Thursday 16 February 2017

A Message From The Past - by Sue Purkiss

I recently visited Canterbury for the first time. The cathedral is a beautiful building, though my favourite is still Wells, which is my 'local'. Wells certainly has the most stunning chapter house: I really think it must be one of the loveliest rooms in the world.
Geoffrey Chaucer - a kindly face from Canterbury.

What Canterbury does have, though, is an incredibly powerful story - which is soaked into its very stones. It's the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170: specifically, it's the story of his murder.

Becket came from a moderately well-to-do Norman family. As he was beginning to make his way in the world, his father suffered some kind of financial setback, and Thomas had to take a position as a clerk to pay his way. However, he did well: working to start off with for a relative, but later moving to the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury - then, as now, the archbishopric of Canterbury was the foremost one in the English church. Becket did well, and was entrusted with several missions to Rome as well as being sent to France to study canon law. In 1154 he became Archdeacon of Canterbury and was also given various other posts in the church.

In fact, he did so well that Theobald recommended him to the King, Henry 11 for the post of Lord Chancellor - a position of considerable power and renown. Henry was engaged in a struggle with the church, because he felt it had too much power: for instance, a priest could only be tried in a church court, no matter what his alleged crime was. He believed that Becket was on his side - that he was ideally placed, with one foot in the church camp and one in the secular camp, to help him to shift the balance of power in favour of the crown.

At first, all went as planned. Becket helped Henry to extract money both from the church and from secular landowners; the two men got on well, with Henry even sending his son to live in Becket's household.

Then Theobald died, and Henry had a brilliant idea: he would make his friend archbishop, and then power over the church - with all its possessions and riches - and state would reside firmly in Henry's hands.

But it didn't work out like that. Thomas took his new position and responsibilities extremely seriously. He saw it as his duty, not to do what Henry wanted, but to defend the church - if necessary, to the death. Henry was astonished. How dare this man defy him? Wounded and furious at this perceived betrayal (is this reminding you of anyone?), he exiled him. The Pope eventually brokered a kind of peace, and Becket returned: but still he defied the King. Eventually, in what might possibly be called a tantrum, Henry turned on his courtiers and demanded to know why none of them would sort Becket out for him. (The exact words are not known, but he is commonly said to have railed at them: 'Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?') And four knights took him at his word.

This is where Thomas was killed. The two swords, and their shadows, represent the four knights who killed him.

They went to Canterbury, and inside the church, in a small space where one staircase led to the crypt, another up to the altar, and a door led to the cloisters, they brutally attacked him. As he died, his blood soaked into the stones.

Who knows if this was really what Henry meant to happen? Afterwards, he came to the cathedral and did humble and apparently sincere penance. But the four knights, though they eventually had to go into exile, were not arrested and their lands were not confiscated.

Very quickly, Becket's tomb inside the cathedral became a place of sanctity and pilgrimage - a place to come and be healed. Becket was soon declared a saint. Fifty years later, his remains were moved upstairs to the new eastern part of the cathedral, beyond the altar, into a tomb richly decorated with gold and jewels. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, priest and theologian, saw the tomb and was astonished by it; he said that the gold was the least of its riches, compared to the wealth of huge jewels which had been given by kings and nobles in homage to the martyr.

A few years later, Henry VIII ransacked the tomb and stole the gold and the jewels. But it wasn't just about the money. It was about the story. He had to do everything he could to obliterate the cult of Thomas Becket; because, even more so than Henry II, he couldn't bear the thought that a commoner should defy the king; that a man's conscience should be more important to him than his allegiance to the crown. But it didn't work. Thomas, and what he stood far - a determination to act according to his conscience - was not forgotten, despite the best efforts first of one king, then of another, far more brutal one.

I'm not a believer, but I think that's quite an encouraging message from the stones of Canterbury Cathedral. Especially at the moment. Those who are close to political leaders, take note: your allegiance to what is right takes precedence over your allegiance to your boss. That's the message that resounds down the centuries from Thomas Becket.


Susan Price said...

That's a charitable view, Sue. I think Becket was just as power-crazed as Henry. Being Archbish gave him the power to defy the King. It made him the Spiritual King. And what's right or just about maintaining the Church's right to deal separately and internally with any criminal clerics? It rather smacks of more recent cover-ups by the Church.

I think, like 1066 and All That, that Henry was A Bad Man but A Good King - he spent years trying to establish a more lawful state in England and one where the Church could hold its own courts was not part of that. Having said this, I think Becket's murder was the result of a direct order from Henry to his knights. That's why they weren't punished. They would have had to have been extraordinarily stupid to murder Becket without an order from the King. They had to travel through France, cross the Channel, travel through England... If all they had to go on was an angry outburst from Henry, wouldn't one of them, at some point, have said, "Er...Are we sure we want to do this?"

Sue Purkiss said...

Perhaps he was - how can we be sure what his motivation was? But I think my point still stands. Whether or not we believe in what Thomas believed in, there came a point where he drew a line and stuck to what he thought was right. It seems to me there are a whole lot of politicians on both sides of the pond who are manifestly not doing that - and who should be joining the awkward squad instead of being yes-men/women.

Susan Price said...

Oh with that I'm in full agreement!