On December 29, 1170, in the late afternoon (and thus after the main meal of the day but shortly before vespers), four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral. Impelled, as far as history knows, by the angry words of King Henry II, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,” they had come to confront Archbishop Thomas Becket, and win King Henry’s favor by forcing the long-simmering dispute between Becket and his King to some final resolution. When the Archbishop refused their conflicting demands, and reacted with scorn to their insults, the knights withdrew, only to arm themselves and follow Becket into the Cathedral for vespers. As the traditional account has it:
The bell for vespers began to sound, and the archbishop, with his cross borne in front of him, made his way in as usual into the cathedral. Hardly had he reached the ascent to the choir than the noise of armed men and the shout of the knights announced that the pursuers were at hand. “Where is the archbishop, where is the traitor?” resounded through the hollow aisles, mingling strangely with the recitation of the psalms in the choir. Becket, hearing this, turned back a few steps, and calmly awaited their approach in the corner of the northern transept before the little altar of S Benedict. “Here,” he cried, “is the archbishop—no traitor, but a priest of God.” Awed by his demeanor, and perhaps by the sanctity of the place, no one dared strike. A parley began. They sought to lash their failing courage into action by words. A hasty and insulting epithet gave Fitz Urse the opportunity he wanted. A blow aimed at the archbishop’s head only knocked his skull-cap to the ground, but it was enough to loose the bandogs of hell. A stroke from Tracy cut off the tonsured back of [Becket’s] skull, another from Brito brought him to his knees. In a minute all was over. The archbishop lay prone in his blood before the altar step, his brains scattered savagely on the floor, while his murderers slunk back through the dark and silent aisles with the chill of remorse already at their hearts, like Othello from the couch of Desdemona.In the more prosaic retelling of modern historians, the story is dramatic enough: Only one witness remained with Becket as the knights tried to forcibly remove him from the Cathedral. As that survivor recounted, Becket resisted. It “was in the ensuing melee that he [Becket] received a blow on the head. As the blood flowed the four knights fell upon him with their swords.” When the knights had finished their “butcher’s job” as W.L. Warren aptly calls it, Becket lay dead on the floor of the Cathedral.
The result of this brutal murder in the most hallowed space in the English Church was almost as dramatic as the deed itself. Becket’s courage in the face of death, as well as the personal asceticism he had adopted upon his appointment as Archbishop fused into an idealized vision of Becket as martyr and saint; as Warren phrases it:
The dramatic transition from magnificent courtier to clerical martyr, heightened and fixed in the mind by the discovery on the corpse of a lice-ridden hairshirt, established him as a copybook examplar of the drama of conversion. His courage and steadfastness unto death marked him out as a martyr in an age uncommonly short of martyrs, and swept him on a wave of popular acclaim to an unusually swift canonization in March 1173.
So strong was the feeling in favor of Thomas Becket that the King, though denying that he had sought Becket’s death, performed a dramatic penance at his tomb:
The king dismounted outside Canterbury and entered the city barefoot, in plain woolen garments. Prostrate and weeping before the tomb of the murdered archbishop, he received physical punishment from the monks and other clerics, then spent the night there in prayer and fasting. In the morning he heard mass and then went on his way to London.
The resulting cultus of St. Thomas has lived in literature, stage and film. Pilgrimages to Canterbury in honor of St. Thomas form the frame of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But glossed over in most hagiography and popular depictions of the Becket story is the nature of the conflict between Becket and Henry—a conflict which prefigures the crisis in moral authority roiling the Roman Catholic Church at the present day. As Batrtlett summarizes in very capsule form, there were, essentially, three areas of dispute between Henry and Becket, “quarrels over the property of the church of Canterbury, the details of royal taxation and the extent that clerks could be treated differently from lay people in the law courts.” Bartlett’s correct but rather overly discreet phrasing may mislead the reader; what he, Warren and Wakeman accept as the most serious dispute between Becket and Henry II was Becket’s attempted creation of a parallel court system, in which individuals who had often only minimal connection to the Church could nonetheless claim exemption from the secular law, and be subject to the milder (and originally minimal) punishments applicable under canon law. Such individuals could be accused of crimes ranging from theft to rape and, frequently, even murder.
Becket’s cause, seeking to regularize a practice that had evolved during the weaker (and rather chaotic) reign of Henry’s predecessor King Stephen, was essentially successful, and canon law for many years ran along a parallel track to the secular law.
Becket’s view of ecclesiastical sovereignty prevailed in another way, too. From his time into the Twentieth Century, the relationship between Church and State changed from a united Christendom, to a divided and Reformed Christian Europe, to what many now call post-Christian Europe. Throughout that time, the Catholic Church defended its own separate canon law courts, and created an ideological-cum-theological justification for such courts being the principal, and, ideally the only, forum to take cognizance of criminal complaints against the clergy. In the sexual abuse scandals from the second half of the Twentieth Century into the present, defenders of the Church routinely take as a given the notion that such matters should be diverted to private adjudication in private, absent the secular authorities’ awareness of the underlying crime.
Throughout the succeeding centuries, even where such parallel courts were forced to give way to secular jurisdiction, the Roman Catholic Church continued to hold out ecclesiastical sovereignty as a model to be preserved, applied and, where limited, restored to the maximum extent possible. Only in the Twentieth Century did the Church grudgingly begin to come to terms with democratic theory; only in the years leading up to, and especially in the wake of, Vatican II did the Church begin to find some value in democratic society. That half-accomplished rapprochement did not extend to acceptance of secular government’s right to protect its citizenry against predation by clergy. Seeking to understand why this is the case, and the costs to the Church of this theological understanding, is critical in determining what steps secular government can take and ought to take, with respect to the crisis.
One salient factor in this continued existence of a parallel jurisdiction, not recognized by the secular government as having cognizance of criminal misconduct, is the tradition of ecclesiastical sovereignty championed by Becket, and justified in the Nineteenth Century by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Becket’s struggle for, and Newman’s defense of ecclesiastical sovereignty echo not just the tactics but the very language employed by the Church’s defenders in the sexual abuse scandal. The newly beatified convert from Anglicanism and the murdered Archbishop have never been more relevant.