“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – with these words, Saint Thomas Becket was condemned by King Henry II and martyred.
Prior to this, Saint Thomas had butted heads with the king by refusing to approve the his Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have removed the rights of clerics to be tried by the Church and appeal to Rome. Apparently, Saint Thomas was open to some kind of compromise as the king was, ostensibly, trying to address a real problem of corruption among clergy (conveniently grabbing power at the same time), but ultimately rejected the constitutions. This sent him into exile, fleeing to France for several years. Some time after he returned to England, he refused to lift censures he had placed on bishops that the king particularly favored – prompting the famous words above.
There is some doubt as to whether or not the king actually intended that his angry utterance to be a call for execution – both King Henry and Saint Thomas Becket were known for their fiery temperament, and willingness to express themselves freely. Despite the clashes between them in their positions of authority, they had had a friendship that had started many years prior – with the two of them even serving in war together. Nonetheless, four knights, upon hearing their king’s words, went to Canterbury and killed Saint Thomas Becket in the cathedral.
Today’s commemoration is the last of the martyrs celebrated during this octave of Christmas. Brother Cassian Derbes, O.P. at Word on Fire has a thoughtful reflection on the school of martyrdom. While we hope to never be enrolled such that we must suffer as the martyrs did, may we yet follow the martyrs example of faithfulness and commitment to Christ.
My friend Thom Ryng, having a particular love for Saint Thomas Becket, has taken a neat dive into the liturgical oddity of today’s commemoration (and has links to his reflections on the saint from prior years). I highly recommend his writing on Saint Thomas – and in general!