Friday, December 16, 2011

December 16 - Thomas Becket, Martyr, Champion of the State, Enemy of the State

It's hard to classify where Thomas Becket fits into the question of State and Church. For much of his career, he was a friend of the powerful in England. The king and Thomas were fast friends for many years and Thomas even served as a foster father to one of Henry's sons. As Thomas rose through positions of power and influence within the Church, he garnered yet more attention from the powerful and respected. Yet, he continued living the life of a servant of the Kingdom by taking care of the poor and disenfranchised that had been created by the very systems he was so involved in. Thomas' story is a conflicted one even at its more heroic parts. For years, people have tried to gloss over his early affection for the State as being a matter of cunning or somehow less corrupting than it may appear to be yet it cannot be doubted any longer that Thomas defended and encouraged the king even as his actions drew the ire and disrespect of the people of the Church.

Yet, there is more to the story. The reach of the State began to increase even more and to take advantage of the clergy of England. Now that Thomas was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry hoped to command him and further cement his power over the clerical and Church leaders in his kingdom. Yet, now Thomas balked. He resisted Henry's suggestions and refused to be directed to serve the State's whims any longer. At first, Henry felt there must be a misunderstanding but Thomas' refusals only continued as time went on. Henry called for leaders to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon and swear their allegiance first to the British empire and secondly to the Church. Thomas was conflicted yet refused to sign. For this decision, he suffered condemnation from those he had been ingratiated to and learned to love and please. As the crisis continued, he eventually excommunicated those who sided with Henry and the State over the Church. In these actions, it seemsThomas made his choice as to who would be his master--yet it is not hard to imagine that all of this was a challenging decision for the man who had rested in the king's own courts. Thomas was forced to flee the king and ended up in Normandy.

When Henry heard of the newest volley of excommunications and Church actions, he remarked from his sick bed: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" What was intended to be a remark was interpreted as a command and a group of four knights went forth to find and judge Thomas. When they arrived at the worship service that Thomas was presiding over, they left their weapons outside and ordered Thomas to come with them to be judged by king Henry. He refused and they retrieved their weapons. As Thomas proceeded to the sanctuary for the vespers service, he was assaulted and killed by Henry's men. He died quickly as the men were trained by the State to exact the king's commands even against those who had been near and dear to the king.

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