Thursday, 2 March 2017

Might and right - Thomas Becket

Geoffrey Chaucer - a kindly face from Canterbury.

A few weeks ago, we went to Canterbury. I always compare other cathedrals to Wells, my 'local', and Wells always wins - it is so very beautiful. But what Canterbury does have is an incredibly powerful story which is soaked into its very stones. It's the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170: specifically, it's the story of his murder. He died because he resisted his King; because he believed that what he thought was right aced his duty to his liege lord. Perhaps there's a message here for the people who surround our present leaders.

Becket came from a moderately well-to-do Norman family. As he was beginning to make his way in the world, his father suffered some kind of financial setback, and Thomas had to take a position as a clerk to pay his way. However, he did well: working to start off with for a relative, but later moving to the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury - then, as now, the archbishopric of Canterbury was the foremost one in the English church. Becket did well, and in 1154 he became Archdeacon of Canterbury, as well as being given various other posts in the church.

In fact, he did so well that Theobald recommended him to the King, Henry 11 for the post of Lord Chancellor - a position of considerable power and renown. Henry was engaged in a struggle with the church, because he felt it had too much power - power which too closely rivalled his own: for instance, a priest could only be tried in a church court, not in a civil court, no matter how heinous his crime. He believed that Becket was on his side - that he was ideally placed, with one foot in the church camp and one in the secular camp, to help him to shift the balance of power in favour of the crown.

At first, all went as planned. Becket helped Henry to extract money both from the church and from secular landowners; the two men got on well, with Henry even sending his son to live in Becket's household.

Then Theobald died, and Henry had a brilliant idea: he would make his friend archbishop, and then power over the church - with all its possessions and immense riches - and state would reside firmly in Henry's hands.

But it didn't work out like that. Thomas took his new position and responsibilities extremely seriously. He saw it as his duty not to do what Henry wanted, but to defend the church - if necessary, to the death. Henry was astonished. How dare this man, whom he had raised up - his friend - defy him? Wounded and furious at this perceived betrayal (is this reminding you of anyone?), he exiled him. The Pope eventually brokered a kind of peace, and Becket returned: but still he defied the King. Eventually, in what might possibly be called a tantrum, Henry turned on his courtiers and demanded to know why none of them would sort Becket out for him. (The exact words are not known, but he is commonly said to have railed at them: 'Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?') And four knights took him at his word.

This is where Thomas was killed. The two swords, and their shadows, represent the four knights who killed him.

They went to Canterbury, and inside the church, in a small space where one staircase led to the crypt, another up to the altar, and a door led to the cloisters, they brutally attacked him. As he died, his blood soaked into the stones.

Did Henry really mean this to happen? Did the knights misunderstand? Afterwards, he came to the cathedral and did humble and apparently sincere penance. But the four knights, though they eventually had to go into exile, were not arrested and their lands were not confiscated.

Very quickly, Becket's tomb inside the cathedral became a place of sanctity and pilgrimage - a place to come and be healed. Becket was soon declared a saint. Fifty years later, his remains were moved upstairs to the new eastern part of the cathedral, beyond the altar, into a tomb richly decorated with gold and jewels. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, priest and theologian, saw the tomb and was astonished by it; he said that the gold was the least of its riches, compared to the wealth of precious stones which had been given by kings and nobles in homage to the martyr.

A few years later, Henry VIII ransacked the tomb and stole the gold and the jewels. It wasn't just about the money: it was about the story as well. Henry, the power-crazed despot, had to do everything he could to obliterate the cult of Thomas Becket; because, even more so than Henry II, he couldn't bear the thought that a commoner should defy the king; that a man's conscience should be more important to him than his allegiance to the crown.

But it didn't work; the story, and the cult, survived. Thomas, and what he stood far - a determination to act according to his conscience - was not forgotten, despite the best efforts first of one king, then of another, far more brutal one.

I'm not a believer, but I think that's quite an encouraging message from the stones of Canterbury Cathedral. Especially at the moment. Those who are close to political leaders, take note: your allegiance to what is right takes precedence over your allegiance to your boss. That's the message that resounds down the centuries from Thomas Becket.


  1. Rather seems to depend on what one views as betrayal. Enemies don't betray. Friends, or those perceived as friends, do.

    Much of what has happened here in the UK, Brexit/Bremain, is for similar reasons to what has happened in the US, with Trump.
    Disengagement between electorate, and those in politics. Career politicians, ie, those who have done little less in life other than political activism, or PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics ) at University, joined a political party, Route 1 into visiting party bigwigs. MP's who view local members as whose only function is to deliver leaflets/doorstep, and 'deliver' the vote. A self-serving crew.

    I actually believe that one of the most direct betrayals in modern politics is when Nick Clegg, the then leader of a party that is now minute in Parliament, reneged on a direct policy committment on tuition fees. His party is now attempting to remodel itself, or to be more exact give itself a makeover, as the Bremainers Party. 'lipstick on a pig' as is sometimes said. Perhaps they'll succeed. That's politics.

  2. Sorry, Andrew, I'm probably being dense, but the post wasn't about betrayal. I think that Trump particularly, but other leaders too, have a dangerous amount of power concentrated in their hands - and are not wielding it in a way which will be beneficial to the world. So what I'm suggesting is that the people who surround these leaders really do need to hold to what they believe to be right, rather than to what their leaders ask of them. But of course, we may not - do not - all agree on what 'right' is.

  3. Guess you and I shall have to agree to different points of view Sue.
    For me, in those murderous times, this was basically a contest between the rich and powerful. When I visit a cathedral, I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the marble figures of the tomb of Baron de this, Count of that, head on a stone pillow, sword almost as big as him by his side. Faithful dog at feet. Or the celebrations of military figures in the Boer War, or for example, in Chichester Cathedral, the large dedication to Mr Crawley, one of the signatories to the death warrant for King Charles I. Little mention of ordinary people, they're just cyphers.

    In terms of of current politics, I like to see politicians being honest to the people who elected them, and who view a manifesto as a promise, rather than tomorrow's toilet paper.

    Trump? I watched an Oscar nominated film a few nights ago, at my local film society in Shipham. 'Hell or High Water'. Very much enjoyed. The number of people afterwards who commented.., '.. that's why people voted for Trump... '. If I was in the US, I'd have voted for Bernie Sanders. But it's important, I think, to understand the other points of view.