Saint of the Day Quote: Saint Thomas Becket

Henry II:  Hear me!
People of Canterbury
and citizens of England,
as I have submitted myself to the lash,
so have I petitioned the Pope.
And this day,
I have received his answer.
Thomas Becket,
former Archbishop of Canterbury
and martyr to the cause
of God and his church,
shall henceforth be honored
and prayed to in this kingdom
as a saint.
(crowd cheering)
Henry II:  (sotto voce) Is the honor of God
washed clean enough?
Are you satisfied now, Thomas?


 “I am here, but I am no traitor. I am a priest of God, and ready to give my blood for God and His Church. But, in the name of the Almighty, I
 forbid you to hurt one of my people.”
Saint Thomas Becket, just before his martyrdom






Today is the feast day of my confirmation saint, Saint Thomas Becket, the holy, blessed martyr.  His story tells us how foreign to our time the Middle Ages are.  Becket was a worldly cleric who had risen to be chancellor of England for Henry II.  Henry seized the opportunity to place his man, Becket, on the throne of Canterbury as Primate of England.  Becket had a sudden and complete religious conversion and fought Henry for the liberty of the Church for which Becket suffered exile and, ultimately, murder.  In penance for Becket’s murder Henry had himself beaten by the monks at Canterbury before the tomb of his former friend who, two years after his death, was canonized by the Pope.  For over three centuries his tomb became one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe and inspired the immortal Canterbury Tales.


The Middle Ages were fully as immersed in sin as our own time, although with different mixtures of evil, but the sins of the Middle Ages were often followed by great penances and acts of contrition that brightened and inspired countless lives down through the centuries.  This we have lost and this we must regain.  G.K. Chesterton put what we lack in high relief when he wrote about Saint Thomas:

At the grave of the dead man broke forth what can only be called an epidemic of healing. For miracles so narrated there is the same evidence as for half of the facts of history; and any one denying them must deny them upon a dogma. But something followed which would seem to modern civilization even more monstrous than a miracle. If the reader can imagine Mr. Cecil Rhodes submitting to be horsewhipped by a Boer in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as an apology for some indefensible death incidental to the Jameson Raid, he will form but a faint idea of what was meant when Henry II was beaten by monks at the tomb of his vassal and enemy. The modern parallel called up is comic, but the truth is that mediaeval actualities have a violence that does seem comic to our conventions. The Catholics of that age were driven by two dominant thoughts: the all-importance of penitence as an answer to sin, and the all-importance of vivid and evident external acts as a proof of penitence. Extravagant humiliation after extravagant pride for them restored the balance of sanity. The point is worth stressing, because without it moderns make neither head nor tail of the period. Green gravely suggests, for instance, of Henry’s ancestor Fulk of Anjou, that his tyrannies and frauds were further blackened by “low superstition,” which led him to be dragged in a halter round a shrine, scourged and screaming for the mercy of God. Mediaevals would simply have said that such a man might well scream for it, but his scream was the only logical comment he could make. But they would have quite refused to see why the scream should be added to the sins and not subtracted from them. They would have thought it simply muddle-headed to have the same horror at a man being horribly sinful and for being horribly sorry.

Bishop Stephen Gardiner who helped Henry VIII destroy the Catholic Church in England so long under the protection of Saint Thomas Becket, Henry plundering and destroying the tomb of Saint Thomas as a symbol of the Catholicism he hated, later repented and sought to restore the Catholic Church in England under Queen Mary.  He died before Queen Mary and therefore he did not live to see the failure of the attempted restoration as a result of Mary’s death and the accession of Bloody Elizabeth.  As he lay dying he purportedly said something in his grief that I think gets at the heart of what sickens the modern world:  Erravi cum Petro, sed non flevi cum Petro.  (Like Peter I have erred, unlike Peter I have not wept.)  Sin remains sin, no matter what the world in its folly calls it.  Sin without repentance leads to damnation in eternity and endless evil in this world, something the Middle Ages knew well and our Modern World has almost completely forgotten.


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  1. These accounts always remind me of Hebrews 12:1-2.

    Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

  2. Thank you for this post. It will be something to keep in mind when forming a New Year’s resolution. Penance is a beautiful thing.

  3. 1869 CCC; Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.”

    And silence from the ambo’s of the American Catholic Church is killing our future… Literally!
    Oh mighty politician. How you go unchallenged and supported by those who know better. The Catholic clergy is guilty of the social grave sin of abortion. How?

    Holding said Catholic politician to the truth.

    Sin truly leads to death. Physical and spiritual.

  4. I’m sorry for my omission. “Not” holding said politician to the truth.

    Withholding Holy Communion after private discussion on the grave matter for those who disagree with the teachings of Holy Church is better than worrying if the church is being unmerciful for withholding the Sacrament.

  5. The irony, in the everything old is new again popular sense, is that the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket was about the crown’s effort to assert jurisdiction over clerics accused of civil crimes.

    Discuss amongst yourselves. I’m a little verklempt.

  6. Clerics self excommunicate themselves when they commit civil crimes. They ought to be defrocked or flogged. and by civil crimes I mean sexual abuse of children, which is also a crime against God. Whereas jaywalking not so much.

  7. Yes. Well, in Becket’s day the Church thought “defrocking” a criminous clerk was punishment. Henry II disagreed.

  8. Ernst Schreiber wrote, “Henry disagreed.”

    It was Becket’s view that prevailed.

    The privilege was extended not only to all who had received the first tonsure, but to those preparing for it and, eventually, to every literate person not indispensably irregular. To keep everything open and above board, the test of literacy was reading the first verse of the Miserere. Some not notably devout people could recite it by heart

    Clerks could have their cake and eat it, too. They could take their trial in the temporal court and, if acquitted, that was the end of the matter; if not, they could move in arreat of judgment, for the privilege was that of Holy Church and not theirs to waive. They were then surrendered to the Ordinary to make purgation.

    In England, it was finally abolished in 1824, although numerous restrictions had been introduced since Henry VII’s time.

    As late as 12 October 1869 in Apostolicæ Sedis, Pius IX imposed excommunication, specially reserved to the Holy See on “Those who directly or indirectly oblige lay judges to cite ecclesiastical persons before their tribunal, except in cases provided for by canonical agreements, also those who enact laws or decrees against the liberty or rights of the Church.” The “canonical agreements” referred to the various concordats and notably that with France (18010)

  9. “Yes. Well, in Becket’s day the Church thought “defrocking” a criminous clerk was punishment. Henry II disagreed.”
    Henry never wanted Becket put to death. Henry said something like “Who will rid me of this priest?” Henry’s killers were just to happy to kill. The offhanded remark resulted in Becket’s death.

  10. No, he wasn’t. He was the Church official covering up (in the charged, present parlance) for “criminous clerks” by insisting on the right of the Church to deal with it’s own; which, from Henry’s point of view, was tantamount to allowing them to escape justice. As M. P.-S. pointed out, Becket’s view prevailed for the reason’s you gave regarding the manner of his death.

  11. Good post. The Beckett – Henry II is a good story to remind those in leadership, particularly in the military, to choose one’s words carefully because one’s subordinates do listen to their leaders.
    The Commonwealth of Virginia has asked the two bishops in the state to provide information on molestation cases by clerics because like PA VA will now conduct their own criminal investigations.
    It’s unfortunate that Pope Francis put a hold on the USCCB completing a policy on American Church policing itself until after the pope’s Feb meeting in Rome. The delay seriously hurts the reputation of the American Church and Freedom of Religion.
    We attended Mass today at the beautiful St. Matthews Cathedral in DC. I was relieved to see that Cdl Wuerl was not at the Mass. He who would not refuse Communion to nominally Catholic pols who signed laws in favor of abortion.
    Beckett is my birthday saint and he and St.Thomas More are my two favorite English saints.

  12. Re penance for clergy, I have been told there is a monastery in the US where clerical molesters are incarcerated and wear ankle monitors. True?

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