Happy St Thomas a Beckett’s Day everyone.. patron saint for everyone who thinks that spiritual matters should take precedence over secular matters, no matter whatsoever your religion… he is patron saint to everyone out there having a hard time being harrassed by debt collectors, tax officials, petty government bureacracts, local council tax collectors, government inspectors, health and safety officials, incompetent MP’s, Eurocrats on fat cat salaries, corrupt politicians, corrupt and incompetent NHS officials and pill pushers, bank officials, energy company officials who ring you up and harrass you, anyone who has ever said to you “I cant tell you that, due to health and safety / freedom of information legislation”.. and all the rest of the totally idiotic crew who seem to have taken over our world.. St Thomas had the courage to stand up to the whole lot of them, in the name of a far higher power than the whole lot put together.. He was, so to speak, the Archdruid of his day.. (Druids also always put the spirit before the letter) T.S. Eliot wrote a famous play about him called Murder in the Cathedral. The reason Thomas became a popular name in Britain was because of this man. In my own family, in most generations, there has probably been a Thomas and I suspect it goes back to the 12th century.
Becket was born about 1118, or in 1120 according to later tradition. He was born in Cheapside, London, on 21 December, which was the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. He was the son of Gilbert Beket and Gilbert’s wife Matilda. Gilbert’s father was from Thiervillein the lordship of Brionne in Normandy, and was either a small landowner or a petty knight.Matilda was also of Norman ancestry, and her family may have originated near Caen. Gilbert was perhaps related to Theobald of Bec, whose family also was from Thierville. Gilbert began his life as a merchant, perhaps as a textile merchant, but by the 1120s he was living in London and was a property-owner, living on the rental income from his properties. He also served as the sheriff of the city at some point. They were buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
One of Becket’s father’s rich friends, Richer deL’Aigle, often invited Thomas to his estates inSussex where Becket was exposed to hunting and hawking. According to Grim, Becket learned much from Richer. Richer was later a signatory at the Constitutions of Clarendon against Thomas.
Beginning when he was 10, Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul’s Cathedral. He did not study any subjects beyond the trivium and quadriviumat these schools. Later, he spent about a year in Paris around age 20. He did not, however, study canon or civil law at this time and his Latin skill always remained somewhat rudimentary. Sometime after Becket began his schooling, Gilbert Beket suffered financial reverses, and the younger Becket was forced to earn a living as a clerk. Gilbert first secured a place for his son in the business of a relative Osbert Huitdeniers, and then later Becket acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, by now theArchbishop of Canterbury.
Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and also sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. Theobald in 1154 named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, and other ecclesiastical offices included a number of benefices, prebends at Lincoln Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral, and the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in those posts led to Theobald recommending him to King Henry II for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor, to which Becket was appointed in January 1155.
As Chancellor, Becket enforced the king’s traditional sources of revenue that were exacted from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. King Henry even sent his son Henry to live in Becket’s household, it being the custom then for noble children to be fostered out to other noble houses. The younger Henry was reported to have said Becket showed him more fatherly love in a day than his father did for his entire life. An emotional attachment to Becket as a foster-father may have been one of the reasons the younger Henry would turn against his father.
Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of Theobald. His election was confirmed on 23 May 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen. Henry may have hoped that Becket would continue to put the royal government first, rather than that of the church. The famous transformation of Becket into an ascetic occurred at this time.
It is from that time on, that he decided to devote himself to the spiritual law and the work of the Church, rather than to the secular work of government.
Eventually, after he had dared to challenge the authority of King Henry 2nd, 4 knights in the service of the King came to Canterbury Cathedral to murder him. A historian of the time told the story of what happened:
“…The wicked kniht leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more
It is a tragic story, but one that is worth remembering – that sometimes, one has to be prepared to draw a line in the sand, and not let the petty servants of offcicaldom bully one about. Perhaps the people of Britain should recall this saint now, when there seem to be too few willing to speak out on behalf of the common people and bureacracy does seem truly to have destroyed the soul and heart and spirit of society. True spiritual insight was never brought by committee, nor by local government officials, nor by acts or deeds of parliament, nor by laws and confraternities of lawyers, but only by courage, truth and wisdom working their sacred magic in the hearts of men and women. Speaking truth to power is still a dangerous occupation today, but as a philosopher trained in the lineage of both Socrates and Jesus Christ, I believe it is a job that needs doing today as much as in Beckett’s day.. Keep at it, folks ! And keep your brains on !