The Adventures of St. Thomas Becket

Eight centuries ago, St. Thomas Becket renounced his life for the sake of Christ.

Sculpture of St. Thomas Becket from the front of Salisbury Cathedral
Sculpture of St. Thomas Becket from the front of Salisbury Cathedral (photo: Adrian Pingstone / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170) is well-known for his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral, defending religious liberty in England from the designs of his former friend, King Henry II Plantagenet.

But lesser-known is Becket’s time on the run, before he returned to England to confront Henry’s abuses of power and ultimately face his death. This archbishop of Canterbury found safe haven in Catholic France while hunted by spies of Henry. There his spiritual presence greatly endeared him to the French, so much so that his shrine in England was a major place of pilgrimage for those on both sides of the Channel.

Among those who found inspiration in Becket was France’s King John the Good in 1356. During the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, King John was taken captive after England’s victory at the Battle of Poitiers. The defeat was a major blow to the French, a battle that saw, among the thousands felled, one Geoffroi de Charny — the brave knight who died protecting King John, and who today is best known as the purported onetime owner of the Shroud of Turin. During his imprisonment in England, John asked his captives if he could go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket. The request was granted.

These days, it might be hard to envision how very much Catholic both France and England were prior to the French Revolution and Reformation. But in this poignant gesture of piety by the Catholic French king, bitter enemy of Catholic English king Edward III, the legacy of St. Thomas Becket bridged, at least temporarily, the division between the two kingdoms.

And so, following his resignation as chancellor and conviction for contempt of royal authority in 1164, Becket fled England. Becket found refuge in France under the protection of King Louis VII. Perhaps there was a personal motive for Louis to lend his help: Louis was once married to King Henry’s wife, the queen consort of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Becket found refuge with the Cistercians at Pontigny abbey in Burgundy. If it was Becket’s famous conversion to asceticism that prompted his fallout with the king, the new Becket was a perfect match with the simple Cistercian lifestyle. South of Pontigny in Burgundy is the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay, named after St. Mary Magdalene. It was a spiritual nexus, from hosting pilgrims as a launch point for the Way of Saint James to the presence of Becket himself, who in 1166 on Pentecost at the abbey church, with its stirring tympanum, preached excommunication against allies of Henry II, even threatening excommunication against Henry as well.

The 1964 film, Becket, is a towering cinematic achievement. At its core is Becket’s moral conversion which leads to his martyrdom. Anchored by two master thespians, Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry, the honor of God emerges as the central theme in the film. What was once indifferent loyalty to a king becomes a willing sacrifice to something greater. “I fell in love ... with the honor of God,” Becket tells Henry. Becket thus stands firm on matters Henry would like to see bend, echoing both Henry VIII’s later tussle with St. Thomas More and the enduring struggle of Church and state over the centuries.

Last month, the White House commemorated the 850th anniversary of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. “Thomas Becket’s death serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty. It is our priceless treasure and inheritance. And it was bought with the blood of martyrs,” part of the proclamation states. (Find the full text here.

Any student of the Catholic faith must become acquainted with St. Thomas Becket. The film Becket is a good place to start, and perhaps an opportunity even may arise to follow King John the Good’s footsteps in venerating the great saint at the very site of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral.

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