top of page

The Catholic Defender: Saint Thomas Becket

Saint Thomas Becket's Last Words " "Willingly I die in the name of Jesus in defence of the Church"

I do not ordinarily begin with the end, but St. Thomas Becket's last words says it all.

He was born in London around 1118 to Norman French parents. He spent 7 years as chancellor and confidante of King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189), enjoying the pleasures of courtly life, such as hunting and fine clothes. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.

Despite not being a priest at this time, he was ordained and instantly given the top position in the church in England. This was a largely political appointment, Henry hoping to gain control over the church through his friendship with Becket. In this Henry was to be disappointed, Becket embracing his spiritual side, defending the rights of the church, and on a personal note eschewing the luxury and pomp he had formerly enjoyed. Indeed, on his death the monks at Canterbury discovered he wore a hair shirt infested with lice under his vestments.

Not popular with the king and some other leading English clerics, such as the Bishop of London, Becket spent 6 years in exile in France. On his return in 1170 four knights inside the cathedral murdered him almost at once, on 29 December. It has been suggested that he sought martyrdom when it could possibly have been avoided by negotiations and compromise.

A strong man who wavered for a moment, but then learned one cannot come to terms with evil, and so became a strong churchman, a martyr, and a saint—that was Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral on December 29, 1170.

His career had been a stormy one. While archdeacon of Canterbury, he was made chancellor of England at the age of 36 by his friend King Henry II. When Henry felt it advantageous to make his chancellor the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas gave him fair warning: he might not accept all of Henry’s intrusions into Church affairs.

At the age of twenty-four Thomas was given a post in the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury

and while there he apparently resolved on a career in the Church, for he took minor orders. To prepare himself further, he obtained the archbishop's permission to study canonlaw at the University of Bologna, continuing his studies at Auxerre, France.

On coming back to England, he became provost of Beverley, and canon at Lincoln and St. Paul's cathedrals. His ordination as deacon occurred in 1154.

Nevertheless, in 1162 he was made archbishop, resigned his chancellorship, and reformed his whole way of life!

Troubles began. Henry insisted upon usurping Church rights.

At one time, supposing some conciliatory action possible, Thomas came close to compromise. He momentarily approved the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have denied the clergy the right of trial by a Church court and prevented them from making direct appeal to Rome.

But Thomas rejected the Constitutions, fled to France for safety, and remained in exile for seven years. When he returned to England he suspected it would mean certain death.

Because Thomas refused to remit censures he had placed upon bishops favored by the king, Henry cried out in a rage, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” Four knights, taking his words as his wish, slew Thomas in the Canterbury cathedral.

Within three years of his death the archbishop had been canonized as a martyr. Thomas Becket, when his time of testing came, had the courage to lay down his life to defend the ancient rights of the Church against an aggressive state. The discovery of his hairshirt and other evidences of austerity, and the many miracles which were reported at his tomb, increased the veneration in which he was held. His tomb was magnificently adorned with gold, silver, and jewels, only to be despoiled by Henry VIII; the fate of his relics is uncertain.

His career was marked by a long quarrel with Henry that ended with Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral. He is venerated as a saint and martyr in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. He is a patron saint of secular clergy (priests and deacons who serve pastorally in parishes).

St. Thomas made his first conversions by a miracle. At the village of Palur, he found some Brahman priests throwing handfuls of water into the air as they performed their purification prayers. Thomas threw some water into the air himself, and it hung suspended in the form of sparkling flowers.

This seems to have added to his sanctity, dying because of his rigid defence of church rights. The miracles began immediately after his death. The blood from his head wounds, which formed a pool on the stone floor, was soaked up by the cloth rags that several of the laity present in the cathedral had.

One man took his home to his sick wife, who was instantly cured. Similar reports of cures followed in the next few days, involving predominantly poor and sick local women. Becket’s blood touched the cloth, imbuing it with his saintly powers. Later, the blood would be watered down so much that the water contained the merest hint of a drop of blood in it, and sold to the pilgrims.

Similar reports of cures followed in the next few days, involving predominantly poor and sick local women. Becket’s blood touched the cloth, imbuing it with his saintly powers. Later, the blood would be watered down so much that the water contained the merest hint of a drop of blood in it, and sold to the pilgrims.

How do we know about the miracles? Expecting a popular reaction to the death, and suspecting that the king may attempt to remove the body, the monks at the cathedral guarded the tomb in the crypt. There was always someone there, and as the people came to give thanks for the miracles they had experienced, they reported it to the monk, who then wrote it down. There were two monks in this role, Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury. Each took a different approach to his task.

Benedict stated he questioned the pilgrims, tried to filter out fabrication, and record the miracles chronologically and accurately. William took over in 1172 when the shrine was becoming fashionable, and the wealthy and powerful were visiting. He grouped miracles into types (healing, driving out demons, finding lost items), and the stories became increasingly fantastic.

For instance he records a Breton woman who taught a starling to invoke St Thomas, and when a kite seized the bird it repeated this phrase and the kite dropped dead, releasing the starling.

William was anxious to record the stories of men, preferably wealthy and powerful, secular and clerics.

These people were more respectable and influential. Benedict, on the other hand, recorded many cases of poor women, widows and the sick, who came from the locality of Canterbury.

Each monk had his own reasons for recording the miracles as he did, though which is the most reliable historical source is debatable.

Both cited miracles which were imitations of those of Christ and his Apostles, healing leprosy (defined as any skin disease), driving out demons, restoring sight. Physical ailments were seen as the result of spiritual sins, thus physical blindness was caused by spiritual blindness, and physical leprosy was caused by leprosy of the soul.

What is clear is that Becket’s shrine had an incredible hold on the minds of the people from all sections of society. They may have been motivated by genuine belief, by desperation for a cure, by curiosity of the latest fashion, or by a desire for a kind of holiday.

Over the course of the ten years covered by Benedict and William, 703 miracles were recorded. There are estimated to have been 100,000 visitors to the shrine in 1171 alone.

Becket was canonised in 1173, less than three years after his death, one of the fastest canonisations of the twelfth century. His feast day is 29 December, the date of his martyrdom.

His shrine was covered in precious jewels that pilgrims, including King Louis XI of France, donated. A whole industry developed round it over the course of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Metal pilgrim badges depicting Becket were sold as souvenirs. Some of these are on display at various museums, including the Museum of London and Canterbury Museum. The shrine was destroyed in 1539 during the Reformation, one of the first targets for King Henry VIII’s men.

Becket appeared to people in dreams and healed them. They then made pilgrimages to Canterbury to give gifts and thanks at his shrine. Benedict of Peterborough recorded the miracles of Becket, and many can be seen in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral.

Becket's determination to achieve martyrdom had borne fruit; for on Ash Wednesday 1173, at a church council at Westminster, the slain Archbishop was canonised and 29th December was designed a feast day in the liturgical calendar.

Thomas Becket remains a hero-saint down to our own times.

Words from St. Thomas Becket:

Remember the sufferings of Christ, the storms that were weathered... the crown that came from those sufferings which gave new radiance to the faith... All saints give testimony to the truth that without real effort, no one ever wins the crown.

Many are needed to plant and water what has been planted now that the faith has spread so far and there are so many people... No matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what is planted is the faith of Peter and unless he agrees to his teachings.


bottom of page