile for six years. During this time, he continued to resist Henry’s demands and excommunicated some of his supporters.

In 1170, Henry and Thomas seemed to reach a reconciliation, and Thomas returned to England. However, he soon angered Henry again by excommunicating three bishops who had crowned Henry’s son as co-king without his permission. Henry, who was in France at the time, reportedly uttered the famous words: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights who heard him took this as a command and set out for Canterbury.

On December 29, 1170, they arrived at Canterbury Cathedral and confronted Thomas in his palace. They demanded that he lift the excommunications and submit to the king’s will. Thomas refused and fled to the cathedral, hoping to find sanctuary there. The knights followed him and attacked him near the altar, striking him with their swords until he fell dead on the floor. His last words were: “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.”

What was the impact of Thomas’ death?

Thomas’ death shocked and outraged the Christian world. He was seen as a martyr who died for the cause of God and His Church. Miracles were reported at his tomb, and pilgrims flocked to Canterbury to venerate his relics. In 1173, Pope Alexander III canonized him as Saint Thomas of Canterbury. His feast day is celebrated on December 29.

Henry II was filled with remorse for his role in Thomas’ death. He publicly confessed his guilt and did penance at Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, allowing himself to be whipped by monks. He also agreed to repeal some of his laws that infringed on the Church’s rights and to end his conflict with the Pope.

Thomas’ death also inspired many artistic works, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales , which depicts a group of pilgrims traveling to Thomas’ shrine; T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral , which dramatizes Thomas’ last days; and Jean Anouilh’s Becket , which explores Thomas’ friendship and rivalry with Henry.

Canterbury Cathedral remains a symbol of Thomas’ legacy and a place of pilgrimage for Christians today. It houses a chapel dedicated to him, where his tomb once stood before it was destroyed by King Henry VIII during the Reformation. A single candle marks the spot where he was killed, and a sword blade embedded in the wall serves as a reminder of his martyrdom.

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